Father Hilarion Heagy of Holy Resurrection Monastery in St. Nazianz, Wis., is photographed March 23, 2019, with the icon of the Mother of God, Searcher for the Lost, at St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church in Whiting, Ind. (CNS photo/David Bratnick)
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MERILLVILLE, Ind. (CNS) -- Two parishes in Northwest Indiana dedicated their Lenten journey to praying for those who have left the Catholic Church and for their return to the fullness of the faith through the intercession of the Mother of God, Searcher for the Lost.
Father Andrew Summerson, administrator of St. Michael Byzantine Catholic Parish in Merrillville and of St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Parish in Whiting, initiated the prayer campaign at both parishes under his pastoral care.
"We pray for people who have left because they have been hurt by the church, for those who at some point in their lives made bad choices that have kept them away, and for those who simply walked away, drawn by other things," he said. "We love them and so does God."
The Lenten prayer campaign was launched at St. Michael Church March 3, the eve of the first day of Lent for Byzantine Catholics. Parishioners submitted the names of people in need of prayer, and the priest prayed for them by name at his parishes during the Sunday Divine Liturgies.
"We want to put those who are far from the church in the heart of the Eucharist," Father Summerson said.
The two parish communities also prayed the moleben to the Mother of God, Searcher for the Lost. A moleben is an Eastern Catholic service of supplication to Christ, the Mother of God or a saint for a particular intention. St. Mary Parish prayed it in their church every Wednesday and Sunday morning. St. Michael Parish held the prayer at their weekly fish fry in the parish hall.
Before fish and pierogis were served, the priest led the moleben, after which the more than 300 patrons could pray before the icon of the Mother of God, Searcher for the Lost, which was set on a wooden podium. Prayer cards also were distributed.
Some St. Michael parishioners were apprehensive about talking "prayer and religion to our patrons," but the response was very positive, Father Summerson told Horizons, newspaper of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma, Ohio. Many patrons shared their sorrow about adult children or family members who left the church, he said.
Some patrons returned to the fish fry in subsequent weeks with family members to pray and venerate the icon. Three patrons joined the parish for Sunday Eucharist by the time Lent was done. A parishioner was emboldened to invite her nonpracticing daughter and son-in-law back to church one Sunday "to see the wonderful things God is doing at St. Michael's," said the priest.
Pat Drlich of St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Parish in Munster, Indiana, heard about the campaign and participated at a number of molebens. She brought her sisters to the fish fry to pray March 29.
"We have people within the family who have walked away from the church, and we pray that, for those who have doubts, their faith can be strengthened somewhere along the line by someone or something," she said. "We have so many lost people, so many people who need the church."
Father Summerson said both his parishes have lost numerous members, people just walked away from the church over the years.
"Unfortunately, so many other churches are in the same situation," he added.
St. Michael Parish also has been recovering from a challenging period last summer, when the former pastor was removed for a credible accusation of sex abuse after staging his own assault. Father Summerson said he also intended the prayer campaign to help parishioners continue to work through their pain and sadness.
"Prayer is a way to heal from tragedy," he said.
The moleben that was prayed was based on an office composed by Father Maximos Davies of Holy Resurrection Monastery in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin, whose patroness is the Mother of God, Searcher for the Lost and where a large icon is reserved.
Father Hilarion Heagy, a monk of the monastery, traveled to St. Mary Parish in Whiting with the large icon for a Lenten mission March 23-24. The monk explained that the icon, which is not well known in the United States, is a wonder-working icon and has an ancient history in Russia.
"It stretches so far back in tradition that no one knows the origin," he said.
People over the centuries have turned to it in prayer for those who are lost or perishing physically, but also for those who are lost spiritually.
He urged parishioners to join him in praying "for all souls in danger of spiritual death, those who have lost their path, gone astray in their spiritual lives, or already left the church and the faith," and those who are presently "considering leaving the church."
He cited a recent poll of U.S. Catholics that said 37 percent of respondents were considering leaving the church over the recent string of revelations of sex abuse by clergy. He also pointed to the rise of drug abuse and depression in U.S. society and the drop in life expectancy.
"We must not despair at any of this," he said. "It need not be this way, this is the message of Mother of God, Searcher for the Lost." He went on to speak about miracles connected to the icon.
"Miracles happen because prayer is real," he said. "If you're lost, if your heart is full of pain, if you worry or grieve for a friend or a loved one, do not keep this pain inside of you. Share it with the Mother of God," he said, urging his listeners to entrust these burdens to the Searcher for the Lost.
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Ieraci is editor of Horizons, newspaper of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma, Ohio.