When he looks back on the years when he was a young parish priest in suburban New Jersey and then in wounded, smoldering Newark, Msgr. Thomas A. Kleissler remembers the lessons he learned in the living rooms and kitchens of his parishioners. It was, he said, the richest experience of my life as a priest. In those settings he saw firsthand the lives, the troubles and the triumphs of the servants of God. In those small settings, he saw life writ large.
His parish experience ended, sort of, in 1976, when then-Archbishop Peter Gerety brought Father Kleissler to the Newark chancery office and asked him to found the archdiocese’s Office of Pastoral Renewal. It was a time when those who could leave the old parishes of Newark did so, and a time when many were leaving both the city and the church itself.
The Holy Spirit, however, was not among those who surrendered to despair, or to frustration. From that appointment grew an idea- renewal - and from that grew an organization, Renew International. With a staff of 40 priests, nuns and lay people based in an old convent in Plainfield, N.J., Renew International this year is celebrating its 25th anniversary of working with parishes and dioceses around the world to renew the faith, living room by living room.
Monsignor Kleissler and the Rev. Thomas Ivory founded Renew as an outgrowth of Newark’s Office of Pastoral Renewal. In 1980 Renew expanded beyond the confines of northern New Jersey, as other dioceses heard of the organization’s work and asked to be included.
Monsignor Kleissler has been Renew’s guiding spirit ever since. He served as Renew’s director until 2001, when he hired Michael Brough to become the organization’s first lay director. (Monsignor Kleissler assumed the title of president of Renew.) Michael was out of town on the day I visited Renew’s headquarters. To give you a sense of just how far and wide this ministry takes its missionaries, he was in Fargo, N.D., that day.
Of course, by Renew’s standards Fargo is just around the corner. The organization has worked in dioceses in 25 countries, from Burundi to India to New Zealand.
If you have never heard of Renew, you should not feel too ashamed. Although it has been in touch with some 25 million people, Renew hasn’t exactly been trying to make headlines. Monsignor Kleissler is the first to acknowledge that it just isn’t in his makeup to draw attention to the work. For it is the work, not the accolades of the media, that drives the staff and leadership of Renew.
And what, exactly, is that work?
It is about sustaining the faith today, in a world that has changed drastically since the days of the old Catholic neighborhoods in the cities, Monsignor Kleissler said. When he was growing up in the Vailsburg section of Newark, nearly everybody was Catholic, and all but a couple of families went to church, and of course we worried about them. That world, however, no longer exists. As a result, he said, so many Catholics don’t know their faith, and so many parents don’t know what to tell their children.
Renew’s Why Catholic? program reaches out to bishops, asking them for permission to come into a diocese and make a presentation to pastors and lay leaders. Pastors can then decide for themselves if they want representatives from Renew to come into their parish to work with lay people in small groups. The pastor assigns a coordinator and other lay leaders to work with us, and then we fan out into the parish, Monsignor Kleissler said. We meet in living rooms and go over materials that are basic to the church: the Creed, the sacraments, prayer and spirituality. We hold training sessions for the core community of lay people, he said, noting that to date Renew has trained about a million lay people in the United States, with workshops in evangelization and faith formation. Renew follows up by organizing retreats and providing resources for further inquiries into church teaching and in Scripture.
Renew also has a campus ministry, and in New Jersey, at least, it is the force behind a wonderful idea called Theology on Tap, which gathers together clergy and young people in an informal and wonderfully nontraditional setting to talk about God and Catholicism.
Monsignor Kleissler recalled giving a presentation to bishops in the early years, telling them about Renew’s work with small, faith-sharing communities, work that often revitalized both laity and religious alike. At the end of his presentation, he heard a voice from the back of the room: If it can work in Newark, it can work anywhere.
So it has. Recently, the bishops of Burundi’s seven dioceses asked a Renew team to work with the laity of that strife-torn African nation. In a memorable turn of phrase, Bishop Joachim Ntahondereye, of the Diocese of Muyinga, told local church leaders and two Renew representatives, Some will say to you, If you want peace, prepare for war.’ But I say to you, If you want peace, prepare artisans of peace.’ And so Renew set out to instruct the faithful in the art and crafts of peace.
History is being written at the grass-roots level, said Monsignor Kleissler. So much attention is paid to what this leader or that leader says, and that’s understandable. But there are things happening at the grass-roots level that will profoundly affect the history of the church.
Renew is one of those things.