Friars to return for Northgate Mall ministry
By John Stegeman
The Catholic Telegraph
Last year the Franciscan Friars of the St. John the Baptist province took up a prime retail spot in a major area mall during the Christmas shopping season and didn’t sell one thing.
This year, the Friars’ popular “ministry of presence” will return, bringing back a quiet space for shoppers in the middle of the holiday shopping storm.
Located in the same place as last year, in the Macy’s corridor of Northgate Mall, the Friars will again have coffee, cookies and friendly-faced Friars willing to talk. The hours are 6-9 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays and Noon-6 p.m. on Sundays through Dec. 23.
“There was enough energy among the local friars to say, ‘Yeah we want to do this.’ I think the Friars found it to be a very positive experience,” said Father Jeff Scheeler, provincial minister of the St. John the Baptist Province. “It touched in, in some ways, to our charism, which is in some ways to be evangelizers in the marketplace.”
Last year’s “experiment in the New Evangelization” was a highly-publicized success. Archdiocese of Cincinnati Auxiliary Bishop Joseph R. Binzer joined the Friars on their opening day and many shoppers, Catholic and otherwise, stopped in to say hello or to learn more about the men in brown robes with northing for sale.
“We got tremendous publicity,” Father Scheeler said, citing The Catholic Telegraph article that was picked up by Catholic publications around the nation. “Regional little newspapers and neighborhood papers picked it up. The (Cincinnati) Enquirer invited us to write the major opinion piece on Christmas. Every TV station, Sacred Heart Radio, WNKU… We had an article in the New York Times as well. The interest and the fascination was just phenomenal and blew us away. We knew it was something really good we discovered.”
While last year’s event was productive, the Franciscans aren’t resting on their success. Father Scheeler said they hope to capitalize on recent social media challenges by creating the “Peace Prayer Challenge.”
“We’re going to make some cards that have the Peace Prayer of St. Francis and we’re going to invite people to pray the Peace Prayer,” he said. “We’re also going to invite them, if they have the ability and the interest, to make a video of themselves praying it and then inviting someone else to do the same.”
In addition, when priest Friars are present they will be more prepared to offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
“We were surprised last year at the number of people who wanted to celebrate Reconciliation,” Father Scheeler said. “We weren’t prepared for that. There was just a warehouse room in the back. We still have to go into the back for privacy’s sake, but we’re going to make a nice little room with some office dividers and chairs and a lamp and a plant. It will make the space a little more friendly and inviting.”
While the mall ministry was likely a blessing to many visitors last year, Father Scheeler said it is a blessing to the Friars as well.
“We can get caught up in running a parish and producing a magazine, which are important things and good things, but just being with people is really what St. Francis wanted to do,” he said. “The Franciscan charism is that we weren’t founded to do any particular ministry like education, it’s more of a lifestyle. Your lifestyle is supposed to hopefully evangelize and share good news.”
The goal of the Friars’ mall location is simple; to be a prayerful, hospitable, welcome and accepting presence in the marketplace. Father Scheeler said all are invited to visit for coffee, a break for shopping, or whatever else one may need.
“Sometimes the conversations we have are chit chat, and that’s fine,” Father Scheeler said. “Sometimes they’re much more substantial. Sometimes people ask questions about church teaching or what’s happening in the church. We had some people who lost family members, especially through suicide, who were grieving and just wanted to talk.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2014 print edition of The Catholic Telegraph.