Parishes that fail to evangelize at major shopping malls within their boundaries are "terribly remiss," says a gregarious Dominican friar who travels the American West on preaching missions.
Father Tony Wall, 87, is spending his third consecutive January ministering to shoppers at Lloyd Center in Northeast Portland.
Mall officials ask that Father Wall refrain from approaching the crowds actively. So the priest wears his white habit or black clerical garb and naturally dons a friendly visage. It adds up to an invitation to discuss matters minor or major.
Father Wall, who cites scripture and theology often, is as comfortable talking relationships as he is interpreting the thought of Thomas Aquinas. Last year, he spoke with hundreds of mall-goers, even hearing more than a half dozen confessions in quiet corners not far from shops like Abercrombie and Fitch, Forever 21 and Macy's.
This year, the mall ministry has reached a higher level. Nearby Holy Rosary Parish, tended by the Dominicans, spent a thousand dollars to rent an empty office on Lloyd Center's third floor. There, between the food court and Nordstrom, the parish set up a chapel and a confessional for Father Wall to use through Jan. 26.
On Jan. 2, he presided at what is thought to be the first Mass ever celebrated at a shopping mall in Oregon. Five worshipers attended. From 11 a.m.-noon on weekdays, the priest leads a study and prayer group on the life of Jesus as celebrated in the rosary. Mass begins at noon, followed by eucharistic adoration until 3 p.m., when the day closes with the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and benediction. On Saturdays, Father Wall and volunteers will tend a kiosk on the mall's main floor, offering holy cards blessed by the late Pope John Paul II, plus spiritual conversation for anyone who's willing.
Father Wall, who can talk amiably about deep matters with anyone, welcomes Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
"Love is not a feeling. That's Hollywood," he tells a group attending a discussion on the mysteries of the rosary. "Love is in the will." As a mall-walker buzzes past, peeking curiously in the chapel window, the priest explains that we love in God's way when we continue loving after having our love "thrown back in our faces."
A sign outside the door reads: "Christ in the Marketplace" and gives the daily schedule.
Father Wall is delighted with the space. For the price, he was expecting something the size of a phone booth. The chapel includes a four-foot-tall crucifix, a statue of Our Lady of Fatima and a monstrance for displaying the Blessed Sacrament. There is room for about 20 worshipers.
During his first two years of ministry at Lloyd Center, Father Wall found that few Oregonians have the gumption to approach a priest and start talking. The chapel offers a better option. People can slip in quietly to begin their spiritual explorations by listening.
"I think it's beautiful," says Matthieu Bernard, a 34-year-old member of the Oregon Air National Guard. Bernard, who became Catholic last year, attended the first mall Mass and says the setup will be effective for shoppers who are curious about faith but shy about acting on the notion. Youths out with friends may not stop in at the moment, but might come back alone later, or will at least remember that Catholicism is a viable response to a life based on materialism.
The sessions are advanced enough that longtime Catholics will learn their faith, too, says Bernard, a member of the 142nd Security Forces Squadron at the Portland Air National Guard Base.
Hank Hess, a member of Holy Rosary, attended the first mall Mass. He says the ministry seems to be in keeping with the New Evangelization announced by Pope John Paul II and furthered last year by Pope Benedict and bishops at a Vatican synod.
"What better way to reach people?" Hess asks, motioning to the temporary chapel. The retired business owner and janitorial worker says the effort will help further respect for God, the church and for religious belief in general.
The mall ministry echoes the mission of St. Dominic, who founded the Dominicans in the 13th century. He sent friars to the crossroads, marketplaces, inns and universities of Europe — anywhere the people were.
"We of the church don't want to be keepers of wax museums," Father Wall says.
At the first mall Mass, the priest prayed for the evangelizing venture. "We ask that our presence here be a source of grace," he said, voicing his hope that the ministry will help the neighborhood, the city and the world.
Father Wall was inspired by the story of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Harlem. In 1933, as the Great Depression deepened, the St. Charles pastor and parishioners took to the street in a procession meant to show neighbors that the church was alive. The neighbors, many black, were invited to Catholic inquiry classes. Over 14 years, parish membership surged from 300 to 6,500. The parish helped an annual average of 440 people become Catholic. Some years, the one parish accounted for almost half of all converts in the Archdiocese of New York.
Dominican Father Francis-Hung Le, the pastor of Holy Rosary, promoted the mall project and asked the Knights of Columbus Council to help. Robert Killian, an officer in Holy Rosary's Knights, took up the call. He hopes shoppers and nearby workers will be attracted to the chapel, especially for the convenient noontime Mass. He senses a spiritual hunger among many, but the desire gets masked by the world's material offerings. Placing a Catholic chapel amid the shops is just the right thing to do, Killian says. If anyone can engage people who have basic faith questions, he concludes, it's Father Wall, whom Killian calls "down to earth and available."
Educated in Rome during the 1940s, Father Wall counted the future Pope John Paul II among his seminary classmates. He served in parishes and was a teacher before helping found the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. He served as president of the theology schools for two terms then joined the Dominican preaching band.
Before his month in Oregon, the priest was preaching at parish missions in Alaska. He'll do the same in Arizona, Washington and Hawaii in the coming months. Despite a gimpy leg, he reports having plenty of energy.
Father Wall would like parishes near malls to have chapels amid the shops year round. Even if shoppers simply walk past and see the sign, that has an impact, he says.
"You're reminding people the church is alive, the church is here," the priest explains. "You are planting seeds."