MILWAUKEE — An interdenominational event designed to usher in Holy Week reached a milestone Sunday.
For 45 years, worshippers in Brown Deer and Milwaukee’s far northwest side have attended a reflective ecumenical Palm Sunday service, a joint effort among nine congregations within the region. This year, about 130 participants took part in the service.
Several diocesan parishes have not only assisted with planning the annual service since 1967, but also have hosted the program. Over the years, participants have included Our Lady of Good Hope, St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Bernadette, as well as staff at the Catholic-run Alexian Village retirement facility.
Other participating congregations have come from the Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Methodist and Presbyterian traditions.
This year’s service, held at St. Catherine, featured a familiar past participant. Auxiliary Bishop Donald J. Hying served as the guest speaker. From 1999 to 2005, Bishop Hying was pastor of Our Lady of Good Hope – a parish that also has frequently hosted the ecumenical service. Sunday’s service was the first time Bishop Hying had been involved since leaving Our Lady of Good Hope.
“It was good to be back,” Bishop Hying said. “This has always been a powerful service. The worship has been very much inspired by the ecumenical vision of Vatican II.”
Bishop Hying said the participating interdenominational congregations have a long history of working together. Church leaders meet monthly to discuss issues of mutual importance, including the Palm Sunday service.
Some years, Bishop Hying said, attendance swelled as high as 800 worshippers – particularly at Our Lady of Good Hope, which has a large seating capacity.
The ecumenical service includes features applicable to people of all participating denominations. The program includes several Scripture readings, a homily and a number of hymns designed to reflect the meaning of Palm Sunday. This year’s song selections included “All Glory Laud and Honor,” “Praise to You” and “Jesu Jesu.”
While delivering his homily during the hour-long service, Bishop Hying emphasized the point that Holy Week is not business as usual for Christians.
“There’s a sacred mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection,” Bishop Hying said. “It is the ultimate paradox that we cannot understand.”
Bishop Hying also spoke about humility.
“(God) humbled himself to be one of his own creations in the form of Jesus Christ,” Bishop Hying said. “(Jesus) reached out to people on the fringes of life, and during the Last Supper he washed the feet of the disciples.”
Bishop Hying also implored worshippers to take time out and embody some of Jesus’ humbleness in everyday life. He illustrated his point by portraying an image of a person asking for directions.
“The hardest, yet most effective way to lead someone when they are lost is to lead them,” Bishop Hying said.
According to the Rev. Dee Anderson, pastor of the 250-member West Granville Presbyterian Church, events such as the Palm Sunday ecumenical service send a powerful message.
“I think this gives us a visible opportunity to demonstrate Christian unity,” Rev. Anderson said in a telephone interview with your Catholic Herald. “There’s a real spirit of celebration, and it’s just perfect for Holy Week.”
Rev. Anderson said the nine congregations participate in other joint programs, including a Thanksgiving service. Planning takes place at the monthly meetings.
“We also have a shared choir, and the participants practice together two times before a service is held,” said Rev. Anderson, who has been at the church for nearly 27 years.
Planners intentionally rotate guest speakers so there is joint representation across all denominations, Rev. Anderson said. For logistical reasons, Our Lady of Good Hope and St. Catherine host the Palm Sunday ecumenical service since there is more seating capacity. But congregations in other denominations host other events such as the Thanksgiving service that historically has lighter attendance.