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Saturday, April 15, 2006

This Catholic church is born again

Margaret Ramirez
Tribune religion reporter
Published April 15, 2006

Evangelical approach helps attendance soar

On Easter Sunday, two huge video screens will project praise hymns in this Catholic church as the rock 'n' roll choir leads the celebration of Jesus' resurrection. The priest will consecrate the Eucharist from a lowered altar that brings him closer to his people. Flowering dogwood branches will encircle the church's baptismal font, now an immersion pool in the center aisle surrounded by four gurgling fountains.

Holy Family Catholic Parish Community in Inverness is marking its own rebirth this weekend, opening a $1.4 million renovated sanctuary to its 12,000 parishioners that embraces many elements of the Protestant evangelical movement.

The changes might seem unusual to old-school Catholics. They have raised eyebrows among more orthodox leaders in the archdiocese. But the pastor and parishioners say they are carving the model for the future American Catholic Church.

In contrast to many other Catholic churches where attendance has dropped, Holy Family Parish is booming, even winning back Catholics who were attending Willow Creek, the nondenominational megachurch 3 miles away. Holy Family, with more than 3,700 families, is one of the largest congregations in the archdiocese.

The secret to the 22-year-old church's success has been replicating what growing churches are doing, but in a Catholic way. The result is an innovative congregation that bills itself as "an evangelical church in the Roman Catholic tradition."

"I think what happened to the Catholic Church is we became a little comfortable with ourselves and forgot some of what made us Catholic. We forgot what made us passionate," said Holy Family's pastor, Rev. Pat Brennan. "So I've just taken the best that I've seen of Catholic parishes and evangelical churches and put them together to make Holy Family. In doing that, I think we've rediscovered the heart of Catholicism."

Like several other parishioners, Mary Whiteside said she was on the verge of abandoning her Catholic faith when she found Holy Family. On her first visit, Whiteside said she was hooked by the music and the pastor's riveting homilies. Her husband, Phil, who was raised a Baptist, was so moved that he converted to Catholicism.

"Great things are happening in this church. We're just very alive," said Whiteside, who is on the parish leadership council. "We're sharing some elements of the evangelical church, but I don't think we're trading any part of our Catholic identity."

Holy Family was started two decades ago when Cardinal Joseph Bernardin became concerned about the large numbers of Catholics in the northern suburbs leaving their churches to become members of Willow Creek Community Church. In 1984, the former archbishop purchased 16 acres of farmland in Inverness and founded a new parish community, Holy Family.

"We were a different kind of Catholic Church from Day One, because of how we were founded," said Colin Collette, director of liturgical ministries.

Holy Family's first pastor, Rev. Medard Laz, was selected mainly for his financial expertise. In 1993 Brennan, former head of the archdiocesan office for evangelization, was named to succeed him. In his new role, Brennan saw several key ingredients that a parish had to focus on to serve the needs of today's Catholics: a family approach to evangelism, small faith communities, adult religious education, and use of multimedia.

At Holy Family, laypeople run the church, managing nearly 140 ministries and financial operations. During the week, small groups meet in parish homes. And though many Catholic churches have been slow to use the Internet, Holy Family has an impressive Web page with photos, video from services, choir music and streaming audio of Brennan's homilies.

"The way our kids are growing up with iPods," Brennan said, "you have to have these things if you want to keep them in church."

Many parishioners describe themselves as "cradle Catholics" who became bored with church. Maria Graft, who was raised Catholic, had been attending Willow Creek for two years, but eventually found herself missing the liturgy and sacraments of the Catholic Church.

"I remember the day I came back, I was overwhelmed," she said.

Even before the renovation, Holy Family stood apart from other Catholic churches and was designed to blend evangelical style with Catholic worship. From outside, the church is a stone and glass structure, striking in its simplicity.

Inside, there are no stained glass windows, no candles, no statues of saints. The dominant feature is an enormous 16-foot acrylic cross that hangs from the ceiling over the altar with Jesus gazing downward, his hand outstretched to people.

Now with the renovation of the church, which included addition of the video screens and baptismal pool as well as improved lighting and sound system, parishioners say Holy Family is entering a new phase.

"We're playing in the big leagues now," said Graft, who sings in the choir. "We had to do these renovations, not necessarily to compete with other churches, but just to stay relevant and up to date. It's a turning point."

But tensions have risen with the current archbishop, Cardinal Francis George, who supports a more orthodox view of the liturgy than his predecessor. Parishioners say the most recent example of that tension is the dispute over kneelers.

In the church's original design, Holy Family never had kneelers, partly to replicate evangelical churches but also to provide more room between pews. But when the church presented renovation plans to the archdiocese last year, parishioners learned the plans would not be approved unless the church installed kneelers.

"I'm disappointed," said Rosemary Geisler. "That was a decision that should have been left up to the people, and instead it was forced on us."

The minor dispute has led some parishioners to worry about the type of priest who will be selected as pastor of Holy Name after Brennan's term ends in two years. Dolores Siok, who has been at Holy Family for 17 years, worries about what will happen if the new priest wants to take the church back to Catholic orthodoxy.

"Everyone is concerned about the possibility that we get a staunch pastor who wants to take us backward. We're just praying we get someone who shares our vision," she said. "Or else we'll just be back where we started with people leaving the church."


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It is interesting that the greatest Miracle of all time has become so mundane that this local church has to make a spectacle of itself just to up attendance. ~ Q

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