How to welcome Christmas Catholics

Julie Filby

Every Christmas, churches fill beyond capacity with congregations made up of weekly Mass-goers, “Christmas Catholics,” Christians on-the-fence, lapsed Catholics, non-believers and everyone in between.

Infrequent Mass-goers don’t always know the words to prayers during Mass, some don’t realize preparing for the liturgy is generally best done in silence, and others are not accustomed to genuflecting, making the sign of the cross or other active parts of prayer.

Instead of approaching the scenario with an “us and them” mentality, regular pew sitters are encouraged to greet guests with warmth and courtesy, regardless of how many punches they may—or may not—have on their Mass card.

“At Christmas, one out of three people attending Mass will be coming for their once-a-year visit to church because of a tug on their heart to go back to the roots of their faith, or a sense of obligation,” said Irene Lindemer, director of communications at St. Thomas More Parish in Centennial.

“What a great opportunity,” she added. “Maybe we’ll touch their hearts and they’ll realize how beautiful the faith is.”

Nearly all Americans, 95 percent, celebrate Christmas and of these, slightly more than half described the holiday as “strongly religious” for them, according to a 2010 Gallup poll, continuing an upward trend observed over 20 years. The poll found of the majority incorporating religion into their holiday celebration, 62 percent attended services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

Lindemer and the parish staff began asking: How will we welcome these guests?

“Will we be upset that they took our parking place? Or that they are sitting in ‘our’ pew?” she said. “Do we feel superior because we are here every Sunday and they only come once a year?”

That’s not an uncommon response, said Msgr. Thomas Fryar, pastor at St. Thomas More Parish.

“We almost always react at first with why it shouldn’t happen that way,” he said, “as opposed to letting God’s grace and blessing take us to where we may not normally go.”

Maybe the “regulars” in a congregation should ask a different question, he continued, such as: What could be done differently so that these annual visitors come more often?

“We are responsible for the lives of our brothers and sisters,” he said. “What are we doing to let them know they really are welcome at the table of the Lord?”

This year, St. Thomas More Parish is launching an initiative dubbed “Making Room in the Inn” to welcome everyone that makes up the Christmas congregation. The campaign will include banners, posters, luminaries and carolers dressed as shepherds to greet people upon their arrival; outdoor greeters and parking attendants to help car and foot traffic navigate the active setting and find both a parking spot and a seat; everyone will receive a program and a gift; and a special invitation will be extended to guests to sit in the church to allow them to fully experience the liturgy.

At the most-attended Christmas Eve Mass, a 4 p.m. liturgy that draws 3,000 to the church that holds about 1,000, three live Masses, instead of video streams, will be celebrated: in the church, the neighboring parish hall (McCallin Hall) and the school gym.

“Rather than sitting in your ‘regular spot’ in the church, (we’re asking weekly parishioners to) sit in McCallin Hall or the school gym so our visitors can sit in the church,” suggested Lindemer, or to come to a different Mass that typically has seating such as Midnight Mass or early Christmas Day. “Imagine if each of us did something extra this Christmas at church, what a difference we could make.”

This type of hospitality isn’t unique to the Centennial parish, Msgr. Fryar said, but is offered at other parishes as well.

“Hopefully what we’re seeing is part of the reflection of what is in the hearts and minds of Catholics all over the world,” he said, “as we prepare to not only welcome our Lord and the celebration of this birth at Christmas but also as we prepare to welcome our brothers and sisters in the family of God.”

COMING UP: New Catholic school leaders rise to the challenge

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There’s never been a more exciting time than now to be a student at one of Denver’s Catholic schools.

With robust curriculums that form the whole person and a variety of educational models to choose from, Catholic schools are a great option for parents seeking more for their children’s education.

Even more exciting are the various education professionals who are stepping into leadership roles beginning this new school year. These are individuals are who are passionate about Catholic education and even more passionate about partnering with parents, the primary educators of their children, to help lead their kids to an encounter with Jesus Christ.

The nine new leaders featured below bring a wealth of experience to their new roles, and they are each excited to rise to the challenge of making Denver’s Catholic schools the absolute best they can be at helping to form students into authentic disciples of Jesus Christ.

Andrew Beach
Our Lady of Lourdes (South Campus)

Andrew Beach credits much of his call to the teaching vocation to his parents, who are both teachers themselves. Beach studied economics and philosophy at University of Colorado Boulder and then went on to pursue a master’s degree in theology from the Augustine Institute. “From the second I heard about Lourdes and all that us going on here in terms of its classical education and strong Catholic identity and culture, I knew it was the school where I wanted to teach,” Beach said. As a result of the school’s expansion, Beach is now the Head of School for Lourdes’ South Campus. In his new role, he hopes to assist in guiding Lourdes toward academic excellence, but more importantly, he hopes to foster an authentic and strong Catholic identity within the schools.

Robert Bernardin
St. Bernadette

When St. Bernadette announced they were pausing their operations last year, Robert Bernardin saw it as an opportunity. Having previously worked at Annunciation Catholic School, an Expeditionary Learning (EL) school, Bernardin became very excited when St. Bernadette decided to re-launch as an EL school, joining Annunciation and St. Rose of Lima as the only Catholic EL schools in the nation. “I was immediately drawn to St. Bernadette because I believe deeply in the power of EL to elevate Catholic schools,” Bernardin said. Bernardin believes that Catholic education is transformative, and as principal of the re-launched St. Bernadette, he is “keen to expand our view of what is possible in Catholic schools, to serve as a model of what Catholic schools can be and inspire others to follow our lead.”

