“People go where they find something that appeals to them”

Having recently posted an item on what’s wrong with American parishes, I thought I’d post a story about someone who is doing something right.  A paper in Erie profiles a priest who is helping to rejuvenate a parish, and part of his effort includes preaching:

Monsignor Henry Kriegel spent a decade in California parishes where famous people went to worship.

He’d spot Hollywood legends Dolores Hope, Loretta Young and Jane Wyman sitting in a pew.

The Schwarzeneggers occasionally dropped in for Mass.

Barry Manilow and Merv Griffin were seen.

The Catholic priest would run across other stars, maybe Matt Damon, in a store or restaurant.

But it wasn’t home.

“I just love being back in Erie,” Kriegel, 68, said.

The priest who spent time in parishes with celebrities is somewhat of an attraction himself in the town he returned to in 2009. His homilies, delivered in a deep voice that fills a sanctuary, draw praise, and St. Patrick Church, one of the two inner-city Catholic parishes he pastors, has experienced increases in members and money since he arrived.

“His Masses are interesting,” said St. Patrick member Katharine Filutze, 21. “I find myself listening sincerely.”

At St. Hedwig Church, where Kriegel also presides, members call him “charismatic.”

“His sermons are outstanding,” said Judith Pentz, 69, whose grandparents helped found St. Hedwig.

“He is keeping us afloat,” she said.

St. Hedwig is the smaller of the two parishes, with fewer than 100 families, Kriegel said. Many members are elderly or widowed, he added. On a recent Sunday there, he welcomed not quite three dozen people, none of them children, to Mass. There was no music; the organist was out sick.

Ray Nowosielski, 55, whose mother is the organist, said, “We don’t have too many younger people.”

But the members who remain are devoted to the Polish parish that celebrated its 100th anniversary this year and has a silver-and-gold icon of the Black Madonna with Child. They call St. Hedwig “home,” describe members as “family” and return to worship there even after moving from the neighborhood.

They might volunteer at St. Patrick events but want to keep their own St. Hedwig identity.

“We hope to be here for another hundred years,” Charlotte Mabie, 71, said…

…The parish has a full-time music director and a choir and welcomes the Erie Chamber Orchestra for occasional concerts.

Music attracts people to a church, Kriegel said, adding that where people go to worship is no longer determined by where they live.

“People go where they find something that appeals to them,” he said.

He acknowledges that he and his preaching are part of the attraction at St. Patrick, but he also said people love the grand building with its life-size hand-carved Stations of the Cross. The church will turn 175 years old in 2012, and Kriegel wrote a book about its history that is due out soon.

A parish needs three things, he said, and St. Patrick has them: a vibrant faith community at the core, good quality music, and preaching.

He puts seven to eight hours into the Sunday sermon he delivers first at St. Hedwig and then at St. Patrick.

“I try to aim for a seven-minute homily,” Kriegel said. “I just think it’s the most important thing I do.”

In a recent talk on love and marriage, the priest, whose parishioners said he’s known to enjoy a good beer, said that people will say, “I’d love a cold beer” or “I’d love to put that jerk in his place.”

“We use the same word to describe a thirst … and an act of revenge,” Kriegel said.

Then he described a woman whose husband had Alzheimer’s disease. She went every day for seven years to eat lunch with him, hold his hand, tell him what their children were doing.

“That’s love,” Kriegel told his parishioners.

There’s much, much more.  Read it all.

  • http://seasonsofgrace.net Kathy Schiffer

    I have mixed feelings about this. Of course I, too, love a great mass with a homily you can sink your teeth into, music to rival the angels, a noble church with stained glass rising to the heavens. But mass in a mud hut, in a language you can’t understand, is still Mass– and Jesus comes to us there.

  • oldestof9

    Kathy,
    You are absolutely right. But for those who need the “bells and smells”, isn’t it great that God reveals himself to people there too.
    Personally, I NEED the mud hut sometimes and I NEED the Cathedral sometimes. Also, I would put the music 3rd, but that’s just me.
    One of the ways you get a vibrant faith community is through a dynamic homilist and Monsignor Kriegel is dynamic. We are thrilled to have him back in Erie

  • http://breadhere.blogspot.com Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    While I agree with Kathy and Oldest of 9 that the mass is the mass no matter what, that may be easy for those of who know this deeply, to say.

    There are many – including me – who are/were away from church for whatever reason… They may not know that, for good or ill. So bring them in and show them with love – what else can we do?

    If we remember that we are reaching out to those who are away or who have never been, it is a feast, but we must make them want to be there.

  • oldestof9

    AMEN, Fran

    It is not easy at times (as evidenced on this and other blogs) to remember we are ALL members of the Body of Christ…that we are ALL needed…especially the people we disagree with or the ones that have been away for awhile. Again, you are spot on Fran. It’s easy to teach facts and rules. It’s a “whole ‘nother smoke” to help the Holy Spirit instill the desire. But He uses mud just as often as He uses gold.

    Peace to all

  • Notgiven

    One must preach the gospel in season and out of season, speaking the truth in love.

    I love a well-preached homily. What I don’t like–and I believe is ineffectual in the long run–is the homily that winds up being entertainment. Oh sure, I remember the anecdotes, the joke or humor, the props, but what was the message? That’s what is supposed to stick with you. I still remember many well-preached, theologically correct homilies, not word-for-word mind you, but the kernel, the mustard seed of truth contained therein. Now, that’s an effective homilist, the one who has preached a homily remembered years after it was given. That’s the gospel that change people’s lives. Comedians, talking heads, commentators and circuit speakers are a dime a dozen. The one who breaks open the word in a way you that you chew on it for the rest of your life is preaching the way Jesus did. “For from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” Matthew 12:34b.

  • RomCath

    Not all priests are gifted homilists. They are not all Fulton Sheen nor can we expect them to be. They can all however consecrate the bread and wine into the Body & Blood of Christ. I get tired of the constant criticism of priests because of “poor preaching”. Give them a break.

  • Melody

    I agree with that. It’s possible to take something good away even from a homily which is less than stellar. It matters less to me that a priest is a great homilist, than that he “walks the walk”.

  • Notgiven

    If the priest believes what he reads, preaches what he believes and practices what he preaches, he will communicate the Word in a way that touches the heart.

    He doesn’t have to be a gifted homilist, though it’s nice. What will come through is the truth of God’s Word. That is the true Gift, the Spirit of God truly speaking through the homilist.

  • http://quantumtheology.blogspot.com Michelle

    He need not be Fulton Sheen, or particularly polished. He just has to be prayerfully prepared.

  • Robert Will

    I attend St. Patricks in Erie and I wanted to offer following thoughts. I have read the posts above and I think that the problem with many other parishes is that they read about Kriegel and they feel defensive. I have attended mass in a field by a deaf priest who signed the whole mass. I have attended masses said in Italian and German, and even though I did not understand a word I know it was still mass. We all understand that mass “still counts” even with a poor speaker. What we have to learn from Kriegel is that an excellent speaker can draw in thousands of people, save a parish and I would argue promote the relevance of our faith. People are starving for an intellectual discourse about our faith and Kriegel delivers. He dosent waste peoples time talking about his feelings, jokes, or a tired tidbit about the days reading. Kriegel needs to teach others how to do what he does. Other priests need to analyze what he is doing and copy it rather than feel threatened and continue to drone on and loose parishioners.


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