As he introduced Father Damian Ference, the newly appointed – and first – vicar for evangelization for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, Father Dan Schlegel said details of his ministry continue to unfold. “He’s energetic and fun,” he told members of the St. John the Evangelist Leadership Guild. The guild, which is coordinated by the Catholic Community Foundation, includes diocesan benefactors.
Father Ference addressed the guild at a program on Sept. 21 that included evening prayer and a reception. The event was hosted by St. Wendelin Parish in Cleveland’s Duck Island neighborhood on the Near West Side, and Father Robert Kropac, pastor. The parish, established in 1903, was Father Ference’s childhood church community and remains important to him.
The guild learned that only a handful of dioceses across the country – perhaps four – have a vicar for evangelization. “We’re still figuring it out,” Father Ference said.
He shared information about young people that was presented recently by Josh Packard from Springtide, a research firm that surveyed 13- to 25-year-olds to learn more about their beliefs. He said most consider themselves religious and spiritual, even if they don’t belong to a church. The research shows that people are struggling today, he said. “The Church also needs to adapt. It needs to approach and reach people.”
He said St. Wendelin’s was chosen for the program intentionally. The parish has Slovak roots and Father Ference is of Slovak heritage. St. Wendelin was important to his family, providing a sense of community. He recalled coming to Mass with his family. “It’s where my family prayed together, where we found community, where we would eat, a place of service and a place of culture.” In fact, he still has friends who are active in the parish.
As a boy, Father Ference was an altar server at St. Wendelin. He made his first confession and first Communion in the church.
It was a place of community because every Sunday after Mass, his family went to his grandparents’ house for dinner, cementing the connection between prayer and community, Father Ference said.
But the church also is a place to eat, he said, explaining that our faith is passed on around the altar or table.
And the church is a place of service. He recalled bringing old newspapers to a collection truck on the parish grounds and dropping off old clothes so a parishioner could distribute them to the needy in the area.
As far as culture, Father Ference admitted he knew little about Slovakia, but the family listened to a Slovakian radio show, his dad enjoyed dancing the polka and they ate some ethnic foods.
As he grew and moved on to Holy Name High School, Father Ference said he witnessed the priesthood of Father Ken Krizner, the school chaplain, and how he enjoyed his ministry. “He smile a lot. We had a community there and were involved in service,” he said.
“If I didn’t have Father Krizner in my life, I might not have thought about the priesthood. He was a normal, fun, joyful person – much like my dad,” he added.
Praying for vocations is important, Father Ference said, as well as having parents and grandparents support the idea.
After discerning his vocation and being ordained to the priesthood, Father Ference was assigned as parochial vicar at St. Mary Parish in Hudson, where he formed aa faith family. He was active with the parish youth, developing a community there, as well as fostering vocations. He said the young people were involved in service, they prayed, attended Mass and adoration.
While teaching at the seminary after ordination, Father Ference founded Tolle Lege, a summer institute for high school seniors that helps them explore their faith and be part of a community where they can pray.
He explained that the St. John the Evangelist Leadership Guild is also a form of community. Members gather a few times each year and they are engaged in service and faith.
While it’s important to foster community, Father Ference said connecting with younger people is also crucial for the Church. He said the Duck Island neighborhood, where St. Wendelin Parish is located, is growing younger. About 800-900 new residents have moved in during the past few years, most younger adults. “It’s important to make them feel connected and part of a community. We need to bring them closer to Christ,” he added.
Referring back to the Springtide research, Father Ference said we’re not in a belief revolution. Instead, many institutions have lost credibility. “What can we do to better connect with people?” he asked, acknowledging that the larger Church is wrestling with the same issues. Pope Francis called for a synod on synodality “to better figure out how to work together,” he said. “As humans, we all want to belong to some kind of community, so why not one that’s 2,000 years old?”
The synod work in the Cleveland Diocese will begin with 10:30 a.m. Mass on Oct. 17 at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.
Reflecting on his own faith journey, Father Ference said he had an “intellectual conversion” in the seminary. “I never thought he’d be here as a priest, with a Ph.D. and as a vicar. But Jesus is good.” He said Jesus’ name “comes off Bishop (Edward) Malesic’s lips so often and so easily that you can tell he really love him a lot.”
After Father Ference and Father Schlegel fielded a few questions from the group, the event closed with prayer.
For more information on the St. John the Evangelist Guild and ways to support Catholic ministry in the diocese, contact the Catholic Community Foundation.