Surf-loving priests lead interfaith worshipers in a ‘blessing of the waves’

Catholics, Jews and Muslims gather at the Huntington Beach Pier to offer brief prayers. After a bowl of holy water is poured into the ocean, some grab their boards and hit the waves.

Even before the sun rose high enough to light the water Sunday morning, surfer Digger Green had paddled far into the Huntington Beach waves, taking a beating under the rough water.

“This is my life,” said the 52-year-old native of Queensland, Australia. “It is my church.”

For about 400 interfaith worshipers, the shoreline became a makeshift church as Catholics, Jews and Muslims gathered for an unusual “blessing of the waves.”

Although their faith traditions differ, those in attendance were bound by a reverence for the ocean and the peaceful place of prayer they find on its shores — if not surfing its waves.

The service, sponsored by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, was directed by a pair of surf-loving priests. Fathers Christian Mondor and Matt Munoz chose the Sunday after the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi — the patron saint of ecology, as well as for animals — for the event as a reminder that the ocean and its ecosystem must be protected.

A snapshot-ready Southern California scene provided the backdrop for the service: The sun rose at 7 a.m. into a cloudless sky, and 6- to 10-foot waves crashed in quick succession against the pier, sending up high-splashing water.

Worshipers lined up on concrete steps just east of the Huntington Beach Pier, arriving in T-shirts or sweaters, shorts and flip-flops. A handful of surfers in wetsuits dotted the crowd. Every once in a while, a morning jogger ran past on the walkway between the crowd and the beach. A youthful rock band set up to play for the crowd.

Mondor, who wore the brown robes of his Franciscan order over a black wetsuit, planned to hit the water after the blessing.

The priest, of Sts. Simon and Jude Catholic Church in Huntington Beach, was 10 years old and growing up in Westwood when he took up body surfing. More than seven decades later — he is now 83 — he says he is still drawn to the sea.

“You’re out there on the water, between waves, and you feel the swell under you and you look up and see palm trees and mountains in the distance,” Mondor said. “You’re so close to nature. It’s so quiet out there.”

Munoz, 43, of St. Irenaeus Catholic Church in Cypress, made his way through the crowd. With his long auburn hair and long beige poncho, the priest said jokingly, “I’m not Jesus. I need a surfboard to walk on water.”

Rick Ischinger, a longtime surfer, blew on a conch shell, calling the gathering to order.

Then, one by one, the representatives of different faiths stood to give a brief prayer.

“Some people pray by the oceans, others by the mountains,” said Carol Weinfeld of Temple Beth David in Westminster. “Some people pray in forests and others by a calm cool lake.

“We hope,” she said, “that those voices will join together to thank God.”

Fawad Yacoob of the Islamic Society of Orange County recited a verse from the Koran. The crowd was quiet as he sang the prayer.

“In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful,” he said, “it is he who subjected the sea to you, that you may eat of its fresh fish, and take forth from it ornaments to wear.”

When the prayers were finished, the Catholic priests took long stems of rosemary, dipped them in a large wooden bowl filled with holy water and sprinkled the crowd.

Then, as the band played “Wipeout,” the group walked down to the water.

Linda Tiger of Westminster learned about the service from a poster at a nearby restaurant, where she had stopped after a morning walk a few days ago.

On weekends, Tiger said, she comes to Huntington Beach for long sunrise strolls. Her children and husband are still asleep, and “there’s only so much cleaning I can do; I can’t start cooking,” she said. So she walks.

On the beach she finds calm — and time to reflect, she said.

“Raise your hands over the water,” Munoz told the crowd when they reached the beach. They lifted their hands, and he said a prayer.

“May the gifts of creation not be something we feel entitled to ourselves as individuals,” he said. “Let them be something we protect and cherish for everyone.”

Irma Fortin of Costa Mesa took the bowl of holy water and poured it into the ocean.

Then, sizing up the decent waves, Munoz grabbed his board — which bears the image of the Virgin Mary — and bounded into the ocean.


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