With a Trunk Full of Faith

By Dan Valenti

In the classic Vaudeville routine, two men pass each other on the street. One asks the other for the time. They make small talk, and the subject of Niagara Falls comes up.

On cue, one of the men turns menacingly toward the other, saying: "Niagara Falls. Slowly I turn, step-by-step, inch-by-inch ..." He then proceeds to pummel the other chap before regaining self-control and apologizing profusely. He explains that another man once stole his girl in Niagara Falls, and whenever he hears the name of that city, he snaps. They warmly shake hands and begin to part, until "Niagara Falls" again gets mentioned and the schtick begins again: "Niagara Falls. Slowly I turn, step by step, inch by inch ..."

Five into One? Tough Math
One man turning, but not slowly, in Niagara Falls is Father Jacek Mazur, a 33-year-old diocesan priest who has been given the unenviable task by The Most Rev. Edward Kmiec, Bishop of Buffalo, of integrating five recently closed parishes in the city into one combined parish. The Polish-born priest with the irrepressible smile and boundless energy must find a way to make former members of the separate churches feel part of the new combined Divine Mercy Parish of Niagara Falls, N.Y. As the "father," he must work with them to create a sense of "home."

"It will not be an easy task," Fr. Jacek says in his lightly accented English. "To make the five into one is not as simple as just asking people to get up, pull up the roots they've put down, and move out."

Indeed. People aren't like furniture. You don't load them into a truck and place them somewhere else. Moving away from decades of tradition requires a resolute, almost steely trust. Generations of history and emotions don't disappear over night, particularly since the five parishes represent several ethnicities, primarily Polish, Ukrainian, and Lebanese with a healthy mix of Irish and Italians.

The physical spaces that housed so many baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, weddings, funerals, and feast days will be left empty, devoid even of reminiscence, for bricks and mortar, as far as we know, do not have memories. People, however, do, and memories removed from the places that contained them tend to float disembodied for a while before settling down in the new place. Stirred-up memory descends to the bottom again like flakes in a shaken snow globe - with time, each person differently processing the difficult work of coming to terms. There's no "one size fits all" in the wake of church closings.

'Five Loaves and Two Fish'
Fr. Jacek's task is fiendishly simple: take these various ethnic groups, get them to buy into life together as a new parish, or risk the confusion and failure of Babel. One thing immediately apparent when you meet Jacek Mazur for the first time is that failure isn't in his playbook.

The spiritual math won't be easy. Five into one won't go, except fractionally. Divine math, however, can't be limited by the imposition of integers or the unforgiving ferocity of factors. It can pull off miracles in round numbers - ever hear the one about the Guy who turned five loaves of bread and two fish into a meal for 5,000 (Mt. 14:15-21)?

Father Jacek, who has had a strong devotion to Divine Mercy since he was a kid growing up in Wroclaw, Poland, knows what he's up against. If, though, there's an ideal candidate who can pull this off, it is he.

Go through the checklist:

( ) Enthused and energetic. Check.
( ) Young enough to handle the load. Check.
( ) Experienced enough to make good decisions. Check
( ) Sense of humor (takes work seriously but not himself). Check.
( ) Pragmatic skills of a seasoned politician. Check.
( ) The faith of a child. Check.
( ) Wise as a serpent. Check.
( ) Harmless as a dove. Check.
( ) Good sense of finances. Check.
( ) Intrepid. Check.
( ) Not easily spooked. Check.

How can you not root for someone who jokes about the enormous challenge that faces him when he says, "I'm 33 years old. Do you know how old Jesus was when He died? He was 33, too! I'm the right age for this. Whether 'this' means death or resurrection, I'm not sure, but I'm going to find out!" His laughter tells you he is sure - at least as sure as anyone can be when stepping into the complete unknown.

One Door Closes, Another One Opens
Fittingly, the combined Divine Mercy Parish of Niagara Falls will experience its first day of life on March 30, Divine Mercy Sunday, in the former facilities occupied by St. Stanislaus Church. The week before, on Easter Sunday, the parishioners of Holy Trinity, St. Stanislaus, Our Lady of Lebanon, St. George, and Our Lady of the Rosary parishes will observe their final liturgies together. The significance and symbolism of these two dates should not be lost on anyone.

