More than 100 people took advantage of an opportunity to hear from Father Damian Ference, vicar for evangelization for the Diocese of Cleveland, during Theology on the Rocks West’s November program. His topic was “Spreading the Good News,” his ministry for the diocese.
Father Ference told the group he was studying in Rome for his doctorate when the coronavirus pandemic began. But there was a silver lining, he said, noting there were no distractions as he worked on his studies. And with the quarantine in effect, there were no tourists in Rome, “so there were no lines. I got to see lots of sites.”
Then in spring 2021, as he was wrapping up his studies, Father Don Oleksiak, vicar general, contacted him and asked for some times he would be available for a virtual meeting with Bishop Edward Malesic.
“I was expecting to return to Cleveland and to teach at the seminary,” Father Ference said. But the conversation with the bishop and Father Oleksiak surprised him. “The bishop wanted me to take on a new position: vicar for evangelization.”
He asked what the job would entail and the bishop said it was something he could figure out. “They did say I could teach one class at the seminary so I could use my degree,” he added.
So, after completing his doctorate, Father Ference returned to Cleveland last summer and soon after, began his new position. Filled with enthusiasm, he began planning the first major initiative: Nine Nights of Night Prayer, Aug. 7-15 at nine different churches across the eight-county diocese. The second Nine Nights of Night Prayer will run Nov. 30 through Dec. 8 at nine more parishes.
As vicar for evangelization, Father Ference said it’s his job to help share the good news and to help people understand they need to have a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. He said Pope Francis tells us in the Joy of the Gospel (his apostolic exhortation) that this joy will fill the hearts and minds of all who encounter Jesus.
“Who are the greatest Catholics you know? My guess is they are people who are full of joy. The Holy Father wants us to think about that,” he added.
Consumerism, desolation and anguish of heart brought on by what he calls the “feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures” can mean there is no room for others or a place for the poor in our hearts and lives, Father Ference said. In a recent Gospel, we heard the story of a widow who gave away all she had, which meant more than a wealthy person who gave a small amount to the poor.
“Jesus gave his body, blood, soul and divinity for us – everything,” he said.
It’s not God’s will to have an empty life, Father Ference said, pointing out that all Christians everywhere are invited to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ. And that means allowing time for personal prayer, daily Mass, the rosary and other opportunities to encounter the Lord. The first step is acknowledging that we are sinners and that Jesus encounters us with love every day, he added.
“There is a deeper meaning to life. We should be joyful. Evangelists shouldn’t look like they just got back from a funeral,” Father Ference said. “We need to be grounded in a relationship with Christ and the Church so we are able to share that with others.”
He asked the group to think about their stories and the things that control or controlled their lives. Perhaps it was gambling, alcohol, or another vice. “Tell your story and at some point, realize that you need help,” he said. “Can you think of a moment when you were deaf, blind or maybe couldn’t catch a fish and Jesus came into your life and brightened it?”
He said young people are distrustful of most institutions, yet they have respect for their grandparents. He encouraged grandparents to share their stories with their grandchildren and how they encountered Jesus – how he influenced their lives.
Father Ference talked about his story, explaining that his mother battled cancer four times before dying from the disease shortly before his priestly ordination. He had some specific thoughts about what he wanted in his first parish assignment, but he was assigned somewhere very different from what he wanted. However, he said it turned out to be a blessing.
“When I’ve been weak and stubborn, God has worked through me and given me good things,” he said.
Reflecting on some of his evangelizing “heroes,” Father Ference mentioned Mary Magdalene and Saints Cyril and Methodius. Mary Magdalene had seven demons driven from her and she had an encounter with Christ that changed her life. “St. Augustine calls her the apostle to the apostles,” he added.
Saints Cyril and Methodius met the Slavs where they were, helped invent an alphabet and got permission from Rome to celebrate Mass in their language. They evangelized by introducing the Slavs to the faith in their language, Father Ference said.
“We are one Church and there is one Jesus. We must tell God’s story – how he lives in us,” he added.
Father Ference said in the spring, he is organizing St. Anna and St. Joachim workshops for grandparents so they can get the tools they need to help pass the faith on to their grandchildren. He also reinforced the second series of Nine Nights of night Prayer, noting it’s easy to invite someone to accompany you to a church for a short prayer opportunity.
Both of these events are evangelization opportunities, he said, and something anyone can do. “You can evangelize anywhere you meet people,” he said.
Click here for details on the next Nine Nights of Night Prayer. Information on the workshops for grandparents will be announced soon.
The next Theology on the Rocks West program will be at 7 p.m. Dec. 13 at the Double Tree by Hilton, 1100 Crocker Road, Westlake. Cost is $15. Speaker will be Jesuit Father Paul O’Connor whose topic will be “Spirituality and Decision Making.” Click here for more information or reservations.