INDIANAPOLIS –– A historic Indianapolis church is in the center of festivities surrounding the Feb. 5 Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium.
St. John the Evangelist Parish, founded 175 years ago when Indianapolis was a small town on the edge of the American frontier, is the middle of the Super Bowl Village hosting many events at the Indiana Convention Center across the street from the church and on streets surrounding it.
More than 100,000 visitors are expected to be in town, with tens of thousands of them walking by the church on streets largely closed to vehicular traffic for 10 days leading up to the Super Bowl.
There is even a zip line on which riders can zoom for 800 feet from a starting height of 95 feet and ending in front of St. John Church.
When the riders put their feet back down on solid ground, they see a sign in front of the parish’s 140-year-old church that reads, “If you thought the zip line was a thrill, … come in and spend some time with Jesus!”
Such a sign shows that Fr. Rick Nagel, St. John’s administrator, and his parishioners considered the Super Bowl a tremendous opportunity to evangelize.
“You can run and hide or you can just jump in,” said Fr. Nagel, who planned to ride the zip line.
“We’ve decided to jump in and do some outreach,” he told The Criterion, newspaper of the Indianapolis Archdiocese.
“Our biggest goal is to give people a great sense of the Catholic Church. … If we can be welcoming and let people know that there is so much good and many good young people engaged in the church, we’ll have had a good 10 days.”
To do that outreach, approximately 70 tour guides called “St. John evangelists” have been trained not only to explain the history, beautiful architecture and other aspects of the church, but also to explain how they embody the Catholic faith.
They have already been put to work in large events in recent months, such as the Future Farmers of America Convention, the 2011 Big 10 Football Championship and the National Catholic Youth Conference.
Several priests also have been hearing confessions in the church for 28 hours during the days leading up to the game. And visitors can get answers to their questions about the Catholic faith at the “Ask a Catholic” booth set up in the church’s narthex.
On the weekend of the Super Bowl game, additional Masses have been planned to accommodate the large number of Catholic visitors to Indianapolis.
St. John parishioner Joseph Maguire, 56, who works for a law firm in downtown Indianapolis, is a St. John evangelist who stood on the steps of the church during the Big 10 championship.
“We encouraged them to come in and take a look at our church,” he said. “Anyone that we can get inside is amazed by the beauty of the church. They take pictures. Then we can direct them to other people who are leading the tours.”
Erica Heinekamp is one of many young adults serving as a St. John evangelist. She thinks the beauty of her parish’s historic church is one of its most important assets.
“Human beings are naturally attracted to beauty – there’s no way around it,” she said. “I think the physical beauty of St. John’s Church is one of its greatest testimonies because it points to a greater meaning of that space – one that invites people to know themselves at a deeper level.
“By giving personalized tours of this space, I definitely think that we can give them insight to a deeper meaning of our beautiful space, one that is an invitation to get to know the Catholic faith even better on their own.”
Because of traffic and parking restrictions, Heinekamp said she will be parking in a lot near Indianapolis International Airport on the west side of the city and taking a shuttle bus downtown.
But the inconvenience isn’t keeping her from reaching out to Super Bowl visitors.
“We could just close up shop for a few weeks because travel is difficult, and it’s a hassle to journey anywhere downtown,” Heinekamp said. “But, instead, we are facing the reality of a great crowd coming into our city and walking past our church every day. Why not let them see what we have to offer?”
Fr. Nagel was excited that his parish is taking seriously Blessed John Paul II’s call to “open wide the doors to Christ.” The church was taking up that challenge literally by opening its large front doors for thousands of visitors walking past.
“The new evangelization is alive and well here in the heart of our city,” Fr. Nagel said.