Priest from Bridge City building cultural bridges

St. Paul’s commentary on the untold wonders of eternal life fortifies the priestly ministry of Father Wayne Paysse:

The human eye has not seen, the human ear has not heard, and the human heart cannot even begin to fathom “what God has prepared for those who love him” (2 Cor 2:9).

“I think about how good God has been to me, how God has blessed me even in the times when I don’t deserve it – and so my hope is that one day I will see God in heaven,” said Father Paysse, a New Orleans-born priest ordained in 1987. “That Scripture passage is a way of reminding me that as I desire God, I also want others to desire God, to love God as I do.” 

Helping with catechesis

Over the past six years, Father Paysse has been helping America’s Catholic bishops take God’s boundless love to their respective flocks as executive director of the National Black and Indian Mission Office. Based in Washington, D.C., Father Paysse oversees grant applications submitted by African-American and Native-American dioceses whose cash-strapped, thinly staffed parishes and schools need assistance with their evangelization efforts, primarily in the area of catechesis.
 

“People think that missionary work is across the ocean, but we have missionary work to do in New Orleans, in Lafayette, in Mississippi, in Kansas City, in Detroit and Chicago,” said Father Paysse, who assumed his current post in 2007. “Mission is here.”

Reared on the Rosary

Raised in Holy Guardian Angels Parish in Bridge City, Father Paysse and his three siblings grew up in a Sicilian-American family whose devotion to Catholicism was nurtured by praying a daily rosary after school.

“You’d change out of your school clothes, put on your play clothes, have a snack, pray the rosary, do your homework and then you could go out and play,” recalls Father Paysse, who attended public school at Bridge City Elementary and John Ehret High.
 

An important model of faith was his great Aunt Marie, the sacristan at Holy Guardian Angels, “who never told Father no” when she was asked to serve her home parish, led by Msgr. Anthony Luminais. Young Wayne often accompanied his great aunt to church and as a teen served on the parish council as CYO president.
 

“I guess I kind of observed the fact that she was giving of herself in so many ways. The parish was her life,” recalled Father Paysse, who briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a pediatrician or a psychoanalyst before discerning for the priesthood, a calling he had felt since the second grade.

“I didn’t get knocked off the horse or anything,” chuckled Father Paysse, 52. “I guess volunteering around the parish, watching Father (Luminais) – it was just something that was attractive to me.”


Parish priest for 20 years

Father Paysse entered St. Joseph Seminary College at St. Benedict Abbey directly after his high school graduation, continuing his studies at Notre Dame Seminary and beginning his priestly service as an assistant at St. Ann, Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Chalmette, St. Agnes and St. Frances Cabrini, where he assisted another beloved mentor, Auxiliary Bishop Dominic Carmon.

He was named to his first pastorate – at St. Genevieve in Slidell – in 1997, followed by a tenure at St. Joan of Arc in LaPlace.
 

Father Paysse was serving as pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary in eastern New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina reconfigured the archdiocesan map. Although his parish’s territory ultimately was assumed by St. Maria Goretti, he maintained contact with his parishioners, led cleanup efforts, celebrated Masses under the pines and continued as archdiocesan director of Society for the Propagation of the Faith, a post he had held since 2000.
 

In light of the priest’s gifts for both pastoral and missionary work, Archbishop Alfred Hughes asked Father Paysse to take on a post-Katrina appointment as a spiritual director, missiology scholar and adjunct instructor of church administration at Notre Dame Seminary.

Ministers to whole nation

It was in the midst of these seminary ministries at both Notre Dame and St. Ben’s that Father Paysse was asked to lead the Black and Indian Mission Office, the nearly 140-year-old umbrella organization that operates the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions and the Catholic Negro-American Mission Board. The office supports religious education programs that benefit parishes and schools at sites including reservations, the inner city and remote villages.
 

“The first six months I read a lot of diocesan files, a lot of diocesan budgets, because (the grants require applicants) to turn in their budgets. I just got very familiar with the church of the United States,” said Father Paysse, who convened a meeting at the Philadelphia birthplace of St. Katharine Drexel – the great educator of America’s underserved – of church leaders from the Native American and African American communities.
 

Ad hoc committees were created in areas such as technology, communications, media, investment and finance, with the newly computerized office establishing two electronic newsletters: “Dream Catcher” for the Native American community, and “NIA” for the Black Catholic community. The office’s quarterly magazine – “The Sentinel” – was redesigned and made available free of charge to pastors, DREs, catechists, parents and others at the office’s website.


Office’s annual appeal

But most American Catholics probably know of Father Paysse’s ministry through a special collection inserted in their annual packet of offertory envelopes: The Black and Indian Mission Collection, established by the bishops of the United States in 1884 for the sole purpose of supporting the evangelization of Native Americans and African Americans.  The first and oldest nationwide collection in the American Catholic Church, the appeal takes in $6-$8 million annually, funds that are dispersed among dioceses who apply for grants. Father Paysse reads applications from across the nation and awards them to worthy recipients with the approval of the Black and Indian Mission Office’s board of three archbishops: board president Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York; Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia; and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore.
 

“For 130 years, the bishops of this country have given great, great pastoral attention to the Native American, Alaskan Native and Black Catholic Communities,” Father Paysse notes. “Those programs support schools, they support assisting missionaries on reservations and cities, they support the good work of sisters who do various types of pastoral work and the training of deacons and seminarians.”
 

Earlier this month, Father Paysse went to New Mexico to witness how a recent grant from his office is helping volunteer catechists at St. Augustine, a 400-year old adobe church in the Pueblo Indian village of Isleta, provide religious education to 130 children in first grade through high school. Mission Office funds helped the program purchase Bibles, textbooks and other materials geared to encouraging parents to pray with their children at home, as well as crosses for the church’s five altar servers. Adult catechesis is also taking off at St. Augustine, with 50 people slated to be confirmed as adults this November.

Yearning for formation

Some 90 percent of the Native Americans who reside in the 16 remote Pueblo villages of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe claim the Catholic faith.

“Yet some of our adults haven’t come to Mass since they were baptized,” said Shirley Zuni, St. Augustine’s DRE, addressing Father Paysse after Mass on Sept. 6. “So we teach them the richness of the Mass; we want them to have that deep desire for the Eucharist.”
 

Father Paysse said something even bigger is promoting evangelization and catechesis among the active and fledgling Catholics his office serves, especially among Native Americans: last October’s canonization of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first North American Native American woman to attain sainthood. Father Paysse’s office was commissioned to lead the U.S. bishops’ official pilgrimage to Rome for the event, a journey that included more than 700 pilgrims from both clergy and laity.

With the blessing of his board, the office was able to disperse grants totaling more than $100,000 so that hundreds of Native Americans could be present at the canonization of the saint known as “The Lily of the Mohawks.”
 

“We should love St. Kateri Tekakwitha because she models for us such a great love and hope and faith in Jesus,” said Father Paysse, explaining how when Jesuit missionaries brought the Catholic faith to St. Kateri’s New York village, she was captivated by the Gospels and the catechism they taught. She would wait in the snow for a priest to unlock the church in order to spend time before the Blessed Sacrament.

“She had such a love for the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, she had such a love for the cross. And that’s why her last words were ‘Jesus, I love you,’” Father Paysse said.
 

“When we love Jesus we truly become holy,” he added. “We may not be raised to the altars of the church and have a papal proclamation (in our names) as a saint, but our love for Christ makes us holy.”
 

For more information, visit www.blackandindianmission.org or call the office toll free at (877) 237-1605.

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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