By Gordon Nary
Gordon: When did your family join St. Nicolas Parish and how has the parish helped enhance your spirituality?
Graziano: We joined the parish about 22 years ago, just before our youngest child, Christopher, entered kindergarten. We had family who attended the parish and encouraged us to join. I’ve never liked the notion of shopping around for a parish, and especially of leaving a parish for another one because I think a church family is like your blood family, you don’t get to choose your relatives. Of course, I know there are exceptions, but you know what I mean. But our parish school had closed and we needed a new one, so we chose to attend the parish where our son would go to school. St. Nicks is known for its wonderful liturgy and its commitment to social justice issues. It’s a “cutting edge” parish in every sense of that phrase. While liturgically progressive, I’m much more centrist theologically, so our two-plus decades with St. Nick have not been without challenge. But we stay precisely because of that challenge. Why would I want to join a parish of all like-minded individuals. Comforting as that might be, I don’t think it would foster my growth the way this parish does that often confronts me with convictions that are different from mine. In that way, St. Nick has been a real gift to our family. And the gorgeous worship is always a blessing.
Plus, for most of these past 20 years I’ve had the privilege of bringing to life our patron, St. Nicholas. We have a prayer service where St. Nicholas presides and tells stories of his life. It’s a very interactive process in which I bring children into the storytelling playing the various characters. Watching them vie for the opportunity to enter the story and looking into their faces after the prayer service as each child comes through the rectory to receive an apple form the hands of St. Nick has provided me a wealth of touching images and memories…like the young boy who stared at me a moment and then said with the earnestness and passion only a child could muster, “I love you SO much!”
Gordon: What are your current and previous responsibilities at the Archdiocese of Chicago?
Graziano: I continue to co-host the Archdiocesan radio program, Catholic Community of Faith with Fr. Greg Sakowicz on many Mondays and Fridays.
For nearly twenty years, I was Director of Lay Ministry Formation. During that time, I had the opportunity to shepherd a wonderful ongoing program for the formation of parish volunteers, the Called & Gifted program, and to create three other programs preparing Spiritual Companions—"Walking to Emmaus,” Social Justice ministers—"Harvest of Hope,” and Pastoral Associates and Directors of Religious Education, “Together in God’s Service.” The last, was initiated at the behest of Cardinal George. He wanted a program that would financially support lay people as they undertook graduate education for ministry and provide them the substantial and targeted formation programming available to all other church ministers. I was proud that the program we created, because of Cardinal George’s close involvement and endorsement, became a national model at a critical time when the US Bishops were developing norms for ministerial education and formation of what came to be known as “Lay ecclesial ministers” in the church. In fact, our experience provided insights that were integrated into the document published by the conference entitled “Coworkers in the Vineyard.” It was Cardinal George’s strong support for that document that ensured its passage within the Conference.
During my last two years at the Archdiocese, I was Director of Ministerial Resource Development, a role that enabled me to work with various agencies within the Archdiocese creating useful resources. I worked with the Office for Protecting God’s Children to develop a series of videos to be used in workshops addressing ministerial misconduct of priests, deacons, and lay ministers. I was able to utilize my drama background to write the scripts for the twelve videos and assist in their production. I also worked with Liturgy Training Publications in the creation of a video introducing the changes to the liturgical texts and various writing projects. And during that time, I undertook the project of editing and rewriting a committee-created text that became Navigating Pastoral Transitions, a Priest’s Guide and eventually morphed into a series of three award-winning books aimed at parish staffs and parish leaders.
Gordon: You and your wife, Nancy, use the performing arts to promote faith. Please share with our readers how you do this.
Graziano: This work has been one of the great blessing in my life. I often speak of my Archdiocesan ministry as my “day job,” because the work of evangelization through the performing arts is what has best utilized the gifts God gave me. We’ve not only had the opportunity to employ those gifts from New York to Hawaii—and even Italy and Canada—but we’ve been able to teach others to do it through classes we taught for 25 years at the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University Chicago and workshops around the country.
Our kids have always joked that they could never explain to their friends what we do for a living and it wasn’t till she was in her 20’s that our daughter realized—to her shock!—that Lazarus was really a man, since she’d seen Nancy play the role in a dramatization I’d written when she was a young child.
