By Karen Meeks     8/3/2016

After years of attending St. Kilian Church in Mission Viejo on Sundays, Celeste Littleton decided to step up her involvement with the church and attend her first Backyard Theology Summer Fellowship event earlier this month.

“You only get what you put in and I’m tired of going to Mass and not knowing anybody,” the Laguna Hills resident said. “You give the greeting, and you say, ‘Hi, I know I’ve seen you before but I don’t know you.’”

But as soon as she sat down to eat, Littleton immediately met three women who all shared her interest in the theology of her faith, including Vivi Morris and her mother, Mary Morris.

“Most of our socializing revolves around the Catholic Church,” said Vivi Morris, a Trabuco Canyon resident who has attended Backyard Theology events at St. Kilian for the last 18 years. “You always meet new people and everyone is always friendly.”

Fostering fellowship was what drove the creation of Backyard Theology, that every summer offers Catholics all over Orange County an evening of food and fellowship. St. Kilian and Santiago de Compostela Church in Lake Forest are among the parishes in Orange County that offer the faith enrichment program that features speakers who address topics ranging from mercy and social justice to historic discussions about religious art and the original use of Latin in Masses – all done in a laid-back, summer setting.

“You have different demographics that come to this kind of event, as opposed to Mass,” said Nancy Bonds, who has helped to organized St. Kilian’s Backyard Theology series since 1994. “Some of the speakers talk about their conversion stories, which strengthens people’s faith to hear those things. We try to have topics that could appeal to lots of people.”

For more than 20 years, St. Kilian has offered a Backyard Theology series of events on Tuesdays in July. The event draws an average of 200 guests who show up at the parish hall, bearing dishes or donations to contribute to the barbecue/potluck. Depending on the speaker, the event can draw as many as 300 people.

Volunteers such as Bonds run the events, setting long tables, organizing dishes and grilling mountains of burgers and hot dogs. For the children, there’s Kilian Kids Club, a program that features food, music, crafts and Bible stories.

“We do this so that the congregation can mingle,” says Mission Viejo resident Lupe Thornton, a longtime volunteer for St. Kilian’s Backyard Theology series. “We love getting speakers and we love what the congregation gets out of them.”

Although Saul Cruz has been a longtime parishioner at St. Kilian’s, it was the first time the Aliso Viejo resident attended Backyard Theology.

“In the past, I was raising my children and I was busy all the time,” Cruz said. “Now that my children are older, I have more time to get involved with the church, so I wanted to see what it’s all about.”

After the meal, everyone settles in to listen to the speaker of the evening, which in the past have included Fr. Robert Spitzer, president of the Magis Center of Reason and Faith, speaking about “Happiness, Suffering and the Love of God,” Fr. Rusty Shaughnessy, who discussed “Pope Francis and St. Francis: Using our Imaginations to Rebuild Our Church,” and Dr. Kathy Schinhofen, a pastoral counselor whose topic was “Do Unto Your Cat… A Light-hearted (but theologically sound) Reflection on the Golden Rule for Today.”

A popular speaker is Renee Bondi, who discussed battling through an accident that left her quadriplegic and, for a time, without her beautiful singing voice.

“She’s brought me to tears,” Bonds said of Bondi. “She’s amazingly inspiring. Those kinds of experiences are things anybody can relate to, whatever their age.”

To kick off the series this month, St. Kilian brought in Fr. Steve Sallot, the vicar general/moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Orange who spoke about his perspective about being part of the church of Orange and “the adventure about being part of it.”

Sallot started his speech with his excitement about the Juno space probe, which finally arrived at Jupiter after travelling for five years.

“I was always struck by the immensity of things and the immensity of the universe,” Sallot said. “I just opens for me an amazing wonderment of how big God really is. … Whoever created the universe had a big, big plan and it’s incredible.”

For Vivi Morris, one of the biggest advantages of practicing the Catholic faith in a setting such as Backyard Theology and outside of Mass is the ability to get to know people from different parishes in a more casual setting.

“If you go to a certain activity where only people from one parish all know each other, you’re the only outsider,” she said. “I think here, because they do a fantastic job, it draws people from all over Orange County, it’s a different experience. It’s a great model. It’s why I always keep coming back here.”