WASHINGTON, D.C. — Upon hearing the word “mission,” most Catholics visualize hospitals or schools run by nuns in poor areas of the world, or small, tightknit parish communities in areas where Catholicism is still an alien or marginalized religion.
But Dominican Father Bill Garrott knows all too well that American Catholics have their own spiritual problems that deserve the healing power of a mission.
“Perhaps most Catholics are deprived of the word of God,” Garrott declared.
In a telephone interview with Catholic News Service in April, the priest described the distinctive mission style that he brings across the country in his van. He blends lucid scriptural analysis, heart-stirring music performed on his keyboard and guitar, and the grace of the sacrament of confession to bring Catholics from all walks of life face to face with a God who loves them. Since beginning this project in 1995, he has performed over 175 parish missions.
In his travels to countless parishes across the country from his home base of Washington, he has encountered a number of different spiritual ailments, the biggest of which he finds is Catholic ignorance of Scripture.
“They’re distracted by technology,” Garrott said. “The primary focus of my mission is to get people to read Scripture. … If you’re depriving yourself of the word of God, then you’re (leaving) yourself open to attack.”
On top of spotty interaction with the Bible, Garrott often finds that Catholics bear tremendous amounts of worry in their hearts over a friend or family member who has fallen away from the Church — and sometimes those who have lapsed are present at his mission.
“When people are asked if they’re religious” in today’s society, Garrott remarked, “more and more people are checking the box ‘none,’ (but) their parents are still going to church.”
According to him, people feel trapped in a sense that they can’t turn the tide for someone they’ve worked their whole lives to lead down the right path: “One of the biggest burdens they experience is, ‘What can I do to help my children and grandchildren find their way back?'”
But with his captivating preaching style, he hopes to wash away the doubt and despair left by disengagement for churchgoers or their loved ones and replace it with a bright message of hope.
He claims that music is often the catalyst for getting even the most skeptical to open themselves up to the message.
Said Garrott: “I think music functions as a backdoor to the soul. … During my Sunday homily, I always play a song, usually with my keyboard.”
“If I haven’t reached the people up to that point, song does … and I know because people (have) told me, ‘I wasn’t open to your mission until you played that song,'” he continued.
He even remembers meeting lapsed Catholics who decided to go to church the one Sunday his mission rolled into their town.
They find that God has miraculously caught them off their guard: “Some people aren’t going to Mass … and they go to Mass this one time. And it’s me, a visiting singing preacher. And they’re hooked! God gets them!” he exclaimed.
Confession plays a huge role in the healing process for those who attend Garrott’s missions, and he is uniquely qualified to grant absolution to penitents.
“I’m one of Pope Francis’s missionaries of mercy,” he revealed, “During the jubilee Year of Mercy (2016) … he delegated priests to absolve certain sins that are only reserved for the pope.”
After preaching for around an hour, Garrott said that he will hear confessions for often twice that period of time. Since he began this ministry, he has heard over 13,000 confessions.
When the time has come for Garrott and parishioners to part, he gives them a useful acronym to keep spiritually “fit” after the mission is over: “FITT.”
“‘F’ means fasting from technology, cutting it back a little bit. ‘I’ means intercede with someone; I encourage them to find a prayer partner. ‘T’ and ‘T’ together mean to trust in God’s time, because we don’t always (immediately) see the evidence of change in ourselves or in other people” Garrott explained.
The life for Garrott’s kind of mission is not easy: He often does the parish missions with little to no help from other friars, and he is constantly on the road driving his own vehicle because of the instruments and sound equipment he must haul from site to site.
“I’m my own agent and my own roadie,” Garrott remarked with a chuckle. “Every now and then I do have another friar who joins me. That’s always refreshing.”
But the overwhelming hope he both experiences and delivers along his path makes everything worth it.
“You might call my ministry a ministry of encouragement,” Garrott explained. “I’m preaching the theological version of hope. … God has a plan (and) God provides always.”
“There’s just a tremendous joy for people who have somehow mustered the courage through the Holy Spirit” to drop their lives for a moment and attend his mission, Garrott said, noting that some of the people he’s ministered to have been away from church for 40 or 50 years.
“(To see) the grace of the parish mission is active in their hearts and they are overjoyed to have that burden lifted. … It really is one of the finest moments for a preacher to know that he is involved in setting people free” proclaimed Garrott.
Kathryn Town, a woman who recently attended one of Garrott’s missions, claimed that she definitely felt lighter after being confessed by him.
“I’m just going to lose it all at the cross” is what she told Garrott she would do after her sins were forgiven, referring to the anger and doubt she had been harboring towards family members and others going in.
And she recognized her failings were nothing that could distance her from the love of God: “It was a very nice mission” Town related, “(He told us), ‘God loves me not because I’m good but because God is good.'”
Garrott’s mnemonic devices came in handy for Bix Goodwin, another mission participant. One in particular that Goodwin found helpful broke down the flawed way humans often react to stressful situations — APES.
Goodwin said the letters stood for “anger, pouting or feeling sorry for oneself, escape through something unwholesome, and shame.”
And Garrott’s strength in speaking only made his message more attractive to Goodwin.
“He was a very articulate speaker,” Goodwin said, “and for that matter entertaining. … He would always start the session off with a levity, a joke.”
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