Disciples among us

At the heart of Christianity lies the call to become disciples. Discipleship doesn’t need to be glamorous or extravagant; oftentimes, true discipleship comes in the form of humble service and a willing heart. After all, this is what Christ calls us to – doing small things with great love.

All of us are called to be disciples and faithfully carry out Christ’s will for our lives. This looks different for everybody, but even the smallest spark of love can ignite an intense flame through which the Lord can shine as bright as the brightest star and create something new. The Archdiocese of Denver is home to a vibrant Church full of faithful disciples among us who are living out their calls in simple yet profound ways.

Michelle Peters 

Each year, the Archdiocese of Denver hosts two regional youth conferences attended by thousands of kids and young adults: Mountain Madness and Steubenville of the Rockies. Anybody who’s been to either knows how much of a blast they are; far fewer understand the sheer amount of logistics and organization it takes to pull them off. For that, Michelle Peters is the one to thank. Peters is the Director of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministries for the archdiocese, a role she’s been in for over 17 years. She quietly works behind the scenes with an army of committed volunteers and staff to allow the Lord to encounter the youth at these conferences and kindle a flame deep inside their hearts. While the pandemic forced the cancellation of both conferences this year, Peters is neck-deep in planning a virtual Mountain Madness conference for 2021. Despite the challenges of the job, Peters cherishes the relationships she’s built with her volunteers, but ultimately, it’s the youth that bring her the most joy, and ultimately what keeps her around. “It’s really just that love of serving our young people and seeing our young people start to get it,” Peters said, “and seeing that moment when kids have that encounter.”  

Robert Fisher 

When someone needs help with renewing a driver’s license or state I.D., or even needs a new copy of their birth certificate, Robert Fisher at Holy Ghost Parish in Denver is the guy to call. A former missionary for Christ in the City, Fisher heads up the Social Ministry office at Holy Ghost. It might not be the most glamorous or extravagant way to serve those in need, but true discipleship doesn’t need to be extravagant in how we serve others. Fisher humbly carries out a quiet, unassuming and faithful discipleship through Holy Ghost’s social ministry, lending a helping hand to those who need it and a listening ear to people coming from all different walks of life. “So many times, I think I really find Christ in these situations,” Fisher said. “It’s just very humbling to listen to their stories and where they’ve came from. I find the most joy hearing from them and talking with them and just sitting with them, especially when they don’t need something, because then they’re searching and they’re open to sit down and talk. We can just have a conversation. And I think that’s what I love the most.” 

David Martinez 

On any given day during the week, you’ll find David Martinez outside of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, handing sandwiches or another meal out to some of the homeless folks of Denver. They know Dave by name, and he knows them. “There’s a bunch of my regulars here who, if I don’t have a hand, they always offer to help and say, ‘hey, can I pour coffee for you’ or whatever,” Martinez said. “They know me well.” Martinez has been the Outreach Coordinator at the Cathedral for five years now, where he oversees the pantry and prepares all the snacks and food to give out. He and his wife have been a “cornerstone of the Cathedral family for over 25 years,” said pastor Father Ron Cattany. Martinez is modest and insists he doesn’t have “much of a story,” but his servant’s heart and faithful service is something we can all learn from – a true mark of authentic discipleship. When the regulars who come for meals don’t show, he starts to worry. “All our regular guys who come here, they’re all really nice people, they are all very respectful,” he said. “I just like seeing them and helping them out.” 

Geri Kelley 

Before retirement, Geri Kelley worked as an administrator for many years. A parishioner of Holy Name Parish in Sheridan, she learned about the Society of St. Vincent de Paul six years ago and, newly retired at the time, decided to volunteer for it and fill a need at the parish. Little did she know how perfect of a fit it would be for her. Members of the Society are called Vincentians, and they help folks primarily in need of rent or utilities assistance. A key charism of Vincentians is face-to-face connection with the people they assist.  “When you visit people, they’re amazed that you actually come to visit them rather than having to take all their children in the van down to the accounting office, sit in these uncomfortable chairs and wait for the number to be called,” Kelley said. Though Kelley works behind the scenes to ensure people get the help they need, she does so joyfully and with a disciple’s heart. “It’s an honor. When they express their gratitude, I’m quick to remind them that I am only the middle person and behind me there stands a whole parish of generous people that wish the best for you,” Kelley said. “I’m just here to help them help you.” 

Seneca Holmes

As a high school teacher, coach and youth minister at Cure D’Ars, Seneca Holmes sees working with young people as a mission from God. But the unique circumstances brought about by the pandemic threaten to put a stop to all the charitable and community activities that he used to organize with his youth group. Nonetheless, Holmes, with the help and generosity of Cure D’Ars parishioners, has taken this opportunity to be creative in the way he and his youth group serve the community. Holmes’ first response was to organize Zoom calls, but soon he noticed they grew tired of doing it for both school and youth group, so he started a Bible study and gave each youth a 30-day plan. They then started communicating by group text and phone calls. But the efforts didn’t end there. The youth who were available got together to make hundreds of health kits, with their own handmade masks, bottles of homemade sanitizer and a scripture passage or personalized message. With the help and generosity of the parish community, the youth group was also able to provide around 150 coats to people in need. “We wouldn’t be able to do all this without the involvement of parents and our church community – they have been so supportive of our youth,” Holmes said. “My main focus is to help our youth understand their own relationship with God, that’s what’s going to help them through life.” 

