Grants from Lilly Endowment to help spiritually renew parishes

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Three organizations in the Archdiocese of Chicago have received grants from the Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Congregations Initiative to support projects aimed at helping parishes engage in ongoing spiritual renewal.

The $1.25 million grants, announced April 4, went to St. Clement Parish, the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein and the archdiocese itself.

Betsy Bohlen, chief operating officer of the Archdiocese of Chicago, said all three grants support the transformation of parishes into vibrant and thriving communities of missionary disciples.

“This is a cultural change,” Bohlen said. “We can’t just open our doors and expect people to come.”

Religious practice in the United States and Western Europe has declined over the past several decades across all denominations, she said, and the majority of young adults no longer practice any faith, but they are spiritually hungry and seeking community and connection.

“It’s the beginning of a generational journey to meet spiritual explorers where they are, which is not in our churches, and bring them to the light of Christ,” Bohlen said.

The Lilly grant to the archdiocese itself is for what is called the “co-implementation model.” That model is a partnership between archdiocese and parishes in which archdiocesan employees, known as parish renewal leaders, work directly with selected parishes to help them engage in the process of spiritual renewal.

The archdiocese is already working with two parishes in this way, according to Tim Weiske, director of the Department of Parish Vitality and Mission, and expects to work with about a dozen parishes over the five-year implementation of the grant.

“Part of why we are using this model is to learn what it takes to bring renewal to a parish,” Weiske said. “There are parishes that are examples that have really embraced renewal across the globe. But we need to find out what works here. So the idea is, ‘Here’s what we’ve seen bears fruit, here’s what we’ve seen doesn’t bear fruit.’ How much momentum can we get built in two to three years with ongoing support, maybe with lighter support following?”

Parishes that have been in the program have the archdiocesan parish renewal leader on-site two days a week, working with the pastor and parish leaders to help reorient the parish toward evangelization and outreach instead of the maintenance-type activities that parishes traditionally provide,   Weiske said.

St. Clement Parish, which received a grant for its Young Adult Pathway program, will use the money too create a more intentional framework for its efforts to reach out to young adults in its Lincoln Park neighborhood. That framework includes opportunities for young adults to engage with the parish, and, once they become involved, to share their faith and take leadership roles.

Father Peter Wojcik, pastor of St. Clement, said the Young Adult Pathway aims to engage people in the parish community, help them learn about their faith and then develop them as leaders.

“Step one is, how do we offer attractive community life to young adults who are very much isolated and alone? How do we put them in communities that foster belonging?” Wojcik said.

Entry points such as Alpha and summer discussion programs put participants in small groups for discussion to foster that sense of community, he said.

The second step is faith formation, followed by developing leadership skills, which St. Clement leaders expect their parishioners will take with them as they move on.

“Most of our young adults leave St. Clement in a year or two or three,” Wojcik said. “They go somewhere else. When they go to the suburbs, they move to different cities, they help the church there. This is not about St. Clement itself. It is about St. Clement fostering the life of disciples.”

Nicole Zenner, chief of staff and strategy at St. Clement, said the pathway is important because many young adults are facing “decision fatigue.” “They want someone to tell them what the next step is,” she said.

In a way, Bohlen said, St. Clement is modeling the spiritual renewal that the archdiocese is asking all of its parishes to undertake, with a focus on young adults. That focus makes sense based on its community.

The University of St. Mary of the Lake, meanwhile, will use its grant to expand its offerings in the School of Parish Leadership and Evangelization, which was created last year to bring together institutes for diaconal studies, liturgical studies and Spanish- and English-language lay ecclesial ministry programs.

The grant will help pay for listening sessions with parishes to find out what they need, said Brian Schmisek, provost and vice president of development and marketing for the university.

Those sessions will help the university develop course offerings for parishioners who are preparing themselves for or are already in leadership roles in their communities, Schmisek said.

“So many people want to learn more about their faith, and they want a trusted partner where they can go and learn those things,” Schmisek said. “Archdiocesan parishioners can be assured that what we’re offering is in line with Catholic priorities and the priorities of the archbishop of Chicago.”


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