Pope Francis reinvigorating area Catholics on Easter

Members of the clergy prepare parishioners for communion during the Good Friday Service of the Lord's Passion at St. Augustine Catholic Church in Gainesville Friday March 29, 2013.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, March 30, 2013 at 6:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 30, 2013 at 6:06 p.m.

The Rev. John Phillips knelt Thursday evening before his congregation to wash eight people's feet.

"On Holy Thursday, we remember how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples," the pastor at Holy Faith Catholic Church explained.

It's a reminder "that I'm called to be a servant of Jesus," Phillips said.

Halfway around the world, Pope Francis was doing the same, at a detention center in Rome.

Nearly two weeks ago, the Vatican elected the 266th pope of the Catholic Church: Francis, who has awed the world with his piety and sincerity.

This Easter celebration will be the first with Rome's new bishop at the helm. And some, like the Rev. Phillips, find the timing to be a symbolic rekindling of faith in a denomination marred by recent scandal.

"Easter celebrates the beginning from death to new life," he said, "and we have a new pope with a new beginning. That is very much on our minds today."

For Holy Faith, the lead-up to Easter Sunday is a period of reflection and remembrance.

"We celebrate that Christ's love never ends," Phillips said. "And we remember how he became one with dissenters. That's the heart of the message — to reach out to those in need."

In Francis, Phillips says he sees the same simplicity and approachability that Christ had; he sees rejuvenation.

"Maybe Catholics are being encouraged," Phillips said, noting how packed the sanctuary was for Thursday's services. "He certainly is reaching out beyond the walls of the Vatican."

Easter, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ three days after he was crucified roughly 2,000 years ago, is a defining landmark for the Catholic Church.

"It gives us a reason for our faith," said Kevin Parza, a University of Florida student. "Our church probably wouldn't exist without it."

On a late afternoon, Parza, 21, sat in the Saint Augustine Church and Catholic Student Center courtyard with fellow UF student Abin John after Bible study. Palms rustled in the wind, and the sound of cars whooshing up and down University Avenue filled the air.

In preparation for Easter, they read from Chapter 19 of the book of John — "the passion of Christ," Parza said.

Born and raised Catholic, Parza and John started going to the Catholic Student Center almost three years ago when they first started college.

But that didn't make the transition any less difficult.

"There's been bumps along the road," John, 21, said. "It's very hard to stay Catholic unless you immerse yourself in the community."

That's what makes Pope Francis' arrival so thrilling, he said.

"It's not like a new pope changes how to celebrate a 2,000-year-old ceremony," John said of Mass, but his potential to inspire Catholics worldwide is exciting.

Easter is supposed to be just like Francis' transcending outreach, "something that goes beyond us," the Rev. David Ruchinski, 43, said.

"People say I wish I was more generous, I wish I was more humble, I wish I was more talkative to the poor," Ruchinski said. "Ultimately, change happens when something comes in from the outside."

For waning Catholics, Francis could be the catalyst.

As Saint Augustine's pastor of five years, Ruchinski said he sees the new pope trying to lead by example.

On Thursday, Ruchinski leaned back in a chair in the center's courtyard and considered the impact of Francis' actions

"Based on how things have been growing here, I expect that this year we'll see even more people," Ruchinski said.

Then he paused to refold his hands and shift in his seat. On the front of the church, a yellow banner endorsing Francis flapped in the breeze.

"I suppose that he's aware that that's what a pope is supposed to do," Ruchinski said, "but people are starting to pay attention. They're starting to watch these gestures."

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