Dennis Petrucelli had been away from the Church for quite a while—45 years to be exact— before he went back to Mass at St. Stanislaus parish in Pleasant Valley last month.
It wasn’t just one thing that kept him away. A big factor, though, was the life-threatening illnesses faced by both of his daughters, now adults, in early childhood. That left him angry, and pondering serious questions such as, “If God is so good, why did He let my daughters suffer like that. How could He?”
About a year ago, Dianne Davis came into the store where Petrucelli works and contributed to a charitable collection being taken up there. That simple act sparked a conversation between the two that led Ms. Davis to purchase a Bible for him. Before long, she invited him to attend the Discovering Christ program at her parish, St. Martin de Porres in Poughkeepsie, during Lent.
Petrucelli, who is 61, accepted the invitation. Figuring he would talk himself out of going, he made a deal with his wife, Donna, to attend together. To seal the agreement, Petrucelli, who is poor with driving directions, told his spouse he needed her help to find the way each week. The Petrucellis not only found the way to St. Martin de Porres, they also seem to have found a new direction for their life.
“It’s opened my eyes up,” Petrucelli told CNY before one of Discovering Christ’s Sunday evening sessions last month.
“I’m looking for help, guidance. I’m hoping this is it…I leave here feeling good and looking forward to the next week.”
Ms. Davis told CNY that Petrucelli has been to Mass each Sunday since and has begun participating in the sacraments and other church activities.
Petrucelli’s story is not unique. Ms. Davis, who is the New York regional director for ChristLife, a Catholic evangelization ministry established in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said “conversion” stories similar to his occur regularly.
ChristLife was introduced in the archdiocese at a July 2011 conference at Holy Trinity parish in Poughkeepsie sponsored by the Archdiocesan Catechetical Office. Some 120 people from more than 20 parishes participated. Sister Joan Curtin, C.N.D., director of the Catechetical Office, and Oscar Cruz, director of Adult Catechesis/Catechumenate, were very supportive in helping to get ChristLife started, Ms. Davis said. Lisa Timm, director of faith formation at Holy Trinity parish in Poughkeepsie, was another key person at that conference and in succeeding years.
Ms. Davis explained in an interview that more than 2,600 Catholics from 26 parishes in the archdiocese, almost exclusively in the northern counties, have participated in ChristLife, which she describes as more of a process than a program.
“This is really a process where people encounter Christ, and make a first-time encounter or renew their commitment,” she said.
“We are taking the Gospel message that has been preached for 2,000 years and bringing it to people with vigor and clarity,” she added.
To reach people who are distant from the Church, you must go back to the basics of the Catholic faith, a point also cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Ms. Davis said. “The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church; it must be preceded by evangelization, faith and conversion.” (CCC, 1072).
ChristLife consists of three separate but complementary components. Each has seven weekly sessions and a day’s retreat, designed to help Catholics to discover, follow and share Jesus Christ in the daily lives.
Discovering Christ sessions held at St. Martin de Porres this Lent included: What Is the Meaning of Life?; Why Does Jesus Matter?; What Does Jesus Want Us to Know?; Why Do I Need a Saviour?; Why Is the Resurrection Important for Us?; New Life in the Spirit: Being a Catholic Disciple; and Believing and Belonging: Why We Need the Church. The retreat day theme was The Holy Spirit and You.
Each weekly session includes dinner, a DVD or live teaching and small group discussion. More than 110 participants made the commitment to come to the parish’s Nativity Center, where tables were festively arranged with white tablecloths and candles for the Sunday evening sessions.
At one recent gathering, Father Christopher Argano, a parochial vicar at St. Columba’s parish in Hopewell Junction, spoke on the topic “Why Is the Resurrection Important for Us?”
He wove together a down-to-earth yet uplifting presentation, making ample and efficient use of Bible verses attractively displayed in a PowerPoint presentation easily seen from any seat in the room.
“Let God love you and let Him save you because He wants to,” Father Argano said. “Jesus went to the depths of human suffering to make it happen.”
In contrast to Good Friday, when Jesus’ crucifixion was seen as an “embarrassing defeat” by His closest followers, His Resurrection two days later was the ultimate victory. It propelled the disciples to accomplish great things in Jesus’ name, Father Argano said.
“If Jesus is real, and this is true, you have to share it,” he said. “The Resurrection of Jesus validates everything he claimed.”
Father Argano, speaking to CNY, said, “It breaks my heart that so many people have left the faith.” He was first exposed to ChristLife while serving at Sacred Heart parish in Monroe and quickly saw its effectiveness in transforming parishioners and, by extension, the parish as a whole. “They are living what they are learning with this program,” he said.
“That’s why I’m so on board with this program,” he said. “I think it’s tremendous.”
A team of some 50 people helped to bring each session to life, including small group facilitators, a hospitality crew and members of a contemporary Christian band named God’s Grace. Team members have themselves previously taken part in ChristLife sessions.
One such small group facilitator was Silvana Pace, a parishioner of St. Martin de Porres, who began her own journey with ChristLife three years ago. “This is one of the ways I serve the Lord,” she said. “You want everyone to experience it.”
A hair salon owner, Ms. Pace, 46, said she now frequently speaks about the ChristLife process to customers and friends. “She is one of our best evangelists,” Ms. Davis said.
Michelle Lepore, a newly married parishioner of St. Kateri Tekakwitha parish in LaGrangeville, described herself as a successful businesswoman who had done well in school and enjoyed a nice circle of friends. Still, she worried more than she would have liked and also felt a gnawing emptiness inside.
“Did you ever feel like something is missing? Every single day I felt like that,” she said.
That feeling began to lift at her first Discovering Christ meeting. Even days later, she couldn’t stop thinking about what happened there and knew that she would be going back. She began to pray a lot more, and she said she hoped her new husband would attend as well.
“I’m in God’s hands,” she said. “I’m OK.”