Owen Tuite 

In and outside of the classroom, Bishop Machebeuf High School math teacher Owen Tuite often reminds himself that Jesus was not just a teacher, a prophet and a healer, but someone who ministered to the entire person. “This inspires me to get involved in my students’ lives in nonacademic ways,” he said. Besides getting involved as a cross country coach, the math teacher has sought to do it in diverse ways. A recent example took place during the lockdown in March. Seeing the need and desire of many of his students for community and company, he decided to host virtual movie watch parties with some of them over Zoom. This commitment to minister to the entire person has allowed him opportunities to be present with his students in unexpected circumstances. On one occasion, after one of his students had to go to the hospital following a cross country meet, he spent most of the Friday night with the student in the ER. He also seeks to support many of his students that come from poorer backgrounds by frequenting their family businesses. “My faith motivates me to help students who are struggling,” he said, whether that be with math or any other personal situation. 

Dustin Crouse 

When Dustin Crouse and his wife decided to start a virtual Bible study at their parish and announced it after Mass, they didn’t expect such a positive response. “We found a lot of young adults who moved to Denver in the midst of the coronavirus and they wanted to get involved,” Crouse said. They now have a consistent group of around 30 participants who connect weekly. Crouse was originally involved in the Cathedral’s young adult group, in which he helped organize many of its activities. But as soon as the pandemic hit, he and his wife knew there was a void to fill. Being involved with the Knights of Columbus is part of what has helped him serve the Church and the community better and take initiative. “I see a lot of young adults waiting around to be told what to do. But I’d say: if you find a need that you think you can fill, probably other people are thinking the same thing, so go talk to your pastor,” Crouse said. “They want people to take initiative and handle situations themselves. It’s better than throwing an idea at your pastor and expecting him to do everything – they’re already really busy.” 

Patti Hayes  

As communications director and IT support at Spirit of Christ Parish in Arvada, Patti Hayes has directly worked to solve the numerous challenges that have arisen in light of the pandemic. She believes it has been an opportunity to help parishes have a greater digital presence. The first challenge had involved communicating with all the parishioners. “We had a population who relied heavily on the bulletin, and all of a sudden we can’t have people in the church,” she said. So she started using different channels to try to better communicate with parishioners. She decided to send frequent emails and Flocknote messages, keep the website updated and be available to help parishioners. “Elderly parishioners call me saying they can’t read an email or open a PDF file, so I sit there on the phone with them and make sure they get everything they need,” she said. Besides the communications challenges, she has also helped develop new ways of carrying out current ministries by creating online forms and pick-up schedules, and livestreaming masses and events. “We want to be able to keep feeding our parishioners, but how do you do that if you can’t communicate with them? That’s why technology has been wonderful,” she concluded. 

Kevin Davies 

Kevin Davies was asked on several occasions to become a safe environment trainer, but he immediately rejected the offer. It would take a few years and a clear need in his parish for him to give a reluctant “yes.” Thirteen years later, he’s trained close to 1,000 people on how to protect children from abuse and neglect. “The reward is that it’s quite likely that through this training and process, we have stopped a few molesters – and even if it was just one, these 13 years would be worth it,” he said. Even the pandemic has not stopped him from communicating this important knowledge to people. His passion becomes evident in-person and during his recent virtual classes: “Each of you here have the power to change a child’s future, you can stop abuse form happening,” he tells the participants. Although the fruits of his labor may not always be tangible, he has encountered people who have confided much in him and the work he does is of the utmost importance in ensuring that the Church remains a welcoming and safe environment for everybody, and especially for our children. “The Church has done so much to stop the abuse and neglect of children,” he said. “I believe that if we really looked at the statistics, we’d say we’re having a huge effect.” 

Giovanna Carriero-Contreras 

Giovanna Carriero didn’t know she had been nominated to receive the 2020 Bill Daniels Ethical Leader of the Year, but when the Cure d’Ars parishioner and businesswoman found out, she joyfully received it as a sign from God telling her she was on the right path. “This award is the most meaningful to me because ethics is something that speaks to the person you are and the values you have,” she said. And in fact, her faith is not alien to Cesco Linguistic Services, the business she founded. “The advantage being an owner of a new business is that you are the one who creates the culture,” she said. This has been an opportunity for Carriero to practice her faith by emphasizing integrity, respect, clarity and transparency. “We always think of our work as a service,” she said.  While she employs people of different backgrounds and religions, her employees know the strong role that her faith plays in her life, so much that they now say they have the “God Factor,” which comes into play whenever they needed a miracle. “I started talking with clients about God,” she said. “I don’t want to lecture anyone. I just want to show others that God exists and that he does provide.” 

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.