Prayer and stewardship brings a family closer to God

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“The Call to Stewardship” is a periodic series profiling individuals and families throughout the Diocese of Camden who have shown an inspiring response to the call to Christian stewardship highlighted in 1 Peter 4:10, “As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”

Father Jon Thomas, pastor of the Parish of Saint Monica, Atlantic City, stands with Christian and Ximena Morales and their two children, Chris and Marie Elaine. Photo by Peter G. Sánchez

When their son Christopher was born almost a month prematurely, Christian (Chris) Morales says that he and his wife Ximena turned to prayer as they never had before. Both had been raised in strong Catholic families in their homeland of Ecuador, but for Chris especially, limiting his practice of the faith to Sunday Mass had seemed to be enough up until then. Praying for his newborn son, Christopher, gave him a new perspective. “We started feeling like we needed our faith. This brought me to prayer,” he says.

Two years later, daughter Marie Elaine came along, also arriving early, this time at around 28 or 29 weeks — almost 12 weeks early. “We were praying for her all the time,” Chris says, but were comforted with the sense that “everything would be well.” Chris and Ximena had confidence that “God was there and that he was in control,” even as they waited for their tiny daughter to be released from the neonatal intensive care unit.

Today, Christopher and Marie Elaine are 15 and 13, and most Saturday afternoons they can be found at the Parish of Saint Monica in Atlantic City, helping their mom set up for the weekly meeting of the Legion of Mary, which Ximena has served as president for the past year.

This is a family that has made prayer a priority.

Father Jon Thomas is the pastor of the parish of Saint Monica, a citywide parish that includes three churches, Saint Nicholas of Tolentine, Saint Michael and Our Lady Star of the Sea, where the Morales family most often attends the Mass in Spanish at 7 p.m. on Saturdays. He sees the Morales family as great examples of prayer in action. “They are not shy, but they are contemplatives,” says Father Thomas. “They have a spirit of discernment and are careful in deciding where to get involved.”

For years, Ximena quietly worked as part of a parish devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas. Ximena and other members of Saint Monica visited homes in the parish with a replica of the miraculous image left by the Virgin Mary on the tilma, or cloak, of Saint Juan Diego in 1531. It’s this image that’s known all over the world, but especially in Latin America, as a reminder of the Blessed Mother’s intercession for the conversion of the Americas. Going from home to home, members of this group lead families in praying the rosary. Over time the small ministry blossomed into a new parish chapter of the Legion of Mary, becoming official about a year ago.

For Chris and Ximena, participation at V Encuentro was another chance to hear God’s call.

V Encuentro was organized as a series of encuentros, or gatherings, that took place over the course of four years, beginning at the parish level, moving on to diocesan and regional levels, and finally culminating at a national gathering of over 3,000 people that took place in Grapevine, Texas in September of 2018. The encuentros took place in parishes all over the U.S., offering an opportunity for pastors and bishops to really hear what their communities, especially their Latino communities, had to say about the needs of the people within the church. Two of the key areas of focus for the endeavor were how to keep people from leaving the faith, and what could be done to better address their real needs and concerns.

As Chris explains, the meetings and conferences that comprised V Encuentro were inspired by Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, La Alegría de Evangelio (The Joy of the Gospel). “The idea,” says Chris, “is that we have to go out into the world to find the poor, the marginalized, the people who feel forgotten and to invite those people to come back. That includes the elderly and young people, too.” He adds, “Pope Francis emphasizes that we are called to show that ‘we still care about them.’”

The impact of V Encuentro was profound for the Morales family. It confirmed Maria’s work with the Legion of Mary, and she is now president in their local praesidium at Saint Monica’s. And Chris realized that God was calling him to become active in prison ministry. “I would never have done this before V Encuentro, he says.”

Teenagers Christopher and Marie Elaine are active in the parish as well, both as altar servers and as participants in Heart to Heart, a monthly holy hour and youth social offered by the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal at Saint Michael’s. The family also participates in the parish food distribution program.

The spirit of giving in the Morales family springs from the realization that God wants more from them than just showing up for an hour on Sunday. Chris says, “I never planned to be in prison, evangelizing.” But he remembers saying to God, “Whatever you want me to do, you let me know.” Weekly, members of the ministry meet with men at Atlantic County Jail to share the Gospel reading from the previous Sunday’s Mass, and to lead a discussion with the prisoners. What he sees at the prison are people who still need hope, and who can still feel God’s love.

Chris describes prisoners who have turned from despair to a renewed sense of joy. He says, “We try to share that as long as we ask forgiveness, and really want to change, we can be … a new man.”

For the Morales family, stewardship is about realizing that giving to their community is part of the call of the Gospel. What it comes down to, Chris says, is the verse from the Gospel of Luke that tells us, “There’s a lot to do, and not a lot of people do it.”

The mission of the Office of Stewardship is to help the disciples of Christ who live in the Diocese of Camden to live out Christian charity in a sacrificial way that “we might understand the grace that comes from giving back from our blessings so that in all things God may be glorified.” For more information, contact Deacon Russell Davis at 856-583-6102.