Awaken Retreat Faces are Familar
12 diocesan priests answer the call to new online retreat program
By Amanda Hudson, News Editor
January 21, 2021
CRYSTAL LAKE—What do Msgr. Daniel Hermes and Fathers Jeremy Trowbridge, Keith Romke, Sean Grismer, Robert Blood, John McNamara, John Kladar, Kyle Manno, Ervin Pio Caliente, Ryan Browning, Jared Twenty, and Jonathan Bakkelund have in common?
These 12 Rockford diocesan priests present the talks that comprise the new, video-based parish evangelization system called “Awaken,” created by the Light of the World staff in response to pandemic restrictions.
The 12 were the first priests to come to mind as LOTW’s executive director, JoEllen Gregus, and Dan Wolff, director of ministry growth, worked to adapt the basics of LOTW into a much more flexible form that parishes could use even during the pandemic. 
And all 12 priests said yes as soon as they were asked, Gregus says happily. She adds that with all the questions that came up in the design process, “the Lord had answers for us every single time.” 
Retreat preaches Gospel
The Awaken retreat content is similar to LOTW in that both are kerygmatic, she says. Kerygma is a Greek word used in the New Testament for “proclamation,” and is a straightforward preaching of the Gospel of Christ, much in the manner of the early Church.
LOTW and Awaken operate with the same theme, format and steps, although the talks are not titled exactly the same, Gregus says. 
Instead of the in-person, Friday evening through Monday evening schedule of the LOTW program (held at parishes and participants go home at night), Awaken is being used by most parishes as a once a week virtual program done entirely from a parishioner’s home.
Two decades old
Light of the World is a Catholic nonprofit organization begun more than 20 years ago at Holy Family Parish in Rockford after the parish had hosted a number of Sine retreats, another Catholic kerygmatic, encounter-style retreat that originated in Mexico.
LOTW retreats were held at Holy Family Parish for a time, then moved with Msgr. Daniel Hermes when he became pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Crystal Lake in 2001. 
Parishioners from all over the country, including Holy Family have continued to assist the now-independent ministry, volunteering their time to present the retreat in parishes across the U.S. and then assist those parishes to continue the ministry under the leadership of their own parishioners.
COVID-19 cancellations
Then COVID-19 came along.
“March is the height of retreat season,” Gregus says, explaining that about 100 parishes across the country were scheduled to present LOTW retreats for Lent. All of that stopped with COVID.
By the end of May, Gregus and Wolff were coming to the realization that LOTW would not be able to start back up in the fall. They and their board of directors prayed a novena at Pentecost, asking God if the only way to bring someone to Christ was through a face-to-face program.
They also searched for remote learning programs to recommend to parishes that would accomplish the same kerygmatic goals, but found nothing similar to LOTW, Gregus says, adding, “So we decided to create our own.” 
Although LOTW is presented mostly by laity, “we wanted a priest so people could see it was Catholic,” she says. 
The idea of one presenter evolved into 12 talks by 12  priests. 
LOTW filmed each priest’s 15-20 minute talk in their respective parishes in June and July, she says, and Wolff spent most of August editing the talks and putting it all together.
Apart in autumn
“One of the things we thought was going to happen was that people would be able to get together at parishes in small groups” by fall, Gregus says. 
But after the September launch of Awaken, they were told by a parish in Vermont that the only option in that state (and most all the U.S. northeast) was to do it all remotely. 
And soon the Rockford Diocese also stopped small group gatherings in parishes as virus percentages and mitigations increased.
Remote options
Almost all of the parishes using Awaken so far have done one session a week on Zoom. Some have been all remote, and others have been able to do a hybrid of remote and small, in-person groups. Some have used it in RCIA as well as for regular parishioners. 
On Jan. 23 and 24, Holy Family in Rockford was the first to offer Awaken as a weekend program that ran 8 a.m.-4 p.m. both days. More than 70 people signed up, and most were able to attend the entire retreat. It ended with Mass at the church.
Gregus says there are some advantages to the new format, including its potential appeal to people who can’t give an entire weekend plus two evenings to a regular LOTW retreat. 
Hopes are that it also will appeal to millennials, to those who cannot drive at night, and to those people who are not deeply invested in their faith.
Their speakers, Gregus says, specifically geared their talks to people who have not been active Catholics their whole life. 
“They kind of explain things as they go,” she says, adding that they hope Awaken can be used by a wider demographic and that they plan to share how various parishes have used it.
“It really provides flexibility,” she says. LOTW plans to offer Awaken in conjunction with LOTW retreats once the pandemic subsides.
Founding LOTW pastor Msgr. Hermes, now retired, sees the value of Awaken.
“I think it’s a wonderful effort in matching the truth of our faith and the needs of the time right now,” he says.
He laughs when asked about his talk, saying, “It was fun. I was amazed. When I was giving the talk inside St. Patrick Parish in Dixon, it seemed like a talk I would give at Mass. When I saw what they did with it (by editing in additional visuals), it was like a whole different talk! It was really exciting to see it.”
Gregus herself is happy with the results, but quickly gives credit where it always belongs, saying simply, “The Holy Spirit just kind of anointed it.” 
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