800 in Champaign area urged to take love ‘beyond the pew’

URBANA — Love was in the air last Tuesday night at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois, and Father Stan Fortuna, CFR, did his best to fan the flames.

In this case, the flames belonged to the Holy Spirit and it was a greater love for God and their brothers and sisters in Christ that he was fostering among the 800 people who attended “Catholic Connected: Beyond the Pew.”

“Going beyond the pew — that’s exactly what we’ve got to do to really do it right,” Father Stan said. “It’s about love.”

His message was straightforward: “Love is the fundamental, innate vocation of every single person on the planet.”

The second event sponsored by Catholic Connected, a collaborative alliance between the 18 parishes of the Champaign vicariate, the evening was built around the theme, “Living and Loving as Catholics in Today’s World.” In welcoming people, Father Joseph Hogan, pastor of St. Patrick’s in Urbana and a member of the Catholic Connected team, told them why it was so important to reach out.

“We are a people called to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said. “That’s our mission.”

Noting that Catholics comprise 17.3 percent of the world’s population and 23 percent of the U.S. population, he reminded his listeners that there are 250,000 Catholics living in the 26 counties of the Diocese of Peoria. They worship in 162 parishes and 36 missions in 13 vicariates, including the 18 parishes and 20 priests of the Champaign vicariate.

Father Hogan expressed an opinion about which is the greatest of the diocese’s 13 vicariates, which drew laughter and sustained applause, but in a loud aside asked not to be quoted in the diocesan newspaper.

Growing serious, he said that what continues to bring them together as Catholic Connected: Beyond the Pew is the mission “to sponsor faith-filled large group events to increase our faith on a larger perspective, to go beyond our individual parishes.”

“We are a people who seek holiness — oneness with God and our neighbor. We are people of prayer, worship and works of mercy. We are baptized children of God. We are Catholic,” Father Hogan said. “On behalf of Bishop Jenky and your Catholic Connected committee, it is great to have you here tonight.”

The camaraderie was evident immediately as 80 adults and children from all the parishes filled the stage that was adorned by banners from each faith community.

Directed by Laura Theby of St. Patrick’s in Urbana and Heath Morber of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center in Champaign, the all-area choir sang of awe and wonder at God’s goodness (“All People That on Earth Do Dwell,” “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” and “Be Thou My Vision”), longing for the Lord (“Sicut Cervus”), and the desire to serve one another out of love for the Lord (“We Are Called”).

Father Stan, a well-known musician and author who is based in the South Bronx, also used music as a form of prayer and encouragement during his presentation. Included were thoughts from his most recent book, “U Got 2 Love.”

Quoting from two of his heroes, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, he told attendees they could not reach out if they focused too much on self, saying that this will “sour” love. It is only by “getting over ourselves” that love becomes authentic and enables us to live, love and fulfill the mission God has for each of us, he said.

And for those who feel they have nothing to give, Father Stan encouraged them to give their nothingness to God and allow him to make something of it. Everyone is needed because Jesus is “sending in the troops — beyond the pew.”

“We feel that this whole effort has been very unifying for Catholics in the area,” said Mary Yemma Long, a member of the Catholic Connected team from St. Patrick’s in Urbana. “Some of the small parishes wouldn’t be able to bring in someone like Father Stan, for example, but together we can.”

In addition to Catholic Connected: Beyond the Pew, Father Stan was able to extend his trip by one day so that he could present a program to members of area youth groups. That program was held on June 9 at St. Matthew’s in Champaign.

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