Parish filled with spirit of piety

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A statue of Mary at St. John the Beloved Church in McLean overlooked the deep pinks and warm yellows of the rose garden following the first school Mass of the academic year. The recent scene of holiness amid vibrant color well complements St. John, a community of palpable joy bound by devout faith.

It is clear to Father Paul D. Scalia - who grew up in the parish and served as parochial administrator for a year before being named pastor in 2009 - where the sense of community and joy originate: "a focus on faith," he said. "That is a unifying force for the various groups. It is attention to the sacred that makes community."

The priests at the parish - who include Father Franklyn M. McAfee, pastor emeritus; Father Gregory Thompson, parochial vicar; and Father Phillip M. Cozzi, in residence - convey this focus well, according to Mary Kushan, a member of the PTO with three children at St. John Academy. "The message is very clear here," she said.

"There are no ifs, ands or buts," added her friend and fellow parishioner Denise Kissinger. "You either sit in the pews and feel uncomfortable or embrace what you hear," she said. "But people want to be challenged. In the end it draws people in. In our hearts we want to be challenged to embrace the truth - it resonates with us."

According to a parish history compiled for the community's 50th anniversary, fewer than 10 pioneer families came together in 1913 to establish St. John as a mission of St. James Church in Falls Church. The mission church, dedicated by Richmond Bishop Denis J. O'Connell, was built on land donated by William M. Carlin. Carlin's father, John, had "wanted a Catholic church very badly" in the area, according to the history.

One man's spiritual zeal and dream of a church helped create a flourishing mission, which after nearly 40 years was elevated to a parish under the pastoral care of Missionhurst Father Paul R. Cauwe in 1951. Rapid growth in the area produced an immediate need for a school and larger church, and St. John Academy opened in 1954. It was staffed by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary sisters, who commuted daily from their convent at Marymount College in Arlington, according to the parish history.

Under the parish's second pastor, Father Henry E. Hammond, the sisters' commute was shortened after the construction of a convent on Carlin Lane in McLean. The convent is now home to the Youth Apostles Institute, founded in 1979 to serve local Catholic youths.

A new church, with the altar at the center and stained-glass windows encircling the walls, was dedicated by Richmond Bishop Peter L. Ireton in 1956. Even with the new church, the continued population surge in McLean led the parish to divide and form St. Luke Parish in 1961.

The old St. John church, now Carlin Hall, houses parish offices. The rectory and a parish center, which includes a gym, music room and meeting rooms, round out the parish complex. The rose garden blooms as a result of Father McAfee's green thumb, love of beauty and legacy of leaving rose gardens at parishes where he's ministered.

( Read about Father McAfee's fascination with beauty.)

Many parishioners who have seen new buds and buildings spring up and pastors pass through - including Msgr. Frank Mahler, 1979-86; Father Richard J. Ley, 1986-94; Jerome R. Daly, 1994-2000; Father Edward C. Hathaway, 2000-05; and Father McAfee, 2005-09 - are still around, according to Father Scalia. "One of the blessings (at St. John) is the age range. There are lots of old-timers at the parish who were here before the current church was built," he said.

For Charles McCoy, a parishioner since the '90s who has a hand in everything from Catholic Youth Organization basketball to the fall festival, agrees the "patriarchs and matriarchs" enrich parish life. But throughout all generations is "a consistency of faith that is really refreshing and rewarding," he said.

The seniors pray alongside much smaller churchgoers, as St. John has many large families, according to Kissinger, who is pregnant with her seventh child. "St. John of the large family" is how some refer to the parish, she said, laughing.

St. John is not only generationally diverse, however. People often think of McLean as "just 'white bread' and rich" said Father Scalia, but that's not the case. The nearby federal government brings ethnic diversity, and pockets within parish boundaries are not as well off, according to Father Scalia.

Yet just as a joy-filled community emerges from a common dedication to truth, so "diversity is meaningless without a unifying principle," said Father Scalia.
And centered on truth, parishioners cultivate a faith not afraid to delight in the gifts of God's creation.

"The orthodoxy of the Faith is paramount here," said McCoy, who added the traditional Latin Mass is celebrated every Sunday. That orthodoxy, he said, "includes forgiveness, inclusion and joy in life."

McCoy is making sure there's plenty of the latter at the upcoming fall festival. "We want it to be joyful, happy and goofy," he said, reaffirming there's no sign of stuffy piety at his parish.

There are many signs of the spiritual life, however, at both the parish and school.

"Pius XI said that every subject should be 'permeated with Christian piety,'" said Father Scalia, and that's what the faculty, staff and priests strive to do.

Kissinger believes this effort creates a natural progression from home to school. "Parents are their children's first teachers. And the school carries through what we're doing at home - integrating spirituality with academics."

She added that many St. John families home-school and there is a "beautiful support of each family's educational decision."

The Religious Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary left St. John Academy in 1973, but the Sisters of Notre Dame arrived the same year to help guide the school for 20 years. In 1993, Christine Wells was appointed the first lay principal.

Principal Peter Schultz currently oversees the academic formation of the 300-student school, named a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence in 2008.

( Read how third-graders at St. John Academy experienced hands-on learning at its delectable best.)

Piety is woven into church life through weekday Mass, eucharistic adoration Wednesdays, 24-hour adoration every first Friday and an active Legion of Mary, along with other devotions, said Father Scalia.

Parishioners' piety is expressed outwardly through monthly volunteer work at Christ House in Alexandria, and the St. Peter Claver Society for African Orphans of AIDS was established at the parish in 2004. The society helps fund the care and education of children left parentless by the epidemic.

Be it prayer, service, social activities or school, all is centered on reverence for the Faith. This is what nourishes all else, said Father Scalia.

And the result, said Kushan, "is a very happy community."

Quick facts
St. John the Beloved Church
6420 Linway Ter.
McLean, Va. 22101

Pastor: Fr. Paul D. Scalia
Parochial vicar: Fr. Gregory Thompson
Pastor emeritus: Fr. Franklyn M. McAfee
In residence: Fr. Phillip M. Cozzi

Deacon: Joseph G. Benin
DRE: Laura Pennefather

St. John Academy
6422 Linway Ter.
McLean, Va. 22101
Principal: Peter Schultz
Students: 300

Mass Schedule:
Sat.: 8:15 a.m., 5 p.m. vigil
Sun.: 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m., noon (extraordinary from of the Roman rite)
Weekdays: 6:30 a.m., 9 a.m.

Parishioners: 5,633

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011