A new documentary tracks the gripping journey of how a priest and his community – through fidelity to Church tradition and Vatican II – turned a church with dwindling numbers into a thriving parish.
“We're trying to do everything as faithfully as we can, as beautifully as we can, to what the Church has given us,” Father Damien Cook, pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in Omaha, told CNA April 24.
St. Peter's is “dedicated to the restoration of the sacred,” he said, with Masses sung with Latin and chant, liturgies celebrated both facing the people and facing the altar, altar boys, Eucharistic adoration, evening prayer sung every day, processions, and distribution of Communion at the altar rail.
“This is what we should do, if we're going to be a fully faithful church according to Vatican II and the whole tradition of the Church,” said Fr. Cook.
“Where Heaven Meets Earth” is a 30 minute documentary produced by the StoryTel Foundation, which will be premiered on EWTN on Tuesday, April 30. A DVD of the documentary is also available for pre-order at the foundation's website.
Don Carney, the director of StoryTel Foundation, told CNA that his family began attending St. Peter's in 2006 because “we were completely blown away by Fr. Cook and his approach to the liturgy...the music really grabbed us.”
“I had no plans to do a story on this place, but as we attended Mass, and then they had their annual Corpus Christi procession, I was so amazed by this huge outpouring of people...it's a really beautiful thing,” Carney said.
St. Peter's Corpus Christi procession attracts over 1,000 people, including for the second year in a row, Omaha's archbishop, George J. Lucas. The procession goes through the parish's downtown neighborhood, which has drawn people back to the Catholic Church.
“If the truth is the truth...we want everyone to find and embrace that truth. It does them no act of kindness to keep the very truth that will free them, from them,” Fr. Cook explains in the documentary.
St. Peter's was founded in 1886 and did well until the 480 freeway was constructed within a block of the church in the early 1960s. The construction razed many homes and businesses, and Omaha experienced a massive population move to the suburbs and west Omaha.
The parish was impoverished and experienced dwindling attendance until Fr. Cook was assigned as pastor in 2004.
Fr. Cook says he didn't come to St. Peter's with a program or plan to bring more people in. Instead, he asked the question of himself: “What do I think it means to be a priest, and a pastor?”
Although this includes “all components of charity and catechesis,” he said, “first and foremost it has to start with the liturgy...it's the source and summit. So the first thing that happened, that I could do, was liturgical formation.”
The decisions Fr. Cook made “drew a lot of people back to the Church, which in turn re-vitalized our ministries, so now we've got all kinds of outpourings.”
The parish is home to a vibrant Catholic culture, with a St. Vincent de Paul society, a food pantry, Boy Scouts, music ministry, four choirs, lay Carmelites, and a host of other organizations.
“People get drawn by the liturgy, and they've then given back to the Church in terms of evangelization, charity, and fraternity...it's beautiful to behold.”
“It's been a real blessing. I always pinch myself that I'm here, because I keep thinking God must not love me very much because there's very little suffering,” Fr. Cook jested. “The people are really nice, and very passionate about their faith.”
The beauty Fr. Cook has brought to the liturgy at St. Peter's is not about “spectacle for its own sake, but to convey the grandeur of God.”
“We can only desire to give God our best. So it's not so much to give back to us, in the sense of that's a nice concert or that's so pretty, but what can we give back to God,” he said.
“This is the worship of Jesus to God the Father...so it deserves that our display be its best with our meager resources, to convey what's happening invisibly.”
“That is absolutely beautiful, and liturgical rites are ordered towards truth, so there's a goodness and symmetry to them.”
Fr. Cook believes beauty is particularly important in our age, because “we've lost so much in this very functional age, in terms of idolizing efficiency.” He said the Gregorian chant sung at the parish transcends cultures and “brings people back to beauty.”
Between the chanted psalms at the Mass and the gorgeous stained glass windows made in Germany in the 1920s, at St. Peter's “everything goes together to make this beautiful symphony of truth, of goodness.”
The adoption of chant has even affected the reverence of parishioners at St. Peter's. “I'm blessed with the congregation that comes,” Fr. Cook said. “We have a lot of big families, in both the English and Spanish-speaking communities, so they make noise, but I don't have to get up and remind them after Mass to be quiet.”
“They stay in the pew for their thanksgiving, and go outside to the vestibule to talk. And even the dress, what people wear has really changed. Guests comment on how nicely people dress for Sunday Mass.”
