Alaska’s Catholics tap spiritual lights amid winter darkness

At the height of summer Southcentral Alaskans enjoy more than 19 hours of daylight and frenetic outdoor activity. By the dead of winter, however, daylight has dwindled to less than five hours and average temperatures barely reach the teens.

Despite the dearth of light and heat in January and February the sacramental rhythms of parish life are in high gear. Additionally, many Alaskans see in winter a chance to volunteer more at their parish, pursue intellectual and spiritual works, host social gatherings and celebrate the many holy feast days that fall during this period.

The church’s calendar can serve as a guide for modern Catholics in their quest to draw nearer to God through observance of ancient church practices. The rich liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas and Lent all fall within winter, as do many Holy Days of Obligation and the feast days for many especially beloved saints — Nicholas, Lucy, Stephen and others. These are opportunities to light candles, prepare special meals at home and learn about the great saints and heroes of the faith.

Feasting and celebrating the high holy days also serves to solidify the sacred bonds of family and parish community. In fact the New Testament repeatedly calls the church to community, communion, joint participation, sharing and intimacy.

Many area churches see an increase in parishioner participation throughout the winter months, with church life sustaining efforts of outreach and fellowship. One such gathering is the vibrant moms’ group at St. Andrew Church in Eagle River. They meet Thursday mornings to study the faith and support one another. This winter, the parish also added public adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at 6 p.m. on Sundays, followed by benediction.

At Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage, a weeknight book study is one of many similar winter literary endeavors and discussion groups that take place in parishes across the archdiocese.

Outside the parish life, laity often make space within winter’s chasm to create what Saint John of the Cross termed “a holy darkness.”

“The heart of winter is a time of homecoming and cessation of travel. We return home, ostensibly to celebrate the holiday with our family, but actually to attend to the domestic shrine that is our family home,” says writer Caitlin Matthews in The Celtic Sprit. Many Alaskans are isolated from nuclear and extended family ties, drawing on their social circle for these vital holy days.

Snow sports such as skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing, skating and snowboarding are available to the active minded. But aside from physical activities gathering for meals and study also brings restoration in the far north.

The benefit of extending hospitality as a family is a reality the Campbell family lives out through a regular Bible study they hold at their home near Wasilla. Casey and Tonya Campbell have hosted an all-ages family Bible Study in their home since 2013. They first gathered to break bread with friends and watch a video series by Bishop Robert Barron. The momentum was immediate. Their study intentionally accommodates families, including activities for younger children while adults dig into the faith. They have nearly outgrown their meeting space. Tonya cites the video and discussions as sparking interest in the conversion to the Catholic faith for a friend or two.

“We really began with the goal of learning more ourselves and to be able to share the depth of our traditions,” she said. “Now to see questions being answered all around is rewarding.”

Just down the road, the Hennemann family welcomes a similar group of Mat-Su Catholics in their house. Now in its third year, Sarah and her husband Gabriel host a casual, potluck-style gathering each week. The family’s home study group consists mostly of parishioners of Saint Michael’s in Palmer. Together entire families delve into their Catholic faith.

The Hennemann gatherings tackle a variety of topics related to the faith. Sarah recalled the regular exchange of ideas as helping her freshen her own approach to family life and faith as members share ideas about local outreach and living the liturgical seasons with young children.

After moving to Palmer from North Pole a few years ago, the Hennemanns asked around about a family fellowship. To their surprise, they found no organized group and have volunteered their home ever since.

“Sometimes, you look for the group, but lo and behold, the response is, ‘You are the group. Become the group,’” laughed Gabriel Hennemann.

'Alaska’s Catholics tap spiritual lights amid winter darkness'
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