Annual Catholic Appeal taps into corporal works of mercy as source of strength for those who give

LISA JOHNSTON | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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Natalie Villmer of the Rural Parish Workers of Christ the King understands well the virtue of serving others, which her mother instilled in her as a child.

"I'm from the St. Joachim in Old Mines area, and she used to say there's a lot of people around here that need assistance," Villmer said. "We would get appeals from other parts of the country, from people who needed help, and she would say, 'I wish there was someone here who could help those in need here.' So I think my vocation stemmed from that."

For Natalie Villmer and the Rural Parish Workers, serving others through works of mercy is second nature. The community of laywomen, bound by religious vows, has been serving the poor in Washington County since 1949. The Rural Parish Workers are among those who receive funding from the Annual Catholic Appeal.

This year's ACA campaign, which is taking place from April 20 to May 5, focuses on the seven corporal works of mercy -- feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, sheltering the homeless, visiting the imprisoned and burying the dead.

These seven works tend to the physical needs of others and frequently occur through the generosity of those who support the ACA. The appeal supports numerous ministries, including Catholic education, helping the homeless and others in need, defending life, marriage and religious liberty and supporting vocations. This year's goal is $12.5 million.

This year's campaign also ties into the Year of Faith, which Pope Benedict XVI commissioned as an opportunity for the worldwide Church to reflect and act on what it means to be Catholic. The theme of the ACA's campaign, "The Door of Faith is Always Open," shows that giving can serve as a way of opening a door of faith -- not only for self, but others.

"The ACA provides us with the opportunity to open the door of faith for ourselves and many others, who lead us to Christ," said Russ Isaak, chair of the 2013 Appeal Council. "Through this door of faith, we can see all of the doors that the ACA opens up for us to participate in."

An act of love

The Rural Parish Workers estimate that they serve about 3,000 people a year, said Villmer. "At Christmas time, we have a big distribution program. We help about 270 families, and if you estimate at least four people in a family, that's over 1,000 alone."

"That's what we do every day, feed the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, bury the dead," said Villmer. "We correspond with men from our area and women who are in prison. We have our food pantry. We also assist with clothing -- we have rummage sales a couple of times a year."

Villmer said the work is more than just providing for the physical needs of people, but also in looking at their spiritual well-being.

"We're giving people encouragement and helping them find jobs, praying with them," she said. "We're encouraging people to go to church and we've giving rides to church on Sunday morning. Without that presence of God in your heart, it's hard to stay on the right track. We work on making people aware of that. We also learn many things from the people who come to the door -- they're very spiritual, too. We share Christ with them whenever we get that opportunity."

Brian Niebrugge, archdiocesan executive director of Stewardship and the Annual Catholic Appeal, noted that it can be challenging to see that giving to a charitable campaign is more than just providing material support, but in so many ways, those who contribute to the appeal can become part of a spiritual experience that draws them closer to Christ.

"When someone chooses to make a gift, it is first an act of love, which always involves the whole person, body and soul," he said. "In the appeal, these individual acts of love unite us all in a clear and direct way, obvious even to those who do not believe. The fruits of this unity, the ministries of the Church, make the mystical body of Christ visible to a world that sometimes has a hard time seeing the face of Christ or believing in His love for the world. It can be a light for someone, when all other lights have gone out."

Assistance without boundaries

The Annual Catholic Appeal has five major areas where funding is designated, but its impact is even more far-reaching.

Pat and Kathy O'Donnell have been ACA parish co-chairs at St. Matthias Parish in Lemay for eight years. But the couple was personally impacted by the fruits of the appeal long before they became involved as volunteers.

In 1992, the couple's 16-year-old daughter, Bridget, a student at Notre Dame High School, died in a car accident. Shortly after her death, their pastor had reached out and offered to contact Catholic Charities to see if the agency, which receives ACA funding, could provide counseling for the family and friends of their daughter. After the funeral, two counselors stayed at the rectory and visited with family and friends.

"I asked (the priest), 'How much do we owe?' He told us, 'You don't owe anything. That's part of what the money from the appeal goes to at Catholic Charities.' Boy, we really benefitted there. I couldn't have done something like that on my own with these kids. And that was because of the appeal."

Pat O'Donnell said the parish takes a simple approach when asking parishioners to give to the appeal. The amount collected each week of the campaign is published in the bulletin, he said. "I think when people can see how they're being generous, it helps people to become more generous."

O'Donnell also recalled a recent homily by St. Matthias' pastor, Father Dennis Port, on Peter's healing nature through the passing of his shadow, as seen in Acts 5:12-16. "He said what it really means is that when God and man can work together ... great things can take place," said O'Donnell.

No donation is too small

Russ Isaak, ACA chairman, explained that no donation to the appeal is "too small." That's especially true for young families who are considering a donation, but think that a small contribution will make no difference.

"The idea is to get people thinking about making donations to the ACA now, no matter what amount they are," said Isaak. "I don't care if it's $5, $10 or $100. I believe that it's every Catholic's responsibility to help others who are in need. Obviously, we must consider our own financial situation when making this decision. But different people go through different stages of their life. They should know there is an opportunity to participate in the ACA at any stage of their life."

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