Fr. Cook reflected that “you never realize how much one person affects the person next to them, and we can bring each other down or really raise each other up.”
“Even if we're not physically talking to someone, but just by what we wear and by deciding to stay after and pray at the altar rail or in our pew, it really reminds people. It really has helped here.”
Each Sunday, the parish has two Masses in English and two in Spanish, before and during which confessions are heard, with the assistance of Fr. Cook's parochial vicar, Fr. Rheo Ofalsa.
St. Peter's is also host to a Vietnamese community which has a Mass there each Sunday. Were the parish more than its 1.6 miles away from a church dedicated to the celebration of the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite – how the Mass was said prior to 1962 – Fr. Cook would be offering that as well.
Some parishioners attend Mass at both parishes, he said, and his people appreciate that he celebrates the ordinary form by “following Vatican II as best we can – still using Latin, chant, organ, the communion rail, all those kind of things, even ad orientem. I think people do experience beauty in that.”
Fr. Cook also made a conscious decision to allow altar serving to be done by boys, in an effort to provide the young boys of the parish with “some solidarity” and to promote vocations. From the nine altar servers the parish had when he arrived in 2004, the parish is now served by 75 altar boys.
The altar boy program is divided into degrees, so the children can experience accomplishment and progress in their time there. The boys start out wearing albs, and once they have proved themselves as reliable, they receive a “Seraph Server” award and they are allowed to wear cassock and surplice.
Some of these then become masters of ceremonies and take on responsibilities in training the younger boys. The ethos at St. Peter's has already inspired one parishioner, already an adult, to pursue a consecrated vocation. Nathan Hall is a seminarian of the Omaha archdiocese now studying theology.
Fr. Cook also wanted a “motherly role” at the parish, and said God granted him two religious sisters, who are beginning an order of “active Poor Clares,” in the Franciscan tradition.
The Seraphic Sisters of the Eucharist bring the “poverty, joy, and love” of Saint Clare to St. Peter's. The sisters serve as sacristans, teachers, give retreat days, and do counseling work with the parish's Latino population.
“It's great to actually have two sisters here who day in and day out are praying for the parish and working with the youth,” said Fr. Cook. “Even if they don't have vocations here to the Seraphic Sisters, I know it's inspiring the girls to look for consecrated life in a particular way.”
StoryTel Foundation's mission is to create compelling films which tell of those who work to restore the sacred in their communities, and their goal with “Where Heaven Meets Earth” was to share how establishing reverence for God has helped a parish that was going under to now do well.
“If your parish is suffering in any way, maybe you might try some of the things that Father's doing here that might help the parish, and bring people closer to their faith,” Carney said.
The non-profit spent $100,000 producing the documentary, which shows in its high quality. Carney said that a positive message is not sufficient for Catholics to make a great film. Quality imagery, sound, and story, still matter.
StoryTel strives to produce excellent documentaries because “everything you put on the screen is in competition with everything a viewer has seen on the screen. So you're competing with Lincoln, and with Lawrence of Arabia, so you need to take that into account,” Carney explained.
“What's really good, true, and beautiful is timeless, so it's always new.” He said Fr. Cook's restoration of the timeless elements of the Church's tradition is “like rediscovering buried treasure of the Church.”
St. Peter's church building is in the process of being restored. It suffered damage in its years of dwindling parishioners and money, and Fr. Cook has already had the roof replaced.
The parish is in the process of further restoration, switching from carpet to marble flooring, getting new pews, painting and brightening the church, and getting new lighting, all to “make a vision of heaven,” Fr. Cook said.
All the efforts made at St. Peter's have been in conformity with the heritage of the Church and with Vatican II.
Fr. Cook explained, “I've done nothing that wasn't prescribed in Sacrosanctum concilium (the council's constitution on liturgy) and the documents since. It's not because of me, because I like it...but this is what the documents say.”
He would like to see the reforms made at the church “in any parish. St. Peter's shouldn't be unique.” The priest added that he is glad that the people of St. Peter's have been open to the beauty that was asked for by the Second Vatican Council.
They didn't condemn the changes, or have preconceptions about it such as “this is old, or won't be interesting,” he said,“but they let themselves experience what this creates in the Church – the music, the altar rail, the incense, all these things – you do really do associate them with reverence and the sacred.”
“The experience itself teaches people,” Fr. Cook reflected, “if they allow themselves to experience the beauty, and be open to it.”