Terry Maher, 44, grew up in St. Mary’s parish in Bangor during a time when children found their spirituality in the Baltimore Catechism and adults followed the mantra “Pay, pray and obey.”
A half-century ago, the Roman Catholic Church in America was made up primarily of Old World immigrants and their descendants, who divided their communities into “us,” the members of the one true church, and “them,” all the others, including Protestants and Jews.
Catholics had their own schools and Protestants had theirs — public schools. Families stayed within their parish lines, usually geographically drawn, but often determined by ethnic origin. While missionaries around the world brought Christ’s message to non-Christians, Catholics in the United States did not seek to convert their non-Catholic friends and neighbors. Before the sweeping changes of Vatican II were fully implemented, being a good steward meant giving money to the church, the parish school and the diocese.
This fall, the Diocese of Portland is launching a plan that seeks to shift the way Maine’s Catholics think about stewardship. Called “Stewardship as a Way of Life,” it uses words like “visioning,” “witnessing” and “evangelize” — words more often associated with Protestant television preachers.
Maher, now a member of Holy Family Catholic Church in Old Town, is a stewardship “pioneer.” She and members of her parish have been making stewardship a way of life for two years. Maher firmly believes that embracing this new kind of stewardship is “like adding salt to a meal — removing the food’s flatness, but creating a thirst for God.”
The diocese held meetings last month for pastors and lay leaders to outline how to implement the new stewardship, and to explain what the new mindset could mean for parishes and individuals that make stewardship a way of life. Both bishops, the Most Revs. Joseph Gerry and Michael Cote, participated in the presentations held in Caribou, Bangor and Scarborough. An estimated 600 people, representing 122 of the diocese’s 148 parishes, attended, according to William Richards, director of Stewardship as a Way of Life.
“For most [lifeldong] Catholics, the word stewardship is synonymous with fund-raising,” he told the group gathered in the basement of St. John’s Catholic Church in Bangor at the Sept. 29 meeting. ” … What we’re really trying to do is get back to living the way the first Christians did. They shared their gifts and evangelized the message of Christianity by the way they lived their lives.”
” … People today want to feel their lives make a difference. They are longing for something deeper in a shallow world. … Stewardship is a community path designed to help individuals find their own paths. This is not some new program with an end to it. Stewardship is a way of life.”
Following the meetings, the diocese distributed manuals to parish representatives. They have asked that pastors and parish councils seek “God’s guidance in determining the parish’s readiness to embrace stewardship,” and then, by Nov. 15, to assess whether it is the right time for their faith communities to proceed. Parishes that decide to move forward are to form a stewardship commission to oversee planning and implementation of stewardship activities by Dec. 15.
Education of members and workshops are to be held the first Sunday of Lent next year, followed by the development of a parish vision by July 1, 1999. The first Sunday in October has been set as the date parishes are to make a commitment to stewardship as a way of life. On Jan. 1, 2000, parishes will be asked to renew that commitment.
Holy Family, one of two parishes now committed to stewardship, was created in 1992, when the historically Irish St. Mary’s and the historically French St. Joseph’s parishes merged. Although the two churches were only a few blocks apart on Main Street in Old Town, the decision to use the former St. Joseph’s facility for the combined parish was difficult, according to Maher.
“By the time of the rededication [four years ago today], we had done some healing, but we need a better sense of unity,” she said. “Hard feelings had developed because there had been years of friction between the cultures and nationalities. We wanted to soften those dividing lines.”
Maher learned about the stewardship movement, which grew out of dioceses in the South, at a workshop shortly after the churches merged. However, it was another year before the parish was able to begin the program, due to the arrival of a new pastor.
“Stewardship named for us what we were missing,” she said. “It was a whole new mindset. In the past, we’d had a list of tasks and then we’d find a person to complete each task. Now we know that everyone has gifts to give, and when they are offered, we find a place or a way to use them. Stewardship focuses on the person’s need to give back to God vs. the task that needs to be done.”
At the heart of the stewardship path are the three Ts: time, talent and treasure. Each parishioner will be asked to commit a specific amount of his or her time, talent and treasure to the faith community. Maher said an important moment for Holy Family was when each parishioner walked to the front of the church and placed a card in a basket. Then the priest raised the basket above his head and offered them to God.
“We catalogued people and their talents, whether that was cooking, sewing, carpentry or prayer, into a database,” said Maher. “Then we used that to draw from when we needed something for a bazaar or fair or whatever. The carpenters have completed major projects to enlarge our chapel and put a new front porch on the rectory.”
“We also have a lot of elderly shut-ins. Stewardship has been a way for us to reach out to them and realize their value. We asked them to pray for our youth and our RCIA candidates. They asked us to pray for them, and we have found a greater value of this gift we have in prayer.”
Maher knew that stewardship had made a real difference in the life of the parish when major repairs to the church’s brick work were needed. Each parishioner was given a card with a chip from the crumbling bricks glued to it. That tiny piece of brick acted as a “touchstone,” according to Maher.
“When they had that card, they had a deeper sense of what we as a parish had committed to,” she said. “We raised all the money we needed, but it made a much deeper impact on people than if they had just thrown it in the bucket.”
“Yet, this is not just about giving. It is more about making it sacred. … It is about a personal need to give back to God … to go beyond the physical walls of the church. God said what you are building is the body of Christ. You have to put on Christ to do stewardship.”