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RENEW Publishes Co-Founder’s Memoir

In the afterglow of the Second Vatican Council, two Catholic priests dreamed of lay men and women transforming their parishes by sharing in pastoral responsibility.

How that idea took root in the Archdiocese of Newark and spread around the world under the title RENEW is described in Beyond My Wildest Dreams: From Local Ministry to Worldwide Mission,the memoir of Msgr. Thomas A. Kleissler.

Beyond My Wildest DreamsThe concept proposed by Father Kleissler and a colleague, Father Thomas Ivory, first took the form of an archdiocesan office, launched in 1976 under Father Kleissler’s leadership to create lay pastoral councils in 250 parishes.

When the thinking on these councils seemed to be stuck in old models of church, Father Kleissler and his collaborators pressed forward with what came to be known as the RENEW process in which adult Catholics would meet in small groups and, inspired by Scripture and prayer, share their faith and commit themselves to apply that faith to their everyday lives.

RENEW had a seismic impact, not only in terms of the tens of thousands of men and women who participated in small groups but in the social ministries that emerged as adult Catholics put the Gospel into practice in their homes, schools, workplaces, and communities.

The success of RENEW in Newark attracted attention, and Father Kleissler writes that he was “walking on clouds” after learning in 1979 that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee would launch RENEW in its parishes.

Inquiries came in from other dioceses, and RENEW spread around the United States and into Canada and Latin America and then to New Zealand, Australia, Asia, India, Europe, and Africa. Father Kleissler, who grew up in Newark during the Great Depression and as a young man dreamed of missionary work in China, found himself instead visiting every continent to introduce RENEW.

What began as a diocesan office grew in terms of staff, volunteer help, and ambition, and it evolved into a distinct organization now known as RENEW International. Since the success of its original process, RENEW has continued to develop new pastoral approaches and resources that address the needs of contemporary Catholics. RENEW, Father Kleissler writes, “reads and responds to the signs of the times in a world that is evolving rapidly and to a large extent is also abandoning the richness of Christianity,” and he discusses specific programs including Why Catholic? which leads readers through the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and ARISE Together in Christ, which helps participants move from faith to active commitment to charity and justice. RENEW International’s materials have been translated into 44 languages and have touched the lives of some 25 million people in 24 countries.

Now retired, Father Kleissler keeps up to date on the ministry that grew from the zeal of his early priesthood. “Looking back to the past can be good for the soul,’’ he writes, “but looking forward to the future with enthusiasm can be truly exciting.’’

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