We use the arts of drama, storytelling, mime and dance—and even puppetry to proclaims the gospel’s unchanging truths. The arts provide an ever-changing and universal language that makes a deep impact. Some of the highlights of this ministry include a program Nancy and I prepared as part of Pope St. John Paul II pastoral visit to the US in 1987 which resulted in a brief meeting with him. Another was the premier, before an audience of 6000, of Marty Haugen’s, The Song of Mark, a musical adaption of Mark’s gospel, and a keynote I delivered, with Fr. Michael Sparough, before 5000 attendees at a Pastoral Musicians Conference. It was all storytelling and it was an incredibly magical experience.
Over the years, so many people have echoed the comment, “I’ll never hear that scripture passage the same way again!” That’s a powerfully affirming message, one that has enabled us to stay with this ministry though it required much time and commitment in addition to the “day job.”
Gordon: When you served as Vice President for Mission and Ministry for Saint Xavier University. what were your primary responsibilities?
Graziano: In my role at Saint Xavier I brought together the departments of Campus Ministry and Mission Integration into a cohesive unit that address the pastoral needs of the university community. It was incredibly gratifying work. Young people provide a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm and realizing that we were helping to guide them toward their futures was a holy privilege
Of course, we also worked with staff and faculty introducing them to the Charism and history of the Sisters of Mercy who founded the university. I served on the president’s cabinet, but the fulfilling work centered on liturgy, retreats, reflections I offered during key moments in the life of the university, and especially at memorial services for members of the school community. There were many times I truly felt like a pastor and that’s what kept me going back every day, despite a horrific commute that challenged my patience and endurance
Gordon: You are a popular presenter at many parishes nationally and internationally. What are some of your most requested topics?
Graziano: There are two area for which we are most often called upon: Spirituality and training. Because Nancy and I have written and contributed to nine volumes of Liturgy Training Publication’s Workbook for Lectors, Gospel Reader and Proclaimers of the Word, we are often asked to present workshops for lectors and other liturgical ministers. And, as I mentioned earlier, we also train others to utilize the performing arts in liturgy and religious education. So we often present to catechists and liturgists.
But our most requested work is in the area of spirituality. We present parish missions, evenings of reflection, retreats for staff and school faculties, and just about anyone else interested in spiritual growth. Our unique approach is the integration of the arts into our presentations. So, our presentation combine traditional “talks” with dramatizations that bring to life gospel characters like Magdalene, Zacchaeus, the Woman at the Well, Lazarus, Mary and Martha, and many others. I also write much original material that we weave into our presentations.
What continues to surprise and delight us is how different and unexpected our approach is in many of the parishes we visit. And how delighted people are once they’ve experienced it. The odd thing, at least for me, is that I can’t always tell when I’m presenting if the folks are enjoying what they’re seeing. I sometime joke, “If you’re having a good time, please inform your face!” But some people’s faces don’t give away their true feelings. It’s only after the presentation that they come forward and let us know how deeply they were touched. And I attribute that to the power of combining the gospel message with the medium of the performing arts. It’s a knock-out combination that reaches people in a non-linear, affective way that goes right to the heart.
Gordon: You also conduct youth ministries. What do you discuss at these ministries?
Graziano: I taught in Catholic high schools for ten years and then did full-time retreat ministry with high school students for another 3 years. Once you’ve worked with youth, it never leaves your blood. I always love the experience—OK, ALMOST always. When it “works,” there’s nothing like it. I recently worked with high school and college students in San Antonio. We explored scripture throughout the day utilizing improvisation and drama as the tools of our exploration. Throughout, the message was God’s love for them. I start with a retelling of the Creation Story that highlights God’s interaction with people in and through relationships. And I say that’s the model God uses because God IS a relationship…Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal relationship!
But I don’t ascribe to the “I’m Ok, you’re OK,” approach so often used in working with youth. If we’re so “OK,” why did Jesus come and die for us? The message I like to share is that despite our faults and sins, God loves us ANYWAY. That’s what means something and make a difference in the life of a young person. They know when they “fall short,” and what they need is the assurance that God will forgive, not the fiction that they have nothing that needs forgiving. Therefore, God’s mercy is a frequent theme and the arts give us a delight-ful way of experiencing that mercy.
Gordon: Thank you for a great interview.