Church Celebrates Lent under New Leadership
by Christine Miyawa
Delta Digital News Service
POCAHONTAS, Ark. — A new priest is leading parishioners of the local Roman Catholic Church through Lent this year.
The Rev. Mariadas Vallapaneni said the congregation of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church reflects deeply on its faith during Lent in preparation for Easter. Preparation includes reciting the rosary as the faithful observe the Way of the Cross. It also includes not eating meat every Friday for seven weeks following Ash Wednesday to Good Friday just before Easter. This year’s Lent period continues through April 20.
Vallapaneni has served in the parish for more than a year after spending time as associate pastor at Jonesboro’s Blessed Sacrament Church. He served in India before Bishop Prakasam posted him to the United States for 10 years under the request of Bishop Anthony Basil Taylor of the Diocese of Little Rock.
Born in Sidda ya palm, India, Vallapaneni grew up among nearly 150 families of mostly farmers. He said the villagers, who number close to 1,000 residents, do not allow any churches apart from Catholics to occupy the area.
“Growing up, I struggled with learning,” Vallapaneni said. “I strongly believed that God called me to service. I was a dull student; I struggled to study. One day my teacher encouraged me to pray, and when I started to pray more and more, I got better and did better than other students. Then I started cooperating more with God. I felt that God was calling me to the priesthood. I went to different seminaries, but the main was Hyderabad in India.”
Vallapaneni said he was happy to serve the church in the United States.
“I like being here; this is the top-most country,” he said. “I like the different atmosphere. I like working with different people. I want to do something new; I want to help the parishioners.”
When he arrived in 2015, he found it difficult to eat American food — he said it took five months to get used to it. Vallapaneni said he was lucky because the parish he served in Jonesboro as an associate pastor had a chief pastor of Indian origin who made Indian food.
However, his greatest struggle is knowing what to do.
“I have to stick to myself because I do not know the rules,” Vallapaneni said. “In India, I know if I do something it’s right or wrong; here, I don’t. I always feel my home place is the best place. Being an alien, you are not free; you don’t know something, you feel like you are outside. However, when I am in the parish, I feel good. People here love me. They understand that we sacrifice everything to come here — we leave family and friends — so they are good and friendly to me.”
Although his church in India does things a little differently, he does not want to make many changes to this church because the congregation is used to what they have.
“Coming from a different background is not easy for me to implement new things,” he said.
Vallapaneni added one mass at 12:15 p.m. on Thursdays so parishioners on lunch break can come to pray. He said people are cooperating with him and although his way of thinking may be different, he must fit in the local culture because he is the one coming into their community.
Jason Liebnaber, who has attended the church since childhood, was at the church reciting the rosary with other faithful observing the Way of the Cross — a prayer commemorating every tribulation Jesus went through right before Easter.
“I don’t know Father Vallapaneni well, but he’s nice,” Liebnaber said. “He’s doing pretty good with Lent schedules and lots of Station of the Cross. They are having it here in the church every Friday for the children and the school, and again in the evenings for the community. I have not seen any major changes implemented yet, but we love our new priest.”
A lifetime member of St. Paul’s, Karen James said it’s sometimes hard to hear what Vallapaneni says due to his accent, but she finds the sermons lively. She and her husband moved back to Arkansas recently. She said she missed going to church for sometime when she was in Texas. She said negative rhetoric about the church on social media has affected the younger generation of congregants most, including her sister, Sue, whom she said is doing a lot of internet research and is currently torn over which church to attend.
“Sue used to be a staunch Catholic,” she said. “We both were but now she goes back and forth, she is not decided. Sometimes she tries other churches. I’m older and I think we, the older generation, are pretty much settled in our ways. Before we didn’t hear of such scandals and now it’s all over, things have really changed.”
Liebnaber discussed the scandals over sexual misconduct by Catholic priests.
“These scandals have happened over the decades, and they go in circles,” he said. “They affect some people and it’s sad. The priests need to learn better standards of morality.”
Vallapaneni said Pocahontas has a majority of Catholics — about 400 families — so he is not worried about declining membership even with the scandals in other Catholic parishes.
“First, all those priests who were involved in these scandals are dead and the recent ones do not belong to our diocese,” he said. “Secondly, people need to pray and then see the priests who are culprits in the context of family, as if this was your brother or child or relative.”
Vallapaneni noted the diocese had held conferences to reach out to the community and find healing from the scandals.