By Natalie Romano
Efrain Vergara visits his wife’s grave everyday.
On this particular morning, he’s planting dozens of flowers for All Souls Day and reflecting on his beloved Martha who died last spring after 50 years of marriage.
He suffers; but today he won’t have to suffer alone.
“I love too much. I miss her everyday,” shared an emotional Vergara. “She was everything for me.”
As Vergara sits graveside his pain does not go unseen, thanks to the unique Walking Ministry at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Cemetery in Colton. This month, seminarians from St. Junipero Serra House of Formation started criss-crossing the grounds seeking out those who need comfort. Visits are more than a quick condolence as seminarians spend around 30 minutes of quality time with each mourner they meet.
Father Javier Gonzalez-Cabrera, Director of Pastoral Formation at Serra House, gently approaches Vergara and the two men talk and pray.
“[Ministry members] take the initiative with a profound sense of discernment - when to listen and when to speak,” explained Fr. Gonzalez-Cabrera. “...We also come with our own suffering, our own human brokenness. My mother passed away so I am also human and that allows us to be more connected.”
Seminarians Anthony Gutierrez from Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church in Corona and Christopher Rodriguez from St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in La Quinta were both assigned to the Walking Ministry which takes place every Friday.
“We’re not perfect, we’re not worthy, we’re just here to do what Christ calls us to do,” said Gutierrez, third year seminarian. “If we can be a blessing to [mourners], that’s great. If not, we will pray for them.”
Rodriguez, also in his third year, hopes to bring “solace in the midst of sorrow” as well as a Catholic perspective.
“Grief can be an incredibly difficult and overwhelming experience, so by accompanying those who grieve we can provide comfort and support, offer a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, or a helping hand in practical matters,” said Rodriguez. “...We can remind those who are grieving of God’s love, providence and the hope of eternal life.”
That presence of spirituality is exactly what the Diocesan Office of Catholic Cemeteries wants to provide. Director Alfred Martini launched the ministry last year and after receiving good feedback, brought it back with goals of expansion.
“This ministry helps [mourners] open up about their grief. They feel hope, and that someone cares,” described Martini. “So we’re building the program to add either priests or deacons to cover two or three days a week.”
Martini says mourners are gifted small bottles of holy water, can sign a memorial book and bring their loved one’s photo to the annual All Souls Day Memorial Mass held on November 2nd in the cemetery’s chapel. This year’s Mass will be celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Rutilio del Riego with concelebrants Monsignor Gerard Lopez, S.T.L., V.G. and Fr. Gonzalez-Cabrera.
The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed or All Souls Day is a time to remember our loved ones with prayer, cemetery visits and Mass. On this feast day, Catholics pray for the souls of the dead to be cleansed so they may enter the kingdom of heaven.
“First and foremost, our Lord Jesus is inviting us and telling us to pray for [the deceased] constantly,” emphasized Fr. Gonzalez-Cabrera. “Whether they are in purgatory…whether they are in heaven…we don’t know…Never make the mistake that there’s no problem, no need. It’s important to pray for them.”
Appropriate scripture readings as well as the Prayer for the Dead are available on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website. Another option is to pray the Rosary in the name of a deceased loved one. Although, how you pray is perhaps more important than what you pray.
“Jesus Christ always calls us to pray with a heart that’s pure, a heart that’s compassionate, a heart that’s deeply connected to our Lord,” said Fr. Gonzalez-Cabrera. “...That would be a simple principle.”
Seminarians will serve at the annual All Souls’ Day Memorial Mass while also honoring their own families. Rodriguez will bring photos of his grandparents to be placed on the altar.
“My grandparents hold a very close place in my heart,” said Rodriguez. “...Seeing the sacrifices they made to provide for my aunts, uncles, and my parents and their traditions they passed down…means a lot to me.”
While the Walking Ministry benefits the mourners, it also benefits the seminarians who get to practice pastoral care. Fr. Gonzalez-Cabrera says this gives our future clergy an opportunity to truly walk with people as Jesus did.
“We are in the process of forming not only priests, but priests who are Christ-like,” said Fr. Gonzalez-Cabrera. “For me, I’m so hopeful and so excited.”
Rodriguez says he’s eager to learn and grow in his new ministry.
“...This work will help me to further develop empathy, listening skills…and emotional resilience,” stated Rodriguez. “This will also help me better understand the struggles and challenges of, God willing, future parishioners…”
Vergara, a parishioner of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Rialto, sits next to his display of orange and purple blooms and gazes at the gravestone. He says he was grateful for the opportunity to talk about his wife and pray with a priest.
“We said an Our Father and The Hail Mary. It was very nice for me.”
Natalie Romano is an award-winning freelance writer based in Southern California.