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Ministry on the Margins: A Pastor's Perspective
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This article appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Voices from the Vineyard, a e-magazine published by the Saint Meinrad Alumni Office.

 

Click here to see the full issue. 


 MINISTRY ON THE MARGINS: A PASTOR'S PERSPECTIVE

by: Christian Mocek

 

Fr. John McCaslin is a man on the move. His parish office says as much – papers piled high on his desk, accolades hastily hung on the walls, and books crammed into every open space. Some would call it a mess, but Fr. John seems at home sitting in a worn-out office chair that probably has a few stories of its own.

 

Collar pushed to the right and top button undone, he is not one for formalities. Laid back, approachable and gregarious, he is the kind of parish priest who knows everybody and everybody knows him. His quick wit is matched only by his deep spiritual fervor.

 

Fr. John is the pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Parish on the near west side of Indianapolis. In many ways, Fr. John’s office represents well the story of his parish. The parish sits right in the middle of a neighborhood in transition – boarded up homes, overgrown lawns and broken fences are a common sight.

But just as Fr. John sits comfortably among the chaos of his office, his parish is a place of stability in a neighborhood fraught with a seemingly endless list of problems associated with poverty.

 

“St. Anthony’s is an anchor institution in this neighborhood,” explains Fr. John. “We are a neighbor and a voice for the community in many ways.”

 

The near west side of Indianapolis was originally settled by working-class Slovenians, Irish and Germans. In the early part of the 20th century, the Slovenian Catholics left St. Anthony’s to found Holy Trinity Slovenian Catholic Church. For over a century, these two Catholic parishes provided for the spiritual and temporal needs of the community.


However, like many working-class neighborhoods in the Midwest, the near west side of Indianapolis experienced a significant population shift in the latter half of the 20th century. Holy Trinity eventually closed its doors, and the pews at St. Anthony’s are now filled with young Hispanic families.

 

Leaning back in his office chair, hands folded comfortably on his lap, Fr. John breathes a big sigh. The story of his parish is the story of many across the country.

 

“The most painful moment for me in ministry was closing Holy Trinity. I still to this day miss those parishioners who went elsewhere. I feel that more than I feel elation for the successes.”

 

And there have been plenty of successes. Last year, Fr. John reopened St. Anthony of Padua Catholic School after seven years. In an agreement between the Archbishop’s Office and the Mayor’s Office, the charter school that was operating in the building closed to make way for the new school.

 

“Over 90% of the kids in the charter school were Catholic, so we felt that students were there,” explains Fr. John. “At a Catholic school, there is freedom to speak about faith with everybody, so it is great. I love it.”

Located on the second floor of the parish offices is the office of Hearts and Hands of Indiana. Through Hearts and Hands of Indiana, Fr. John and a slew of volunteers have purchased property around St. Anthony’s and rehabbed nearly 15 dilapidated homes for use as single-family homes.

 

Hearts and Hands began in 2009 when Fr. John shared a vision for rebuilding his near west neighborhood with a group of former parishioners. In short order, his vision turned into a small nonprofit. The organization now has an active board of directors and a full time executive director with offices directly above Fr. John’s.

 

A few blocks down the road from his office, past the parish food pantry he started, past the updated St. Anthony’s parish church that he refurbished top to bottom during his time as pastor, down a street Fr. John walks with surprising familiarity, sits a beautiful new home with a Hearts and Hands sign in the front yard.

 

New siding, a new roof, beautiful new windows and a well-manicured lawn adorn this once-abandoned property. “Some may ask how building a house for somebody is part of the mission of Jesus Christ,” says Fr. John, as he inspects some of the new siding. “Well, ask that family what it means to have a home to come to every night. Ask them how they feel that the Catholic Church made that possible for them.”

 

Back in his office, Fr. John shifts from his usual wit as he reflects on his time at the parish.

 

“There is always this tension between what is emerging within the community and what is emerging from you, from your own vision and prayer as a leader,” explains Fr. John. “How do you have a pastoral patience that says this may be a wonderful idea, but it is not its time? You have to wait until you find the right moment or the right people to champion a good idea.”

 

Finding the right people to champion a good idea is Fr. John’s forte. He firmly believes that is key to running his parish community effectively.

 

“Who are our natural partners on things that will help us get things done? It is crucial to invite parishioners to respond to their baptismal call. The more you engage your people in the mission of your parish, the more joyful they will be – and quite honestly, the freer you will become.”

 

In the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, priests typically pastor a parish for two six-year terms. Fr. John has been at St. Anthony’s for 11 years, so his time at this parish is coming to a close.

 

Fr. John is pleased at what he was able to accomplish – increased Mass attendance, reopening a Catholic school, starting a neighborhood revitalization effort, and countless other initiatives. Shifting his feet a little and repositioning his hands, Fr. John looks up and smiles.

 

“At the funeral of a priest-mentor of mine, the homilist shared that every priest preaches only one homily. I didn’t get it then, but I get it now. You know, we preach a homily every week, but we all have a common thread that runs through all of that. I would say mine is embracing the truth that God loves you and living a life of love.”

 

Outside Fr. John’s office and across the parking lot sits his Ford Fusion. A black sport coat hangs behind the driver’s seat. On the right shoulder is the crest of the Indianapolis Fire Department. Among his many other responsibilities, Fr. John is a chaplain to the men and women of the IFD.

 

It seems fitting, really. The second half of the mission statement for the Indianapolis Fire Department reads, “Serving our community with courage, commitment and compassion.” Fr. John lives those words well – always ready to tackle the next challenge with courage, commitment and compassion.

 

Fr. John is indeed a man on the move. It’s a good thing his back seat has what he needs to tackle what’s next.

 

 

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Fr. John McCaslin graduated from Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology is 2002. He has been pastor of St. Anthony’s Parish since 2006. Before being assigned to St. Anthony’s, he served as associate pastor at St. Barnabas Parish on the south side of Indianapolis.

 

He serves as the chairman of the Board of Directors for Hearts and Hands of Indiana, is a chairman emeritus of the Board of Directors for the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network, and is a chaplain to the Indianapolis Fire Department.

 

In 2014, he was awarded the “Lead. Learn. Proclaim. Award” from the National Catholic Educational Association during the NCEA’s annual conference in San Diego for reopening St. Anthony’s Catholic School. The award honors “the outstanding work of Catholic school educators in communities across the country.”

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