Far-Reaching Retreat Has Diocesan Beginnings
God Calls … JoEllen Gregus
By Amanda Hudson, News Editor
September 7, 2023
JoEllen Gregus attended her first Light of the World (LOTW) retreat in 2002 at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Crystal Lake.
The parish’s pastor, Msgr. Daniel Hermes, had arrived in summer 2001. By the following spring, he invited St. Thomas parishioners to the parish’s first LOTW retreat, developed and begun some years before at his former parish, Holy Family in Rockford.
This occasional series 
features people in the 
Diocese of Rockford who were called by God to embrace a ministry or vocation —
and said “Yes.”
“All of the people that came (to lead it) were from Holy Family,” Gregus says, adding that both she and her husband, Mike, attended. Msgr. Hermes then asked her if she would run LOTW at the parish part-time.
“So, I started running it and going on (the retreats) at the same time,” Gregus says, adding, “Monsignor is quite convincing.”
Within a few years, after all her children were in school, Gregus finished a master’s in business administration (MBA) degree and started looking for a job. And along came Msgr. Hermes to ask if she’d be willing to be executive director of the Light of the World Evangelization Ministries (LOTWEM), working part-time on that and part-time for the parish.
“I was very called to it,” Gregus says. “There was definitely some praying on it … this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” Brian Truckenbrod and Gregus began working for LOTWEM in 2013. In 2018, she began full-time with the ministry, and her office space moved from the parish to her home. LOTWEM technical consultant Dan Wolff who began working full-time in 2018, has been part-time with LOTWEM since 2021.
Currently LOTW retreats are being held in about 100 parishes, Gregus says, adding that over the years it has been offered in around 400 parishes in the U.S. and four to five parishes in Canada. “I’d say we’ve been in well over half of the states,” she says, adding that about 26 parishes in the Rockford Diocese currently offer LOTW retreat weekends.
LOTW could even be found in parishes in Australia many years ago, she says, and it has been presented at the North American College in Rome “for our seminarians.”
“We’ve come back to about the same level we were at before the pandemic,” Gregus says, describing “little pockets” of LOTW parishes in various locations and “new retreats and new parishes.”
“Our biggest draw at this point is word of mouth,” she explains. “We’ve tried all kinds of social media, various marketing strategies, but it feels that word of mouth is what makes it go.” She highlights the driving force of pastors who find that it works and “is awesome for my parishioners.”
“I think they find it becomes kind of an evangelization engine,” Gregus says. “People go (on the weekend) and increase their level of discipleship, or they develop a relationship with Jesus.” 
A lot of retreatants, she says, come “back to the parish to do something for the parish. Pastors see that greater level of involvement … it is an awesome feeling if you’re the pastor, to watch that happen.”
“There have been challenges over the years,” Gregus says, naming the pandemic and also some resistance “’way before that” because of people not quite understanding what evangelization is. 
“They think it is education or catechesis,” she explains, “but it is really not. (Evangelization) is being touched by Jesus personally,” and even for people who have been Catholic for a long time, “that part is very hard” to grasp.
But, she adds, “when you see it happen, or when it happens to you, you get it.” And then the change comes as retreatants realize they “WANT to be a disciple.”
Mike Gregus continues to be one of the main volunteer evangelizers for LOTW who travel around the country. “When my husband comes home, he’s excited at watching people change,” she says.
“We have a ton of volunteers,” Gregus says, explaining that in more than 20 years a “kind of amazing” total of “hundreds and hundreds” of volunteers have been willing to drive or fly, sometimes long distances, to present the Friday-to-Monday LOTW retreat for the first time at a new parish. 
The usual three-step process of establishing LOTW in a parish includes:
-- Four volunteer evangelizers from LOTWEM present the first retreat. 
-- Two of them return for the second retreat to assist. 
-- One main evangelizer returns a third time to act as a consultant during the third retreat, which is totally presented by parishioners. There are an average of three retreats at a parish (generally held twice a year) before a parish takes over completely, although LOTW is always just a phone call away to help answer any questions.
-- “By the fourth retreat, (the parish) is up and running,” 
Gregus says.
The pandemic, of course, derailed that in-person process, but JoEllen and her coworker, Dan Wolff, researched to find an online option for the 120 parishes they were serving at the time. 
“None were kerygmatic,” JoEllen says. “We had to do it ourselves and put together ‘Awaken’ using about 10 priests from our diocese. They did an amazing job … it’s like LOTW online. We have a lot of parishes using it … it was a product for those times — a unique twist that has happened.”
After close to 20 years of service to the LOTW ministry, JoEllen is starting to plan to transition into retirement.
“It’s hard to have a burning passion for 20 years,” she says, looking back from her first contact with Light of the World. “But I’ve been able to get excited about going to work and make it happen in parishes, first at St. Thomas and then around the country.”
She has told the LOTW board that she will be retiring, and she says, “The big question is who will we get to carry this on? But it will be more than a year before they’ll need to hire someone.”
She is optimistic about the future of Light of the World Evangelization Ministries.
“The ministry made it through the pandemic,” Gregus says. “It will go on.”
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