WILMINGTON - Today the Christian community celebrates Pentecost, commonly known as the "birthday of the church." The Greek name means "Feast of Weeks," a prominent feast in ancient Israel that took place 50 days after Passover and celebrated God giving the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people. In Judaism today, it is called Shavuot, a time when many religious Jews stay up all night studying the Torah.
According to the Christian Book of Acts, Jewish disciples of Jesus were gathered to observe Pentecost in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. There, the Holy Spirit descended upon them with cloven tongues of fire, enabled them to speak different languages, and infused them with the gifts of the Holy Spirit to go forth and spread the Good News to Jews and Gentiles alike.
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Christians around the world celebrate the feast, which falls on the 50th day after Easter Sunday, with religious services and, in some cases, birthday parties. Among those is the Catholic Community of Wilmington and South Tewksbury, which is the collaboration of St. Thomas Villanova and St. Dorothy parishes.
At both churches, the color red will be abundant for the "birthday" celebration, said Pat Archfield, outreach coordinator for the two-parish collaborative.
Red is the color for Pentecost in the Western Christian Church, reflecting the joy of the fire of the Holy Spirit. Clergy wear red vestments, and in Wilmington, even lay people are encouraged to wear red, said Archfield.
"Pentecost is one of my favorites," Archfield said. "It's the birth of the church, and it's a great opportunity for us to find ourselves on that day."
An upbeat birthday celebration will be held at each Wilmington church, intended to infuse both adults and children with the excitement of new beginnings, she said. Like most birthday parties, the celebrations will each feature a cake, party favors, and even bubbles.
The cake holds 12 red candles in a circle, symbolizing Jesus' 12 Apostles. In the middle is one white candle, representing Jesus. The red candles are lit by the white candle, symbolizing the tongues of fire of the Holy Spirit descending upon the Apostles, Archfield explained.
The party favor is a bright red bracelet bearing the words "Come Holy Spirit." By wearing the bracelets, "we show that we are true believers," Archfield said.
The bubbles symbolize the children breathing in the peace of Jesus, then blowing out into the air prayers to the Holy Spirit, visualizing "prayers answered as the bubbles rise and our prayers reach heaven," she said.
The exact same celebration being held at each parish demonstrates the unity achieved through some hard work at the Wilmington collaborative. Wilmington is in Phase II of Disciples in Mission, the Archdiocese of Boston's pastoral initiative to create collaboratives: two or more parishes sharing a pastor, parochial vicar, staff and other resources with the intention of better utilizing resources and building stronger faith communities.
Though most Phase II collaboratives are just beginning, with many new pastors and parochial vicars starting this past week, Wilmington is well ahead of the game. They've actually been operating under the model for more than three years, said the Rev. Phillip Earley, pastor of the Wilmington collaborative.
Earley was pastor of St. Thomas Villanova for 11 years when the Rev. Kevin Corrigan, pastor of St. Dorothy, retired more than three years ago. Earley was assigned as pastor of both parishes. Knowing that the archdiocese was heading in that direction anyway, he relied on the early Disciples in Mission initiative to create the "Catholic Community of Wilmington and South Tewksbury."
To maintain a presence at both parishes, he created the parish offices at the St. Dorothy Rectory while he continues to reside at St. Thomas. Seamless? No. Progress? Yes, he said.
Early on, there were definite fears on the part of parishioners. For example, at St. Dorothy, there was concern that Earley had been pastor at St. Thomas for so long, "will he favor them?" said Earley, a Chelmsford native who was ordained at St. Mary Church in Chelmsford in 1974, and who also holds a law degree and a master's degree in management.
Earley partly allayed those fears by creating a Mass schedule - three Masses at each church - that allows him to "meet and greet" before or after every Mass. That's made possible by a less-than-two-mile commute between the two churches.
Some still struggle with change, he said, but many have moved forward, "realizing that it's a sharing of strong points, traditions, practices, celebrations, with an understanding that the strength of each parish can strengthen the combined community."
Earley is especially pleased that the younger families tend to go to Masses and other events at both churches, in accordance to what Mass time best fits the family schedule. Wherever they go, there is consistency in greeting the same pastor or the Rev. Linus Mendis, the new parochial vicar, he said.
Archfield, a longtime active member of St. Thomas, acknowledges that at first they had no idea how it could actually work and there were challenges. Now, there's much less of "we did it this way or we did it that way," she said. "We are active and moving forward here. Just trust in the Lord and the Holy Spirit and it will work out."
Earley compared Disciples in Mission to today's Feast of Pentecost.
"This is like a new Pentecost. Pentecost is about the spreading of the faith," he said. "With Disciples in Mission, we are trying to not only spread the faith, but reignite it with a call to holiness, sharing our faith with others, and focusing on social justice -- more in conformity with the Gospel's values."
For more information on Wilmington Catholic, visit wilmingtoncatholic.com or call 978-658-4665.