During the past half-century renewal weekends have been one of the church’s most effective tools for deepening and enriching the faith of thousands of adults and teens. Cursillos, CHRP (Christ Renews His Parish), Kairos, TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) and similar programs have powerfully impacted individuals, families and entire communities. So also have more specialized efforts such as Pre-Cana and Marriage Encounter. However, the growing shortage of priests, coupled with a rise in clericalism, threatens to diminish these activities.
In the old days, traditional religious retreats were conducted by a spiritual director, most often a priest, who gave a series of talks to devout Catholics who were expected to maintain silence, examine their consciences, make a good confession, and compile a list of resolutions for future improvement. It was all done with a minimum of interaction with the other retreatants. By contrast, renewal weekends were presented by a team of lay men or women who, with a priest, deacon, nun or pastoral associate, worked together to present a series of “witness talks” based on Scriptural themes illuminated by their own personal experiences of God in the ups and downs of daily life. Following each talk was a table discussion in which participants shared their reflections and experiences. Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation offered opportunities to integrate all of this in a sacramental context.
The weekend was only one part of the total experience. The presenting team met weekly for two months beforehand to prepare and test their talks, recruit participants, and work out practical details. At the end of the weekend, the newcomers were invited to volunteer to form a new team to present the next weekend. The old team often continued to meet periodically to continue their own spiritual development. In some cases, these groups have continued for decades. As a result of these experiences, many participants have become much more actively involved in other parish or civic activities.
Renewal weekends have had an especially powerful effect on teens, especially high school Seniors, for whom it has provided an opportunity to sort out their lives and values as they prepare to enter college. Many young people, who had been turned off by institutional religion, have rediscovered new dimensions of faith and spirituality. In some cases, there has been a strong impact on their fellow students, especially in public schools, and on their families. Some participants have even initiated renewal weekends at their colleges and universities. And, not surprisingly, a number of marriages resulted from contacts made on these weekends.
However, this treasure of the Post-Vatican II Church is vulnerable today. One wag observed that the title “Christ renews his parish” could be recast as “Christ destroys his priest” because all of this requires so much time and energy from the clergy or lay ministers. Even though the laity does most of the work, they need the cooperation and encouragement of a supportive pastor. Today’s clergy shortage compels even the most dedicated and creative priest to ration his time and energy. Likewise with other staff members. Moreover, the new clericalism of many so-called J.P.II priests focuses more on the hierarchical prerogatives of the ordained, and less on the value of the life experience of the laity. “Pray, pay and obey” appears to be the job description of lay folk in the current dispensation.
So, is there any way to save this wonderful treasure? Or is it destined to become a footnote in the history of the Catholic Church in the 21st century? As the old comedian Jimmy Durante was wont to say, “That would be a revoltin’ development, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are!”