He believes the Divine Mercy message provides a way to unite the new parish. "It won't be easy, but doing the difficult things leaves you with a greater achievement. Either the bishop has a lot of confidence in me, or he thinks I'm crazy." Jacek's infectious laughter again fills the room.

He says early reaction from the new parishioners has been positive. "When I asked them about the name of the parish, they all loved it. I'm going to hold on to this, for I think Divine Mercy can give us a way to unite as one family. People are hungry for this message." He harbors no illusions on the difficulties of having to figuratively feed thousands, a pragmatism necessary for a job this tough. "It will be a miracle of Divine Mercy to bring [the new parishioners] together, but they're good people. And I do believe in miracles."

Don't bet against the many thousands of parishioners in the new Divine Mercy Parish finding a way to celebrate Holy Mass as one, like those who received five loaves and two fish from Jesus, distributed by the disciples. They will discover a lesson many heard for the first time as children, that "the Church" isn't defined by a building but by the members of the Mystical Body of Christ. Their "Church" will not change one drop, since they are that Church.

Parishioners will need persistence, patience, and a mindset/"heartset" similar to the Apostle Paul's when he writes:

We know that the Law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold into slavery to sin. What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I concur that the law is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. (Rm 7:14-19).

'It is I and it is not I'
In other words, the Divine Mercy parishioners of Niagara Falls should go into their challenge with pure intentions but be prepared if and when everything doesn't work out perfectly in the early going. God's mercy will surely understand whatever failings occur and use them for a greater good. People will have to have the faith and courage to say, with Paul, words to the effect of "It is I and yet it is not I."

A church closing is never easy. How does one say goodbye to generations of personal, familial, and communal history? It's a painful process best undertaken sooner rather than later. Some people will handle it better than others. Spiritually, we are works in progress, often limited in understanding and grappling with issues too large for us to handle alone.

One thing is sure. Father Jacek, a priest for all of four years, will not stand alone in his task, which he received from the bishop on March 8. Besides the support of Bishop Kmiec, the good will of his new parishioners, and the prayers of many, he has a valuable assist from the Sisters of Mercy, St. Faustina's Congregation, based in Boston, who have provided monthly reflections on God's love and mercy.

"A lot of healing will be needed," Father Jacek says. "People must be allowed to grieve and adjust. The message of Divine Mercy is perfect for this situation. I've had a devotion to The Divine Mercy all my life, well before I entered the seminary. It hasn't failed me yet, and it won't fail me now."

Shopping Spree
Father Jacek knows that part of his job early on will be education. For example, for years, Holy Trinity Church has had a large image of The Divine Mercy prominently displayed, but few if any know the story behind the image or what it means. To help him introduce Divine Mercy to the parishioners, Fr. Jacek recently made a shopping trip to Eden Hill, home of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass.

He drove himself 295 miles from Niagara Falls to Stockbridge, in a snowstorm, loaded up his van at the shipping dock on Eden Hill, then drove back the same day with $6,060.48 worth of materials purchased at discount. The manifest list is impressive: 100 hardcover copies and 400 copies of the paperback of St. Faustina's Diary, thousands of booklets and pamphlets, stacks of prayercards, videos, and more.

In the process of combining the five parishes into one, skirmishes will be lost, but battles will be won. Once the brothers and sisters of Divine Mercy Parish in Niagara Falls discover what Fr. Jacek calls "the universality of the Divine Mercy message," unity and fellowship will prevail.

Slowly they will turn, step-by-step, inch-by-inch, in their new and abundant life together.

If you want to send Fr. Jacek Mazur a note of encouragement, write him at at Divine Mercy Parish, 2437 Niagara St., Niagara Falls, N.Y. 14303. If you get out that way, stop in and say hello. You'll be treated to a wonderfully updated version of the old Vaudeville saw, retooled not for laughter but for new life in the spirit.

Dan Valenti writes for numerous publication of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, both in print and online.

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