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RENEW: Still a Faith "Catalyst" in Local Parishes

By Paula Doyle of The Tidings, the Catholic newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles

Like its name, the Scripture-based RENEW program celebrating its 30th anniversary this year continues to inspire renewal in the hearts and minds of parishioners across the globe.

Started as an archdiocesan project in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, in 1978, the spiritual renewal program centered around Scripture study and faith-sharing, today called RENEW International, has been used in a majority of U.S. dioceses and in 23 other countries.

Mirroring its leafy tree logo, RENEW has branched out over the years to include a number of programs:RENEW: Spiritual Renewal for the 21st Century, Campus Renew, ARISE Together in Christ, RENEW Worldwide and, most recently, RENEW Theology on Tap.

The slate of programs, with the exception of RENEW Theology on Tap for young adults, offers the same three-year, six-"semester" process of Scripture study, prayer, individual reflection and personal renewal. A typical 90-minute small group session opens with a prayer or a song, followed by some written reflections and discussion questions interspersed with scriptural content.

RENEW had an early presence in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where two parishes were among the first to offer the program during the '70s: St. Bernardine of Siena in Woodland Hills and Our Lady of Grace in Encino.

Deacon Jerry Cellner, archdiocesan director of diaconate formation, was St. Bernardine's RENEW parish group coordinator nearly 30 years ago when several hundred parishioners participated in the program.

"It brought the parish together," said Cellner. "The parish was relatively new and didn't have a spiritual [adult education] program. The people really absorbed it; it was a changing experience. [After the RENEW parish program ended] some parishioners continued on in small faith communities."
At Our Lady of Grace, which has offered RENEW continuously since it was first available, between 125 and 150 parishioners meet regularly in 10 different RENEW groups. Some groups meet at the parish while others meet at parishioners' homes.

"We've gone through every possible phase of RENEW," said Sister of Notre Dame Emilie Ann Palladino, director of adult religious formation and education at Our Lady of Grace. "We have never let the ministry lapse. Basically, it has created leadership and strength among the lay people."
She noted many participants in the RENEW program have assumed parish leadership. At least 60 percent of parish council members, she estimates, have been inRENEW or are currently active in the program.

"RENEW has always been a life-giving and life-producing ministry," said Sister Palladino. Among the many positive benefits of RENEW, she noted, has been members' involvement and donations to local and international charitable groups such as Heifer International and inner-city schools.

Old Mission Santa Ines in Solvang, which will hold RENEW sign-ups for season five this weekend, has offered the program since 2006 to English- and Spanish-speaking groups. "The sharing of spirituality has been amazing. RENEW has brought a new dimension to our parish. It's about getting to know your neighbor," said Sheila Benedict, parish administrator and Renew core member.
Santa Clara Church in Oxnard, which implemented Renew in 2006, has approximately 14 English-speaking groups and 19 Spanish-speaking groups. During a RENEW "season," both Spanish and English language groups are meeting either at the parish or in neighborhoods every day of the week.

Rose Castanon, RENEW lead coordinator at Santa Clara who helps facilitate a group of pre-teens ages 10-14, says participants tell her they like the faith sharing aspect of the program. "We've had a lot of beautiful stories about forgiveness," said Castanon.

Amy Sabol, who was RENEW coordinator at St. Lawrence Martyr in Redondo Beach from 2005-07, said having the program was a "catalyst to get small communities of faith" meeting regularly at the parish which, last year, had at least two morning groups and seven evening groups. "People came together to share their faith experience and, from that, people got involved in other ministries," said Sabol.

A similar experience occurred at St. John Fisher in Rancho Palos Verdes, which ran a five-season cycle of RENEW from 2004-06. Several participants from the initial 35 RENEW groups have regrouped into 18-20 active "Christian Life Communities" within the parish. Last December, each of the groups adopted a needy family and collected Christmas gifts and donations.

"One of the biggest benefits of RENEW was the fact that participants got to meet people in the parish on a much more intimate level and explore matters of faith in a less threatening environment. It was a good way to connect," said Katherine Coolidge, director of evangelization at St. John Fisher, who said she often refers returning Catholics to a parish Christian Life Community. "It was money we did use wisely because it gave us a kick start and a foundation we needed to establish a broader and more diverse Christian Life Communities' environment."
Catholic News Service contributed to this story