Doubts and challenges to faith are fair game at Alaska parish’s outreach


In a world that so often marginalizes and ignores matters of faith and religion, burning questions loom of the afterlife, of God, of a creator and how to live out fleeting lives here on Earth. For some that leads to questions about the Catholic Church.

“Seekers,” a group that meets at St. Patrick Church in Anchorage, has gained momentum among Alaskans looking for answers to spirituality in general and interest in the Catholic faith.

Angela Shemel, one of the weekly group leaders, says the group, which meets on Monday evenings, ranges from those who gather to learn about Catholicism with intentions of joining, to others who are there to explore but who hesitate in making commitments to Christianity or embracing the fullness of the Catholic faith.

“We are there to provide a holistic, spiritual, friendly and welcoming Christ-centered environment … (so they) feel safe in their spiritual journey and discernment process,” Shemel told the Catholic Anchor.

“They can be folks who’ve never stepped in the church or have been attending a long time and decided they’d like to learn more,” Shemel observed.

As for the format of the sessions, which typically last two hours with a short break, Shemel said that she and co-leader Tom Bruce begin with prayer — teaching that even making the sign of the cross is a form of prayer. They then ask attendees to summarize their spiritual reflections of the past week.

Shemel emphasized that all discussions during the meetings are kept confidential, which allows for deeper sharing and reflection. The evening topics are inspired by questions from attendees.

“There is no absolute for what the subject matter will be at the very beginning of the sessions,” Shemel noted. “After I’ve received a list of questions (sometimes from the preceding week), I prepare a program in answer. I will go a little deeper on some topics which often lead to deep discussion.”

Between Shemel, who’s a cradle Catholic and Bruce, a former Protestant, attendees can expect a mix of traditional and contemporary thinking.

“She knows a lot about what it was like to be a Catholic, pre-Vatican II,” Bruce said, “and I’ve got a lot of newer information; so we complement each other.” Bruce added that it was Shemel who invited him to attend Mass years ago, and it was an instant revelation that he wanted to live out the rest of his life as a Catholic.

“That was it for me,” Bruce recalled. “It clicked, and I got my hands on every piece of Catholic literature I could find.”

About eight years ago, Father Scott Medlock approached Bruce and Shemel to ask if they’d like to start the group. They quickly came up with the name, “Seekers” — a name that Bruce said accurately describes his journey in the faith.

“I came from a secular world, but I was looking for something.”

Often, the sessions uncork curiosities among participants who are new to attending a Catholic Mass — questions about aspects of the liturgy, the relationship to saints, kneeling, standing, genuflecting, the purpose of holy water — and why Catholics act in particular ways — in church and out in the broader world.

Transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, burial of the dead and various precepts of the church are among other common question threads.

“And sometimes, I am stumped or confused about an issue,” Shemel admitted. “And they know that if I don’t have the answer, I will research it and bring it back either the next week or if it needs a longer presentation, it is scheduled for another week.”

If attendees run short of generating questions, plenty of discussion arises from the book, “Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth,” literature provided to group members at their first session.

Bruce noted that many who attend the meetings arrive with friends who have attended previous sessions and act as mentors.

“They learn too,” he said of the mentors.

In other instances, couples join the group to more deeply explore their understanding of the church in preparation for Catholic marriage. Such is the case with David Jackson, who joined the group in January. Jackson said he plans to join the Catholic Church next year. In the meantime, his journey and enthusiasm have proven contagious with his girlfriend — a cradle Catholic — and among co-workers and friends.

“When somebody sees somebody else converting, it brings more excitement into their lives,” he said. “Friends and coworkers have started attending Mass more often as well.”

'Doubts and challenges to faith are fair game at Alaska parish’s outreach'
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