December 2019

Volume  97, Number 4

As 2020 crests over the horizon, it is an apropos time for reflection.  I was born a twin; thus, I have always known the value of a partner, a friend to accompany me through life.  My childhood home was in a middle-income neighborhood where everyone knew their neighbors.  I belonged to a predominantly Irish-German Parish with a large gothic style church boasting of liturgical celebrations that were crowded beyond its capacity.  I found comfort in the repetition of the prayers, the processions and the familiar choral selections.  The school bulged in like manner.  Faith was anchored in the experience of belonging to a family and finding security in love.  Faith formation was based on the Baltimore Catechism, guidance by the sisters and  priestly presence.

High School broadened my awareness of God.  Church was more than the rituals of sacrament and prayer.  Discipleship and ministry became the format of being a Catholic woman with purpose.  I was drawn from the coziness of my family life to look beyond, to appreciate the world and its wonder, but also its pain.  The tumultuous 1960s brought the horror of war into our living rooms.  The injustices of humanity in our hallowed United States brought riots and bloodshed and the assassination of three iconic leaders whose wisdom urged humanity to follow the way of love.  Faith was no longer a passive or comfortable endeavour.  I began to hear the call to “be church and to engage with humanity.”  My continued education in a woman’s college drew me more deeply into a new paradigm for Church, deeper theology and what it meant to be Catholic.  I absorbed the thoughts of great thinkers beyond the Catholic domain.

Settling into my college studies, I found myself in love with a man with a romantic heart and a capacity to love deeply.  Marriage followed a three year courtship as I began a short-lived teaching career.  We were soon blessed with our first child who impacted our lives more than we could ever realize.  Jennifer was a child with a diagnosis of Down Syndrome.  Against all advice and despite our own insecurities, we scooped her into our arms and allowed her to draw us into her charm and love story.  Fourteen months later we were graced with our second beautiful daughter - Jessica.  Through their special bond, Jenny thrived and blossomed far beyond the grim predictions of all the professionals.  As parents we unearthed a graced treasure.  Our daughters were the center of our faith and a delightful expression of God’s love for us.  I discovered the unimaginable joy of motherhood going on to birth our third daughter, Emily, and our son Joshua.  Thirteen grandchildren magnify our treasure.  Family will always be the heartbeat of my life and anchor of my faith.

A grey shadow of death assaulted our happy home. The unwanted intruder struck its cruelest blow.  Jenny died following heart surgery.  I collapsed into a dark abyss that was beyond all 

imagining.  Wrapped in an emptiness that consumed my life, I looked for children with disabilities at every turn.  I longed for that singular experience that had touched my heart and stirred a tender mindfulness to this exceptional part of humanity.
                 Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart,
                               until in our own deep despair against our will comes wisdom
                                              through the awesome grace of God. (Aesop)

When one door closes; another opens.  While still very fragile, I received my call.  A charismatic stranger entered my life with an invitation that would map a new path and promise to bring healing. She accompanied me into the warm embrace of her Spred family.  Through the gift of friendship within a community of faith and a magnificent process of spiritual enrichment, I found the unction to salve my wounded soul.
        
                                                       Grief and resilience live together. (Michelle Obama)

I first met the Spred staff, Fr. James McCarthy, Sr. Mary Therese Harrington and Sr. Susanne Gallagher when I attended the training sessions only six months after agreeing to be the activity catechist.  One observation sold me on the role.  I was captivated by the carefully prepared environment; the respectful age appropriate selection of materials; the centering process that opened the spirit to the unique catechetical method.  The depth of the presentations, the fresh insights within an ambiance of friendship stretched my mind and ignited a gnawing hunger for more.  There was a timid consciousness that this would be my ministrial passion for life - a whisper from within.

Honoring my responsibilities of motherhood, I balanced my volunteer work in Spred with my teaching career at the parish school and a venture into home daycare.  I stretched my Spred participation to include an apprenticeship with Sr. Sue as a trainer for activity catechists.  I joined forces with my two closest and forever friends, Colleen and Kathy, to train helper catechists; work as an animation team; and oversee existing groups.  We facilitated our Spring planning meetings and conjured up the idea of catechist workshops to deepen training experiences.

