St. Mary’s Parish in Littleton, Colo. played a key role last weekend in an international event—the 25th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Disciples of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a religious order established a quarter-century ago by five young men in a small Spanish town.
“This is an example of the fruits of the new evangelization—a young, new movement in the Church which has sprung out of the call of Blessed John Paul II,” said Bishop James Conley, archdiocesan apostolic administrator, who spoke during the festivities May 12.
The reception, which followed a thanksgiving Mass, drew in many of the parish’s several thousand families, who were treated to an impromptu serenade by their pastor, Father Alvaro Montero, and his pastoral team. Accompanied by accordion and guitar, the “band” included parochial vicars, all members of the order, Father Javier Nieva and Father Leopoldo Vives; Father Armando Marsal, who is in residence at the parish; and theology student, Brother Juan Espino. The entertainment also included the Disciples’ visiting superior general from Spain, Father Jose Noriega, who is also one of the order’s five founders.
St. Mary’s is one of only two parishes in the world led by the Disciples—the other parish is in Madrid, Spain. Yet the parishes represent an explosive growth of the order. Today, the order has 30 members, 19 of them priests, six of them stationed in Colorado. Its university professors are based in Madrid and Rome. The order’s mission is to provide family and youth ministry, strong Catholic education from elementary school to the university level, and to help each individual and family develop a personal friendship with Jesus, using the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola as the foundation.
“This is something God put in our hearts,” Father Noriega said. “We were poor people in the beginning, without resources but a strong friendship with Christ and each other. So for something to grow this big, the way seemed impossible. We wanted to be fruitful, to share with others what we received from Christ, although it was not clear how when or where. But God always surprises us.”
One of the biggest surprises is how the Spanish order found its way to a suburban parish in Colorado. That was the work of former Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., who was alert to authentic new movements in the Church and keen on bringing them to Denver, Bishop Conley said. In this case, it meant placing one of the archdiocese’s largest parishes into the care of a pastor who had been a priest for only about two years.
Father Montero had met the order in 1992, when he was in college in Madrid. He was struck by the Disciples’ youth and friendship—first their friendship with Christ, and then with each other.
“And that’s how the mystery of a vocation unfolds,” Father Montero said.
Years later, in 2007, came the invitation from Archbishop Chaput.
“Archbishop Chaput did run a risk with us, but this is the way God works—he works with creativity and trust,” said Father Montero. “I told Archbishop Chaput, ‘You realize I have been a priest a little over two years and you are giving me faculties to run a big parish?’ He said, ‘You’ll make mistakes, but don’t worry—you’ll correct them!’”
The result has been an invigorated and involved parish.
“I knew they were special as soon as we got here,” said Mary Jo Rakowski, who joined St. Mary Church in 2007, virtually the same time as the Disciples arrived. Immediately she and her husband, Paul, enrolled their children, Aidan, now 8, and Keelee, 7, in the parish school.
“The Disciples really are disciples—true friends of Jesus,” Rakowski said. “They have this very clear desire for each person in the community to grow in holiness, and they make you desire it, too. They preach the truth with enthusiasm. My children love all of them. They are highly intelligent and educated, but still approachable, and that is really a gift.”
Since the Disciples arrived, the parish has experienced a lively growth in volunteering and programs. In the Encounters with Christ program, schoolchildren are awakened to friendship with Jesus using the methods of St. Ignatius. Friends of the Disciples has grown to 700 members who help support the priests with their “time, talent and treasure,” including a lively newsletter. A new exchange program welcomes Spanish students to the parish for summer visits, and will send St. Mary’s youth to Spain.
The Disciples also issue constant invitations to young people to consider a religious vocation. The results are already paying off: the parish has produced three religious sisters and one potential seminarian. Now Father Montero has a new marketing pitch: Who wants to become the first American-born Disciple?
His call-out has already reached the ears of Cameron Schimmoller, 14.
“I’m thinking about it,” Schimmoller said, with a grin. “I think that would be pretty cool.”
Posted with permission from Denver Catholic Register, official paper for the Archdiocese of Denver, Colo.