Saints, holy figures come back to life at first ‘Night in the Cemetery’

Aaron Lambert

The week before Halloween, the dead rose from the graves at Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

It was much less frightening than a scene from Night of the Living Dead, though. Among those who appeared were St. Therese of Lisieux, Freddie Joe Steinmark and Denver’s very own angel of charity Julia Greeley, all portrayed by actors and actresses. Youth from around the archdiocese were given the chance to walk through the cemetery in the dark of night for the very first “Night in the Cemetery” event.

“If you get [kids] the week before Halloween to come and walk around a cemetery at night, they’re all ears,” said Gary Schaaf, director of Mt. Olivet. “We’re not trying to scare them, but we do understand they’ll be in a different place than when they’re playing Xbox. They’ll be thinking, they’ll be listening, their senses are heightened.”

Actors and actresses from the Regis Ramblers, Regis University’s drama club, portrayed some of the religious figures students encountered during the tour, such as St. Therese of Lisieux pictured above. (Photos by Andrew Wright)

For three nights, middle school and high school youth groups were led on a two-hour tour through Mt. Olivet, learning about some of its rich history and encountering a few saints and other special visitors portrayed in part by members of the Regis University drama club. They were also treated to an outdoor Mass at Gallagher Chapel in the heart of the cemetery.

The first character the students encountered on their tour was Julia Greeley, who was buried at Mt. Olivet for nearly 100 years until recently, when her cause for canonization as Denver’s first saint was opened. As part of the canonization process, her bones were exhumed and now lie at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.

The woman who portrayed Julia, Robin Weldon, is currently a resident at the Julia Greeley Home, a homeless shelter for women in Denver. Even before being asked to play Julia, Weldon had read about her life and felt a kindred connection to her.

The tour ended with Mass at Gallagher Chapel in the heart of the cemetery. (Photos by Andrew Wright)

“We had a lot of things in common, without even knowing anything about her,” Weldon said. “Some of the things she has done as far as giving food…I have done that, unaware of her story.”

“It wasn’t hard for me to decide to do it,” she added excitedly.

Schaaf hopes “Night in the Cemetery” becomes an annual occasion. Every kid dreams of walking around a cemetery at night, and this is a great chance to allow them to do that while revealing some of the deeper tenets of the Catholic faith.

“This place is so much in so many ways. It’s sacred ground,” he said. “So many people’s loved ones are out here. It’s where they come and go to a different and deeper place. If you can get kids to swim in a little bit deeper water for five minutes, that’s a good thing. That’s the purpose behind it all.”

COMING UP: Nothing about us without us

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The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA