By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator 

On a recent March day, Father Tom Ranzino walked into St. Jean Vianney Church in Baton Rouge with the expectation of celebrating daily Mass in front of pews and pews of emptiness.  

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St. Jean Vianney Church in Baton Rouge pastor Father Tom Ranzino, left, and Deacon Dan Borné bless the more than 200 photos of families and couples that have been placed in the vacant pews. An idea of parishioner Jarja Carville, Father Ranzino said he finds great comfort in seeing the photos while celebrating Mass. Photo submitted by Jarja Carville


But as he approached the altar, he found internal comfort in the smiles of more than 200 photos of families or couples strategically placed in the church. Some of the photos even offered messages of encouragement.  

“I was very surprised; I was deeply touched, I have to say, more than I thought I would have been,” said Father Ranzino, who is pastor at SJV. “Because these are parishioners with stories in my life and to be able to see their faces gave me a tangible connection that was part of my communion with them.”  

Filling the church with family photos of parishioners was the brainchild of Jarja Carville, who is involved in several ministries at St. Jean Vianney. She was inspired by something similar she had seen on social media and thought, “This is so cool. We need to do this.”  

With the blessing of Father Ranzino, Carville discussed the idea with several individuals, including a staff member in the parish office, and after a few logistics were ironed out, word began to spread.  

“I thought this would be a way we can stay connected with people and they could participate,” Father Ranzino said. “In other words, it was something they could do, and I wanted every avenue possible to allow people to participate in the church.  

“Relationships are key, and I want to make sure we connect with (parishioners) that way.”  

In little time, photos began filling the pews, to the point where Carville has had to utilize a second seating section for the burgeoning display.   

“People love feeling like they are supporting Father Tom,” Carville said. “They want him to know that he is a part of their lives. 

“They love being a part of this and knowing that he can see their faces and can pray for them by name. It’s an encouragement to him.”  

There is even a photo of Father Ranzino sitting in the presider’s chair and Deacon Dan Borné sitting in his chair on the altar.  

“A big church only becomes a church when people are in it,” he said. “And our big church building (with a seating capacity of 1,200) is a big building until the folks gather and their bodies and spirits make it alive.  

“And so having the photographs are more than the photographs, it’s a living memory and it’s part of their spirit enhancing my spirit to be able to celebrate the liturgy.”  

Carville said she believes the photographs help parishioners stay connected during a time when they are unable to attend church or even receive the Eucharist. She said participation in the parish’s online Mass is growing, especially on Sunday, some families have visited the church when it is open during the day to view their pictures. 

“Once you clear out the busyness of your life, what do you have?” Carville asked. “This is so important. I think a lot of people that typically would not be spending much time in prayer now are.”  

She cited as an example she and her husband, who typically do not attend daily Mass, are now taking the time to do so via livestream.  

“We are loving it and it’s becoming part of our routine,” she said.  

Father Ranzino said he believes there is a certain ministerial loneliness for all clergy members in these difficult times, saying pastoring thrives on personal contact, personal interaction and personal trust. He said this is a time when all priests are trying to learn how to pastor wisely, faithfully, following the stay-at-home order of Gov. John Bel Edwards and the bishop.  

He said the pictures are a reflection on “our ability to be available.”  

“I don’t consider the photographs just photographs but a living, loving gift of a person to the church and to me,” Father Ranzino said “Having the photographs means the church is fuller and these are really a presence of the ones who sent them. And so every morning when I see them I know that they are praying with me and I certainly feel a deeper connection with them.  

“I’m very consoled by that.”  

Carville said a motivating factor for her was her desire to do something, and not feel helpless, as everybody adjusts to a new type of normalcy in their lives. She said she needed a project, to reach out and do something. </span id=”23″>

And when she walks into her beloved St. Jean Vianney, seeing the photos “just fills my heart up, because I see all of their faces and I know that they’re there because they want to support Father Tom in a virtual presence. And I know for him looking at that it’s a real sweet thing.”  

“A lot of people are saying it’s even fueling their faith,” she added. “It just makes me happy.”  

Parishioners wishing to place their family portraits should contact the parish office.