Thursday, May 15, 2003

Mall Monks Interview

Every once in a while someone comes up with a new approach to an age old problem. Francis did this in his time by taking those in religious life out of the cloisters and putting them with the people; asking nothing but promising the way to eternal life. Bishop Richard Hanifen the recently retired bishop of Colorado Springs had such an idea when he suggested to a group of Franciscan Friars that they take the Gospel to the people. So, on the 23rd of November 2001, the Mid-American Province of the Capuchin-Franciscans, took a bold step to bring the Gospel to the people in Colorado Springs. On that day they opened a small storefront chapel in the Citadel Mall in Colorado Springs. The storefront had space for three small rooms, one served as an office for the friars and two rooms which served as “confessionals” to offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There was also room for a small chapel, seating approximately 15 people in which to celebrate Mass at noon each day. Since that time the apostolate has grown and now seats at least 65 people for the celebration of Mass twice daily and once on Saturday. In the 12 months ending in April, 2003 over 9,500 people have attended Mass at the Catholic Center. A local Catholic bookstore has moved next door to the Catholic Center.

Five friars now work under the direction of Fr. Eugene Emrisek with over 60 volunteers also helping each week. The “Mall Monks”, as they are now popularly known, operate The Catholic Center entirely on donations from those who visit the Chapel.

The Statement of Purpose published by "the Mall Monks" on their web site reads as follows:

In the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, the Capuchin Franciscans at the Citadel strive to provide a spiritual resource center that offers peace, reconciliation, and guidance to those who may feel a spiritual emptiness in their lives. Just as St. Francis tried to meet the needs of all who came to him, the Capuchins hope to assist Catholics and non Catholics alike. The Capuchins at the Citadel will:

• Provide a spiritual presence "in the marketplace"

• Offer Mass at specified times for those in need of a location to attend services

• Provide extended hours for the sacrament of reconciliation

• Work to spread the Word of God to populations that would not regularly attend a local church

•Attempt to answer spiritual questions and inquiries and assist individuals with answers or solutions if available

•Provide a source of guidance for those in need of referrals to other Catholic or non denominational agencies in the Colorado Springs area

•Provide vocation discernment

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Father Curtis Carlson OFM Cap., and ask him about The Catholic Center in the Citadel Mall.

1) The Capuchin Friars operate a Catholic Chapel, complete with worship space and “confessionals” in the Citadel Mall in Colorado Springs. This is really "takin' it to the streets." Whose idea was it to open a Catholic Chapel in the Citadel Mall?

Fr. Curtis - In the Spring 0f 2001, our Capuchin province leadership, with the support of the friars, felt they wanted to try a new type of ministry in a new place and so they spoke to two bishops in Kansas and Bishop Richard Hanifen here in Colorado Springs. The response from Bishop Hanifen was to open a chapel in a mall or to take this parish or another parish. Taking a parish wasn’t something new but the idea of opening a chapel in a mall was new and innovative and the new form of ministry we were looking for.

2) In your Statement of Purpose you state that you intend to "provide a spiritual presence in the marketplace" which you are doing quite literally. What effect do you see this very visible presence having in the marketplace?

Fr. Curtis - We do get various kinds of reactions. We are different enough, we are not just another store, and having the Church in the mall and having religious in brown habits is very noticeable. Sometimes people find us a curiosity, something to smile about or inquire about. Others are grateful to literally have everything under one roof; they are able to do some shopping, get a bite to eat and still make daily Mass and go to confession in one trip. During Mass we can still hear the comments of people passing by and they often express surprise that this is going on here. We also have helped bring customers to the mall; people have told us that they did not come very often to shop here but now that we are here they come to see us and stay to do some shopping also.

3) You state that you are available to be of service to non-Catholics. Have you had many people who are not Catholics visit the Chapel?

Fr. Curtis - Yes we have. It is convenient for practicing Catholics who want to come to daily Mass and go to confession regularly, and there are those Catholics who maybe have not been very active who find this a safer and easier way to come back to the Church. A parish office is not open as long during the day and the priest may not be there or he may be busy. They know there is a priest is available here 11 hours every day. The hall way is sort of neutral territory and all they have to do is step across the threshold. We always have a volunteer at the front desk so that if we are in private with someone or celebrating Mass, there is always someone to greet them. We have had many non-Catholic Christians who just like to stop and talk or ask a few questions, and many non-Churched people who have no one to go to, who apparently recognize us as someone who is compassionate and helpful and who will be good to them. I have had one gentleman who was quite aggressive and had a poor understanding of the Catholic faith and I was able to talk to him for a while and clear up his misconceptions.

4) Have you been able to assist anyone seeking a priestly or religious vocation?

Fr. Curtis - Yes. Of the friars I am the one designated as the vocation contact person and so there are actually several men and women who have come by in the last two years. Some have come in one time and others have come in more often. In two cases, one man and one woman have pursued a religious vocation.

5) Have you seen many people who have, for whatever reason, been away from the Church for a while, perhaps even years and who now wish to return? Has the chapel provided many people an easy way back to the Church?

Fr. Curtis - Yes, because they have been away they are not part of a parish they don’t know anyone and don’t know a priest. They don’t know us either but because we are here it is easy for them to come back. Some have just stopped by to talk while working up the courage and determination to go to confession and renew their connection to the Church. But yes, we have had people who have been away as long as 20 or 30 years.

6) Finally Father, St. Francis saw his vocation as both embracing poverty and preaching the "good news". The Citadel Mall is, I think, fairly described as an "upscale" shopping mall. There is not much poverty in evidence here. How do you see the mall ministry fitting in with your Franciscan vocation?

Fr. Curtis - Francis himself often preached in the plaza in medieval Italy. Each village had a central plaza area where there were merchants and often the Church and government buildings in the same area. The early friars would go to the central plaza area where there was commerce going around where the people were. A crowd could easily gather if they were interested in hearing them. The mall is where people gather, children and adults of all ages, they come to buy things, they come to the food court, they come to just hang around. So there is a very real comparison between what St. Francis did and what we are doing, people come to the modern day plaza and people can come to us. As far as poverty, we don’t sell anything and so we are not part of the consumer mentality in terms of being a business wanting to make money. The things we provide are spiritually beneficial to people. We don’t really participate in the consumer aspect of the larger establishment here; we don’t knock it but we are not part of it here. We provide religious services and have a very definite outreach which many malls might not allow.

7) Thank you, Fr. Curtis

If any of you feel called to help in this effort toward the “new Evangelization” I sure the “Mall Monks” wouldn’t mind.

The Catholic Center
The Citadel Mall #3046
750 Citadel Drive East
Colorado Springs, CO 80909

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