In communion with my husband, we gifted Spred to our parish, Queen of Angels, forty years ago. Enthusiastic parishioners formed a second community a year later.  Bob and I were especially attracted by the venture of the Spred staff into liturgical enhancements that would honor our Friends with disabilities and help them to participate in a respectful and prayerful way.  We were captivated by the art of expressive movement to accompany scripture and song.  It has become our beloved focus as we gift parish communities throughout the archdiocese and beyond with this sacred art form.  It has become a shared prayer form that we savor deeply.

In 1987, I was offered a full-time position in Spred as a community religious worker.  The focus of the task was to extend Spred’s outreach to the adult population living in residential settings apart from their families.  Elizabeth Sivek piloted the model and became my advisor and partner.  I established my office at my home parish and reached out to facilities in Uptown, a section of Chicago.  Depite the hopes of the Spred staff, salaries were never offered to respond to the dream of a coordinator in each of the six vicariates - a vision that must still remain as a necessary context for the future of the ministry.  The work settled on the two of us.  The plea of parents for Spred centers closer to home coincided with expanding waiting lists.  The development of more Spred communities became my priority.  Setting aside constraints of  regional boundaries, I ventured out to where I was needed.

Queen of Angels remains my operational base.  In 1999 our Spred effort was honored with a room in the new and accessible parish center designed to our specifications with windows to accomodate observers.  And so, duplicating the caring oversight of the Spred Resource Center, Queen of Angels mirrored the mothership as a satellite resource center for Vicariate II.  New Spred communities spouted among the old bringing new life and freshness to the city as well as the near north and northwest suburbs. The enthusiasm of one inspired the formation of the others.  I also delighted in my escapades into the extra diocesan arena cherishing friendships beyond our Chicago borders.

Attention to Vicariate I also became my priority.  Studying my map, I learned to navigate the new turf of Lake County.  My odometer soon confirmed the need to bring Spred resources closer to the volunteers who where dedicating themselves beyond my expectations.  I found a pair of imaginative women at St. Francis de Sales in Lake Zurich who affirmed my vision of a satellite resource center for Vicariate I.  It has proven to be an incredible and necessary extension of our outreach including the formation of a gifted team of volunteer trainers.

Field work gradually taught me some valuable lessons.  Animation is the shared endeavor of all catechists.  Enthusiasm is birthed especially from the spiritual enrichment of the community of catechists.  The mentoring of Spred communities has brought me the wisdom of a gracious attitude.  I have learned to dismiss critique and embrace the luxury of being with and praying together as companions on the journey.  One listens carefully only to questions posed.  Unwelcome feedback falls on deaf ears.  Mentoring is about building bridges instead of walls.  Catechists are a priceless commodity.

One of the most precious endeavors in the midst of my work in the field has been the invaluable genius of the Reflection Weekend.  This experience was the brainchild of Sr. Mary Therese Harrington since Spred’s humble beginnings.  In the mid 90s Elizabeth and I were invited to duplicate the experience for more catechists.  In recognition of gifted catechists who surrounded me, I drew together a creative team to share their energy and artistry in preparation.  Together we draw people into a prayerful and blessed retreat.  Volunteers deserve this gracious compensation.  The weekend offers deeper insights into the manificent unfolding of the symbolic process and showers each participant with care and appreciation.  In Eucharistic celebration, we sanctify our companionship on the journey.

I look to the future with optimism and deep faith.  Change is inevitable as we respond to the new age of technology and the unfolding of history.  I luxuriate in a sea of Spred love nurturing and energizing my very being.  My personal Spred community is the anchor of my faith and the expression of my spirituality.  My family remains the foundation of all love as they selflessly share my life with others.  My Friends with special gifts and unique personalities fill me with wonder and joy. I feel a singular kinship with parents who confront daily challenges and love their children so unconditionally.  And the Spred founders had my heart from the first expression of an unveiling of their prophetic vision.  The amazing dedication and generosity of the catechists induce a cascade of appreciative tears.  Through the exchange of our collective stories we encounter our shared humanity to reveal the spiritual essence of one another.  In companionship we surrender to Our Lord of Destiny.  We are indeed “spiritual beings on a human journey.”  Teilhard de Chardin

                                                                                                 Julia Hess
                                                               Chicago Spred Community Religious Worker

 

 

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