sunriseMy adult religious education stopped decades ago when I left high school.

As one who reached adulthood in the 1970’s, I found that the only foundation I had for my faith was what I had remembered from the Baltimore Catechism and from the religion classes I had in Diocesan high school.

Once I was sent into the adult world, I was on my own.

As I meandered among numerous parishes during those early years as an adult, I admit that there never was a shortage of formal adult religious education programs available — but to me, they all looked pretty much the same.

From outward appearances, most adult faith formation consisted either of scripture study or other programs designed to facilitate ‘the encounter with Christ’ – all of varying degrees of formality.

And of course, there were the multi-day retreats that guaranteed me the opportunity to go to some unknown, often isolated setting to spend 2-3 days with guys I didn’t know, presumably to facilitate a process of spiritual discovery.

Not something that would show up on my Google calendar.

If I were to be honest with myself, I would have to surmise that I didn’t get involved in any adult religious education program for two reasons:

  • I didn’t think I could hold a candle (figuratively and literally) to people who knew more about scripture and Church teaching than I ever wanted to know. And…
  • I didn’t really think I needed it

Then, a few years ago, I found that I really needed it.

People involved in marketing often refer to ‘points of market entry’ – a stage in which the consumer becomes receptive to a service or product being offered. I think many who have drifted from the Church subconsciously look for that ‘market entry’ opportunity — particularly if life’s challenges have left them shopping for a sense of substance that has eluded them.

I was at such a make-or-break point with my faith a few years ago.

It was the height of the ‘Great Recession’ – the career promise of my 30’s and 40’s had faded badly, and my role as parent was taking a more passive stance as my daughter demonstrated the audacity to grow up. In short, I wasn’t really enamored with the prospect of watching my manly roles of provider and father be displaced with little more than the aging process.

On top of it all, I had, at a moment of unexplained weakness, volunteered to produce a (very amateur) promotional video for the Christ Renews His Parish program at our Church. When I explained to my wife that I was promoting a program that I hadn’t attended, she gave me one of those looks that only husbands can recognize — when the eyes of the woman we love say… …‘Idiot’.

Weeks later, I found myself in an isolated setting getting ready to spend 2 days with guys I didn’t know about as I got ready to do this spiritual discovery thing.

CRHP (pronounced ‘chirp’ — which is more acceptable than other more natural pronunciations), is a 2 day retreat conducted almost entirely by lay persons. It has its origins in the late 1960’s and has grown to the point where it has been conducted in over 1200 parishes. It has the endorsement of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (but I decided to attend anyway).

I had always been afraid that attending one of these events would require me to engage in dialog with someone who wouldn’t let a sentence pass without a chapter and verse reference from Deuteronomy. But to my relief, I found that the other attendees were from a range of different backgrounds and ‘places’ in their faith journey. Most of the others attending were your middle of the road guys ranging in age from 20’s through 70’s.

Most significantly for me, this program had nothing to do with a member of the clergy telling me how to be a successful husband, or a ‘professional’ Catholic lecturing me about the do’s and dont’s of a proper man of faith.

The centerpiece of the CRHP program consists of men (women have their own weekend) explaining how they were able to apply their faith to deal with their own life challenges. These personal anecdotes cover the complete range of experiences – from the ‘normal’ day-to-day issues of dealing with jobs, kids, and households, to more challenging problems and circumstances that impede the whole growth of the person.

These aren’t theological discussions, nor review of doctrine and dogma. These are stories from men who try to use their faith to guide what they say, do, and feel in real life.

Truth be told, not all experiences were marked with guaranteed victory – these were testimonies of struggle as well as triumph. But other stories of witness were full of humor, expressed joyfully by some who were able to use their faith to greet their days with smiles and laughter.

Laughing Catholics. Who would have thought it possible?

And while, at first, I looked forward to the stories from guys who had appearances, experiences, and challenges similar to my own, I found myself most enlightened as I listened to those whose backgrounds were different from mine.

I went into this thing thinking that I would learn something about myself by hearing from people who were just like me. But the real lesson came from guys who were younger and had greater dreams than I, men who were older and had seen more than I, and others whose portrait of life looked nothing like my selfie. At first you would think that such diversity would diminish the value of these exchanges – but something else was at work here.

I do remember enough about scripture to understand that one of the main tenets of our Catholic tradition is engagement – with anyone and everyone who is open to the message of the gospel. The dialog that took place during that weekend – among young and old, between the spiritually assured and the eager student, all balanced with a healthy dose of constructive listening and prayer – these dynamics provided me with with a real-world example of such Christian engagement.

This engagement allowed me to better appreciate the human response to the events of life that challenge us all – some more than others – but still challenge us to meet difficulty with hope, and to greet good fortune with gratitude and humility. I found myself thinking less about what I wanted to learn about God, and more time thinking about how and when God chooses to teach us, each with a personalized lesson plan.

This was real learning, from the experts, from guys like me.

Since then, I have attended a number of CRHP retreats as part of my parish’s outreach team and in various leadership roles.

While each CRHP is different in terms of the specifics of the background of the attendees and the style of the program’s directors, all are similar in the dynamics that take over. All those attending eventually exchange roles as teachers and students – the same person may at one time give witness to the irreplaceable value of our faith as the source of his moral compass, and later find himself reflecting on how the experiences of another can unlock new perspectives on God’s work.

CRHP is not for everyone. Those looking for intense Bible study can choose from any number of other programs for a better experience, while others looking for extensive periods of silent medication will find this program way too noisy.

But for any parish thinking about adding CRHP, I strongly urge close examination and serious consideration. Few other ministries build such a dynamic classroom where God’s interventions in different lives and settings are so freely exchanged among the well-to-do, the established, the struggling, and the growing.

For anyone thinking about attending CRHP as a possible opportunity to learn more about what faith really means and how it is used by men and women ‘from the real world’, or for any Catholic/Christian who hopes that God has some continuing ed program to help deal with questions that seem unanswerable –

Sign up. Class is in session.


CRHP National Website: http://www.chirpusa.org/
Volunteer CRHP Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_dC9nCk4Ys

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