On Saturday, Oct. 17, St. John Paul II Catholic Church in Nocatee will be transformed.
What started as a mission of Our Lady Star of the Sea 10 years ago will formally become a parish church, and the Rev. Richard Pagano will be installed as its first pastor. Bishop Felipe Estevez of the Diocese of St. Augustine will conduct the installation and officially name and bless the new parish.
“I’m humbled to be named a pastor, to be here in the name of St. John Paul II,” Pagano said.
The installation Mass will be streamed live at 4 p.m. on YouTube, Facebook and the church’s homepage, nocateecatholic.com. Also, a large LCD video wall behind the church will show the Mass for those wishing to view it while outside.
The church is planning a celebration from noon to 5 p.m. the following day with food trucks, games, entertainment, music and more.
This will mark a singular triumph for the congregation and their young pastor, whose expertise in communications has helped him shepherd his community through the challenges of a pandemic. It is a triumph, too, for the church itself, which has come a long way since its origins in 2010.
The Rev. Daniel Logan, retired pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church, celebrated the mission community’s first Mass on July 9, 2012. Because there was no church building yet, space was leased at St. Francis-In-The-Field Episcopal Church for the celebration of Masses.
That changed in June 2016 when St. John Paul II opened its doors at 127 Stone Mason Way across from the Artisan Lakes community.
The church had been launched as a mission because the initial congregation was too small to support a parish. But a lot has happened since then.
In 2012, there were 136 registered families. By 2016, the congregation had grown to 232 families. In the four years since, it has blossomed to more than 1,400 registered families.
“Our numbers are skyrocketing,” said Pagano.
He attributed some of the growth to Nocatee attracting people seeking a sense of community and to the effective work of The PARC Group marketing team. But a rising population alone doesn’t necessarily translate into a growing congregation.
Toward that end, Pagano credited the leadership of people associated with the church, whom he called “some of the nicest people I have ever worked with.”
“I think love attracts,” he said.
PATH TO PRIESTHOOD
Pagano, 38, is a native New Yorker whose family relocated to Palm Coast when he was about nine years old. Though he was a cradle Catholic, becoming a priest was not something he aspired to in his youth.
“There was no way that it was ever on my radar,” he said.
What was on his radar was basketball, which he played at a community college in New Jersey. But whatever future the game might have brought him wasn’t to be. He suffered torn ligaments in his left knee.
Not one to give in, he tried to play through it.
“Basketball was the love of my life, but it was destroying my body,” he said. “My coach was like, ‘If you want to take this seriously, you have to go get your knee fixed.”
He returned to Florida and underwent the necessary surgery, but then while still in rehab he pushed himself too hard and blew out his other knee. More surgery followed, and he lost the opportunity to return for the next season.
In fact, he didn’t even return to school.
It was a difficult time, and Pagano tried to make some sense of his misfortune and of the world in general. The culture offered nothing helpful, and he turned in the one direction that might produce answers: prayer, deeper prayer than ever before.
“I just prayed from my heart,” he recalled. “I just said, ‘Jesus, if you’re there, I need your help.’ And the next morning, there was a Bible on my kitchen counter. I don’t know how it got there.”
Still on crutches, he carried the Bible back to his room. He opened it and read from Ecclesiastes 1:2, “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!”
“And that’s how I felt with my life,” he said. “It spoke to me so deeply, so profoundly, that in my soul, I was just consumed with, like, love and optimism and hope.”
What followed was a journey of discovery as he delved into the history of religion and particularly Christianity.
“So, right around the time St. John Paul II was dying, I had a profound experience in prayer where I really felt invited by the Lord to consider priesthood as a way of life,” he said.
The experience so deeply moved him that he ended a relationship he had thought would one day lead to marriage and, inspired by the pope whose name would grace the parish Pagano would eventually lead, decided to become a priest.
MEETING THE CHALLENGE
Pagano came to St. John Paul II Catholic Church on May 1, 2019, and before he’d finished his first year he was faced with an enormous challenge: COVID-19.
The diocese suspended Masses and parish gatherings for a time. Even when Masses were once again permitted, it was with a number of precautions. Participation fell off at churches across the diocese and the nation.
In addition to the pastoral impact, this also hit the Church financially. According to Pagano, the universal Church as a whole took a 70% hit in tithing and offertory giving, which in turn impacted parishes’ ability to pay bills and take care of employees.
“It was really hard – very, very hard,” recalled Pagano.
But St. John Paul II was poised to respond to this new challenge in a way some other churches might not have been; its pastor had a strong background in communications and had acquired skills that would help keep the community unified, the spiritually hungry well fed.
“We pivoted immediately and shifted to online ministry, and did our very best to boost morale, boost spirits, proclaim the Gospel as often as we possibly could,” Pagano said. “Every weekend, we streamed a Mass. We were pre-recording a lot of material to share with our parishioners.”
Daily readings, notes from the pastor, church news, prayer videos and more were offered on the church’s website and through social media.
These efforts had an unexpected benefit. People outside the Nocatee community – way outside – were drawn to the online content St. John Paul II was making available. It drew followers from the U.K., Ireland, Tanzania and the Philippines. Financial support came in from all over the United States.
“That was a tremendous grace of God,” Pagano said.
This success would no doubt have pleased the parish’s namesake, who in 2002 penned “Internet: A New Forum for Proclaiming the Gospel.”
Pagano’s efforts at digital evangelization has its roots in work he did with students while serving as chaplain at St. Joseph Academy in St. Augustine. The bishop noticed that he was gifted in video production and arranged for him to study communications at John Paul the Great Catholic University near San Diego, California.
He completed a two-year program and earned an MBA in executive production.
Eventually, he teamed up with longtime friend Ryan DellaCrosse and Ryan Scheel, who with DellaCrosse co-owned a software and marketing company, and the trio launched “The Catholic Talk Show,” which has its own YouTube channel.
The men discuss various topics about the Church or from a Catholic perspective. A few examples: “The Shared Roots of Judaism & Catholicism,” “12 Movies That Every Catholic Should Watch” and “What Happens When You Die?”
The channel has almost 46,000 subscribers. Though it draws a few trolls, most people are appreciative of the effort, Pagano said.
“We’re seeing so many people say, ‘Wow, I never knew that about Catholicism. I never knew that about the Church. I never knew that part of history,’” he said.
And while the show focuses on virtuous men and women and highlights of Church history, it doesn’t shy away from examining some of the Church’s dirty laundry. One episode is titled “7 Worst Popes Ever!”
“The Catholic Talk Show” owes something to the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s groundbreaking 1950s television program “Life Is Worth Living.” That show, which drew as many as 10 million viewers weekly, established Sheen as the world’s first televangelist and set the standard for religious programming going forward.
In fact, Pagano keeps a photo of the archbishop on one wall of his office.
“I ask for his prayers, because what he was able to accomplish and what God inspired in him, I definitely want to be open to that in the effort and really use his structure, his examples, his delivery,” said Pagano. “I really admire him a lot.”
For more information on St. John Paul II Catholic Church or “The Catholic Talk Show,” go to nocateecatholic.com.