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New program trains Catholics to be effective evangelists

By LINDA OPPELT
06/19/2020 | Comments

COLORADO SPRINGS. Most people are familiar with the dramatic story of Saul on the road to Damascus. The notorious hunter of Christians is thrown to the ground by a flash of light and blinded for three days.

Less well-known is the story of Ananias — the disciple who was asked by God to lay hands on Saul, filling him with the Holy Spirit, restoring his sight and transforming him into the apostle we now know as St. Paul. Given Saul’s ruthless reputation, Ananias could have said “no” to God out of fear or lack of preparation. Instead, as told in Acts 9:10-19, Ananias chose to obey, setting Paul on his apostolic journey and greatly affecting the growth of the Church in the world.

A new set of tools has been developed by the Catherine of Siena Institute (CSI), located in Colorado Springs, to help ordinary, lay Catholics listen to the Holy Spirit and step out in faith to be Ananias to others to help the Church grow and flourish.

“Ananias Training” incorporates concepts of evangelization that Sherry Weddell, co-founder of CSI, presented in the book, “Forming Intentional Disciples” (OSV, 2012), using a structured process to build up disciples and knock down barriers that prevent people from reaching out to others and sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with them.

Specifically, the Ananias Training introduces ‘thresholds of conversion,” or spiritual stages through which people journey to discipleship, and teaches participants how to have threshold conversations with others. The components also include how to tell “The Great Story of Jesus” (the kerygma) and how to share one’s own story, tailored to any particular situation or encounter.

The training not only prepares participants to be Ananias for their family, friends and others, but it provides participants with their own Ananiases as it builds community among the group.

Katherine Coolidge, now Director for Parish and Diocesan Services at CSI, was a director of parish evangelization in Los Angeles, with a long history of working with Weddell and CSI.

Coolidge described hearing Weddell talk at a workshop about “the importance of Ananiases to accompany people in the midst of conversion.”

“It caught my imagination. And I could not let go of it.”

In the book, “Becoming Parishes of Intentional Disciples” (OSV, 2015), Coolidge shared her realization of the need for Ananiases within her parish.

Coolidge said that parish leaders involved in evangelization, “began to ask for training in how to help people move through the stages of conversion, how to talk about one’s own relationship with Jesus, and how (through his life, death and resurrection) Jesus saves us all,” (Page 96).

With the blessing of Weddell, Coolidge and Bobby Vidal, evangelization director at another Los Angeles parish, developed Ananias Training. Shortly after their pilot program was introduced in their parishes in 2012, Pope Francis wrote the apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium.”

Coolidge said the exhortation was a strong affirmation of their work to that point, and it provided them with the language of missionary discipleship and accompaniment.

As stated in paragraphs 169- 170, “The Church will have to initiate everyone . . . into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5). The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring . . . spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God, in whom we attain true freedom.”

Published in 2018, Ananias Training provides a practical answer to the pope’s call.

According to Coolidge, because Ananias Training “is designed for ordinary Catholics, many of whom have never been in formation, on a retreat, etc,” they recognized that “it was important to give people time to reflect on their own spiritual journeys.”

Each session has built-in prayer time including a Lectio Divina reflection. This is one of the reasons the series has often been transformative for many of those attending, according to Coolidge.

The training has been introduced into several dioceses, including Pueblo, Colo., Biloxi, Miss., and Little Rock, Ark.

Seth Wright, Director of Missionary Discipleship for the Diocese of Pueblo, said they have already introduced the training throughout the diocese.

In an email Wright shared “It is great for introducing the ideas of the thresholds of conversion and threshold conversations and for giving people basic skills in accompanying others as they respond to the call of Christ to become his disciples. The built-in spaces for personal prayer, reflection, and encounter with Jesus in the kerygma have also had profound effects in the personal discipleship of those who attend the sessions.”

The Diocese of Biloxi has introduced Ananias Training last year to diocesan and parish leaders as well as the superintendent of schools and school teachers.

The diocesan director of evangelization, Deacon Richard Smith, shared his excitement about the program in a phone conversation. He has already seen many fruit coming from those who experienced it. “When you implement Ananias training, it becomes a way of life, and causes a shift in the culture of the parish,” he said.

Although typically, with RCIA and marriage prep for example, sponsors disappear once the candidate has been baptized/ confirmed, or the couple marries, Smith contrasted that with what happens when you have Ananiases, “Imagine the benefits to our church when you have people walking with you in your [continuing] journey.”

In addition to having all the sessions laid out, one of the beauties of the whole program, according to Smith, is that it is highly customizable, depending on the audience and the setting. Having so many options to present it, “eliminates all the excuses.”

He has done it in both large and small groups, and recommends small groups.

“Eight to ten people is perfect,” Smith says, because “everyone gets an opportunity to participate,” whereas larger groups don’t have the same dynamic.

During discussion times in small groups, he has seen people building strong relationships.

Smith added that school teachers who have participated in Ananias training, “love it — it gives them a different lens to look at and understand their students.”

Coolidge said in many schools teachers are using Ananias training to open up conversations with their students’ parents as well. “Now they understand better where the parents are coming from,” and teachers report that “it gives us an opportunity to build trust and rouse curiosity about Jesus.”

Ashley Bonney went through Ananias Training with Smith last year. As a new Catholic who was confirmed just a few months earlier, she was open to the Holy Spirit, which is why the 32-year-old single mother of two decided to attend when she received an email invite, even though, she said “I wasn’t even aware of who Ananias was.”

Bonney sees the powerful potential of Ananias Training. “With Ananias, you are taught how to initiate a spiritual conversation with people from all different beliefs and backgrounds.”

In Bonney’s words, “the world could use Ananias now, more than ever! . . . While facing difficult times, people are starving for faith and hope. Ananias prepares us to be effective beyond the walls of the Church, equips us to meet someone where they are, and how to listen and give our full attention to others.”

In the Diocese of Little Rock, Ark., Kathleen Blessing, a lay catechist, experienced and has led the Ananias Training.

Blessing says one of the benefits of the training is “recognizing the twists and turns in our own journey, because it helps understand the journey of others. It is not a straight path to holiness and being an intentional disciple. Also, (it helps with) recognizing that our spiritual growth has been influenced by the Ananiases the Lord has sent to us. We are called to be a community of believers, helping each other on the journey to holiness.”

For Blessing, it is especially “The Great Story of Jesus” component that “stirs my heart to great excitement. We have done this retreat three times in the past year . . . during this one day retreat, the Holy Spirit has a powerful presence, healing happens, light bulbs go on, and hearts are stirred into action,” she added.

Christy Trantina, Director of Religious Education, St. Joseph Parish, Conway, Ark., shared that the Ananias Training was a surprise to her, because unlike so many other programs, “we felt perplexed because it was absolutely brand new thinking for many of us. The best part is that it did walk us through the process, rather than only tell us about the process.”

On a recent “Every Knee Shall Bow” Catholic Evangelization podcast, host Dave VanVickle highly recommended Ananias Training (April 1, 2020, https://everykneeshallbow.fireside.fm/68). “There’s no magic bullet but this is certainly a game changer for evangelization. I promise you, if you invest in it, it will change the culture of your parish. It is the only thing I’ve seen so far that effectively makes someone comfortable with evangelizing in almost any setting.”

Coolidge said that currently CSI is translating Ananias Training materials into Spanish, which they hope will be finished by the end of the year.

Contact Catherine of Siena Institute at https://siena.org/ananias, info@siena.org, or 719- 219-0056.


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