Kellie Carroll
Bishop Machebeuf High School

For Kellie Carroll, being at Bishop Machebeuf High School is a bit of a homecoming for her. She’s been in education for 20 years, starting at St. Pius X in Aurora and then moving on to teach for several public schools before finding her way back to the Archdiocese of Denver. However, she was also educated in Catholic schools growing up and graduated from Mullen High School. “This is a system that certainly raised me and had a profoundly positive impact on both my academic and faith formation,” Carroll said. As the interim principal at Bishop Machebeuf High School, Carroll hopes to help prepare students for life outside of the school walls. “I firmly believe a solid formation in the faith and a rigorous academic setting will prepare them for the adventure and challenges life will bring,” she said.

Gretchen DeWolfe
St. Thomas More

Gretchen DeWolfe has taught 5th grade at St. Thomas More Catholic School for the last five years and will now be entering her sixth year as the school’s new principal. “In my new role as principal, it is my duty to support parents, the primary educators, in forming their children through encounters with Christ, which will in turn deepen that beautiful and essential relationship,” DeWolfe said. Being in Catholic education is more than simply a job for DeWolfe — it is a calling. “My heart has always been in Catholic schools … It is an amazing gift to be able to teach and live the Catholic faith on a daily basis,” she said. “[This] is what I have chosen to dedicate my life to — teaching and living the truths that Jesus taught us.”

Dana Ellis
St. Louis (Louisville)

Dana Ellis worked in Jefferson County Public Schools for over 30 years, 18 of which were as a principal, and then went on to work in Boulder Valley Public Schools for several more years until she retired. After “walking around in the desert” for a couple of years, Ellis now finds herself as the new principal of St. Louis Catholic School in Louisville. As she embarks on this new foray into Catholic education, Ellis is confident that God will continue to lead St. Louis down the path it needs to go in order to continue forming authentic disciples of Jesus Christ. “I do know that God will lead the way, but I don’t know what that way is going to be yet,” Ellis said.

Eric Hoffer
Christ the King

Before starting his career in Catholic education, Eric Hoffer had plans to complete a degree in political science and attend law school. “However, God had other plans in place for me,” Hoffer said. He converted to Catholicism while in college, and after graduation, volunteered with the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, where he “fell in love with education and my faith.” He’s had a 16-year career in various roles in education thus far, and recently completed his graduate degree in Educational Leadership at the University of Notre Dame. He feels fortunate to lead Christ the King Catholic School as principal. “If I am able to help each of our students understand that they are beloved children of God and that he has a beautiful plan for their lives, then I will have made a valuable contribution to our archdiocese,” Hoffer said.

Steve Vaughn
St. Therese

Steve Vaughn began his career as a teacher teaching 4th, 5th and 6th grade at a few different Catholic schools in Wisconsin and Nebraska. Over the last 10 years, he’s been a teacher and assistant principal at a Denver charter school, but he’s now answering a call from the Lord to return to Catholic education. “Having worked in both Catholic and public schools, I can say that Catholic schools truly provide an education for the whole child,” Vaughn said. Speaking for his new role as principal at St. Therese, Vaughn shared, “Our goal at St. Therese is to create saints! It’s an honor and blessing to be tasked with fulfilling this mission at my school. This is exciting, challenging work, but there’s no other work I’d rather be doing.”

Tamara Whitehouse
Our Lady of Lourdes (North Campus)

Tamara Whitehouse has worked in both public and Catholic schools for over 20 years. More recently, she has also served as an instructor for the Denver Catholic Biblical School. Her transition from public schools to Catholic schools came after taking time to stay at home with her children when they were young. “We discerned God’s call to send our children to Catholic schools, and then my own deepening faith and desire to instill a love for God in young people led me to follow after them when I returned to work,” Whitehouse said. As she begins her new role as the Head of School for Lourdes’ North Campus, Whitehouse hopes to “support families in the formation of their children to know, love and serve God, and this contribute to the renewal of Catholic culture that is so desperately needed today.

Father Stefan Zarnay
St. Mary’s (Littleton)

Born in the Slovak Republic and ordained a priest just last year, Father Stefan Zarnay is part of the Disciples of Jesus Christ, the religoous order that oversees St. Mary’s Catholic Parish in Littleton. He met them when he was studying for his Masters Degree at the John Paul II Pontifical Institute in Rome, Italy. He has previously served as Chaplain of the Stella Maris — La Gavia Catholic School in Madrid. In addition to being the interim principal of St. Mary’s, he is also the school’s chaplain and the parish’s new parochial vicar.

Ann Zeches
St. Catherine of Siena

For Ann Zeches, education is a second career. Prior to becoming a mom, Zeches was the assistant general manager of a resort. It was when her children were in school that the seed for Zeches’ career in Catholic education was planted. “What I thought teaching entailed, and the reality are two different things,” Zeches said. “Education is the toughest job I have ever experienced, but the one with incredible rewards. Education has become my passion.” In her new role as principal at St. Catherine of Siena, her goal is simple: “I am forming students to know the ‘truth’ of our faith and how to infuse it into their lives. Ultimately, then, they will be well-educated disciples of Christ longing to meet our Lord in heaven while making their community a place filled with the Spirit.”