When God Calls, the Way Opens - A lay woman’s journey to lead a Jesuit parish

By Dee Papania

I remember as a third grader wanting so badly to be an altar server like my brothers. It was a different Church then, with limited roles for females, in a time before the Church began to see itself in a new way— before opening doors for greater lay involvement. That in no way inhibited my love for the Church and my desire to serve God by serving His Church. By the time I was 13, I was volunteering with the parish CCD program. And so began a lifetime of active Church volunteerism, which included numerous committees, councils and service opportunities in a variety of ministries. Volunteer service ultimately led to more professional ministry in parish work as a director of religious education and as a pastoral associate.

These years were a graced time of growth, learning, and formation with Fr. Joseph Lacey, SJ, who whole-heartedly supported my pursuit of relative academic degrees, training in spiritual direction and leadership formation, all of which proved to be preparation for a more expanded role as a parish life director. I was appointed parish life director at St. Alphonsus Rodriguez Church in Woodstock, Md. in September of 2018. This appointment was the fulfillment of a vocational calling and a dream come true. It is my great joy and challenge to serve in this capacity.

Dee Papania with Fr. Joe Lacey, SJ.

It’s easy to look back now and see the unfolding of my vocation as one guided by the Spirit. On a professional level, I am honored and humbled by the awesome responsibility of leading a parish. My daily prayer is for the courage to go wherever the Lord is leading me and to ask for the grace and wisdom to do God’s will in this leadership role. It can, at times, seem daunting, and my confidence rests solely in the belief that this is where God wants me.

St. Alphonsus Rodriguez was founded in 1869 by the Jesuits as an offshoot of Woodstock College Seminary to serve the needs of the local community. The parish is steeped in Ignatian spirituality, tradition, charism and sense of mission. Today, as the Society of Jesus looks at its own clergy resources and how best to utilize their gifts, it does so with a vision that honors its past and looks to the future, especially in regard to its involvement with parishes.

The Maryland Province recently collaborated with the Archdiocese of Baltimore to retain its Jesuit affiliation with St. Alphonsus Rodriguez through a restructuring of the relationship between the Archdiocese and the parish. These conversations led to a real and creative dialogue that would honor the past, serve the present and provide lasting hope for the future. The Jesuits proposed to retain the parish and assign a sacramental minister if the Archdiocese agreed to leadership under a lay ecclesial minister. This to me was little more than wishful thinking, as there were no other lay ecclesial ministers leading parishes in the Archdiocese. But the Church of today is not the Church of the 1960s, and the Holy Spirit opened the doors to bring this new role to fruition for me. I am excited by the possibilities for parish leadership with both the Jesuits and the Archdiocese in the vision and reality of the expanding roles of lay leadership in the Church. This is a great promise of hope for parishioners.

Let there be no doubt: This restructuring was a big change for the parish. It is the first time in 150 years that the parish does not have a “pastor,” let alone a Jesuit at the helm. Yet, the members of the parish have been overwhelmingly accepting and supportive. Perhaps the most moving and heart-touching moment of my professional career was when my appointment was announced at the Saturday Vigil Mass and the congregation reacted with a spontaneous standing ovation. We are a family, there for one another, and I am deeply grateful for their positive response.

On a personal level, I am filled with deep gratitude for this opportunity to love God by loving and serving God’s people in parish leadership. There is a sense of empowerment, of trusting and being trusted, of being part of something new and wonderful in the Church, of experiencing the Spirit at work and recognizing the opportunities now open to lay ministry that were not available to that third grader decades ago.

We will continue to move forward as a parish and a family, living out our roles to be missionary disciples through the context of our Ignatian way. I pray the gifts of the Spirit continue to bear great fruit in our faith community, and in me, as I lead the parish into the future.

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