Parishes everywhere grapple with the twofold challenge of rekindling the fire of faith in the hearts of those already in the pews while also drawing in those who are disengaged or otherwise on the margins. Either goal is in itself a full-time undertaking. A major element of the New Evangelization called for by St. John Paul II is showing Catholics that they can have an intimate personal relationship with Jesus and teaching them that they are called to evangelize. Recent years have seen a proliferation of programs and strategies to equip parishes for this work, and one that is meeting with much success at St. Philip's in Falls Church is ChristLife... The program is going strong and bearing fruit at St. Philip's under the leadership of Fr. Denis Donahue and parishioner John Mitchell (a member of the diocesan speakers bureau), supported by a dedicated team of volunteers.
"I have been very happy with ChristLife," says Fr. Donahue. "It has provided a joyful and stimulating environment for both parishioners and non-parishioners to come to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and with each other in the context of the parish community."
ChristLife involves three seven-week series which build upon each other. The first seven weeks (Discovering Christ) focus on the big questions such as the meaning of life, Jesus, the importance of the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit, and more. The next seven weeks (Following Christ) deal with prayer, Scripture, the Sacraments, forgiveness, life in the Holy Spirit, and spiritual warfare. The final seven weeks (Sharing Christ) introduce the idea of discipleship and encourage participants to share their faith story with others.
Weekly gatherings consist of a meal and video presentation followed by discussion in small groups. "Through these group reflections," says Fr. Donahue, "which are guided by the teachings of the Church, I saw the participants come to a deeper appreciation for the wonder of the Incarnation, that in Jesus Christ we are called to a relationship of love with God the Father." Hospitality is a major element of ChristLife, and John Mitchell told me that many participants hunger for community in our age of isolation. John and his team have even provided live music at some meetings.
A significant part of each seven-week series is a day-long retreat, which Fr. Donahue found to be the "most impactful" part of the Discovering Christ portion of the series, "especially the point at which the participants were prayed over. That retreat and those prayers seemed to bring a lot of things together for all involved." During the Following Christ segment, the retreat focuses on spiritual warfare with talks on the world, the flesh, and the devil. "It struck me," said one participant, "that the devil will do anything to get to us. Previously, it was not common for me to think about the devil as someone who exists. The retreat helped me to prepare better for the battle."
Fr. Donahue and John shared with me the comments they have received from recent ChristLife participants at St. Philip's. Many emphasize the sessions on forgiveness, spiritual warfare, the Sacraments, and the Church as having moved them, and many speak of how much the series has made them aware of the power of prayer and the importance of a relationship with Christ. "ChristLife," said one, "is like someone knocking on your door and confronting you with the Church and the Holy Spirit." Another said that the program helped her think about "how important it is to forgive others in order to have a healthy relationship with Jesus." Still another noted the impact on his dedication to daily prayer: "I pray more now and read Scripture. It made me realize how important it is to make time to pray." Here is a sampling of other comments:
- "Following Christ increased my awareness of Jesus' presence in my daily life."
- "The session on forgiveness changed my life."
- "I understand better the power of the Sacraments, especially Confession. It has helped me to make a better Confession."
- "It has brought more meaning to my relationship with God through the power of prayer. Reading Scripture daily has further deepened my personal relationship with God, realizing even more that the Scriptures are truly God talking to me."
- "I pray more deeply, and more often. I read Scripture and am more vocal about my faith. I have a better sense of how to begin to forgive someone."
John Mitchell notes that "Some parishes using ChristLife have mixed men's and women's discussion tables, but we have had very good results with separate men's and women's tables," so much so that they have had several people thank them for arranging it that way:
- "Being able to discuss with a group of men and hear about their Catholic experience has helped me to think about my Catholic life and how I want it to be later in my life. Knowing that I will meet with them every week makes me want to achieve some of the goals I discussed with them the previous week."
- "It's a mini retreat each Tuesday evening. I have truly found the Holy Spirit working in our meetings."
And there were many more very much like these. ChristLife is clearly bearing much fruit at St. Philip's! Fr. Donahue says of the future of the program there: "I hope to use it to bring those on the fringes and margins--to borrow some terms from Pope Francis--into the Heart of Christ here at St. Philip Parish." Indeed, many parishes use ChristLife as an evangelization tool with great success, finding that it can really set people on fire to learn more about the faith and lead them to enter RCIA. ChristLife does not pretend to provide a comprehensive overview of the Catholic faith--that is not its purpose--but it can serve as excellent preparation for more systematic catechetical offerings in the parish and drive people to want to learn more once they have come to know a deeper relationship with the Lord.