Victoria Simmons, a member of St. Birgitta Parish, scribbles notes during one of Fr. Joshua Clifton’s “Introduction to the Faith” talks at the Northwest Portland parish. (Sarah Wolf/Catholic Sentinel)
Victoria Simmons, a member of St. Birgitta Parish, scribbles notes during one of Fr. Joshua Clifton’s “Introduction to the Faith” talks at the Northwest Portland parish. (Sarah Wolf/Catholic Sentinel)
As the sun shines through the church windows, Father Joshua Clifton stands at the ambo at St. Birgitta Parish in Northwest Portland. Using a strong cadence, his voice carries through the room. Today marks the end of his four part series on the Catholic faith.

The priest offered his series twice a week, one evening and one morning, for four weeks. The other sessions covered the existence of God, the Scriptures and Jesus Christ. The final series was a morning session, catering to retirees. Still, a couple and their young daughter sat in the second row, intently listening to Father Clifton.

People do not exist just to witness the Eucharist, said the priest.

“The cross is the tree of life. Jesus Christ himself is the fruit and when we receive that fruit, we have eternal life,” preached Father Clifton on the importance of the Eucharist. “As Jesus said in John 6, ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will have no life within you.’”

“He’s a very wise man and I appreciate his opinions,” said Pat Swaja after the lecture concluded. Swaja is not a parishioner at St. Birgitta but visits the parish often. She’s not alone in her opinions of Father Clifton and his lecture.

“His way of explaining it is highly acceptable to most people,” said Evelyn Bennier, a 45-year parishioner at St. Birgitta. “You can tell he puts his whole heart into it. He’s just a teacher by God-given grace, I think.”

“A lot of Catholics just don’t really know their faith,” said Father Clifton, reflecting on his decision to start the lecture series. “I wanted to give people a backbone of the faith, so they could see what it is we truly believe.”

The priest presented the same lecture series last fall at his other parish assignment, at St. Mary in Vernonia. Before presenting the series, St. Mary advertised the talks in the local newspapers and handed out flyers and rosaries at the school next door. To get the word out for the St. Birgitta lectures series, the parish mailed invitations to every resident and business within the parish boundary, extending from Linnton on Highway 30 to Sauvie Island.

“A great number of Catholics have left the church,” pointed out Father Clifton. “I believe that if they really knew what they really believed, that they would see the truth of it and they would never imagine leaving the faith. They would never imagine missing Sunday Mass if they knew what it is that we really, truly teach.”

Thirty-nine people showed up at the first evening lecture. The final evening lecture saw 49 people in attendance.

“I was happy to see parishioners come. I was happy to see parishioners with spouses who don’t often come to Mass and I was happy to see people whom I’d never seen before,” said Father Clifton. “For that reason, it was an absolute success.”

The success of the series can’t be judged solely on the presence of new faces in the parish.

“In this day and age, with all the scandal going on, we need this,” said Victoria Simmons, a parishioner at St. Birgitta. Simmons stressed the importance of people being reminded of the importance of the sacraments and the Catholic faith. Simmons said she was poorly catechized as a child and has spent many years trying to learn the faith. She was eager to take advantage of Father Clifton’s talks, which she said put the complexities of the faith into an easy to understand format.

“If he did a whole other series, I’d be here. He’s a really good teacher,” said Simmons.