“God wants his world back.” That’s the message of ACTS XXIX, a visionary new movement that was founded to help pastors and their teams transform their parish culture and reclaim the Church’s missionary identity.
Launched in 2019 in the Archdiocese of Detroit, ACTS XXIX intends to pick up where the apostles’ ministry left off at the conclusion of the final chapter of Acts. Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, in his 2017 pastoral letter “Unleash the Gospel,” laid out the need for missionary discipleship in the Archdiocese of Detroit. “The Book of Acts,” he wrote, “ends in Chapter 28 with Paul under house arrest in Rome, still boldly preaching the Gospel. Luke ends without finishing the story because the story of the Church’s mission continues in every age. We are living the 29th chapter of Acts!”
Two years later, ACTS XXIX, under the direction of its executive director, Father John Riccardo, plans to take that urgent mission across the country, visiting parishes and dioceses to help strengthen the Church. The five members of the ACTS XXIX team travel to dioceses and parishes, working with pastors and their teams to create a culture of change.
Father Riccardo was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and served as pastor at Our Lady of Good Counsel, a vibrant parish in Plymouth, Michigan. There he and his parish team witnessed to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to move a parish from maintenance to mission in a way that caught the attention of pastors and parishes across the country. Before that, he was pastor of St. Anastasia Catholic Church in Troy, Michigan. His popular radio show Christ Is the Answer can be heard on Ave Maria Radio and is syndicated on EWTN.
The Register talked recently with Father Riccardo about the mission and action plan of ACTS XXIX.
What are the origins of ACTS XXIX?
We feel very much called by God to this mission; and for me as a priest, the confirmation of that is that my archbishop gave me the approval for it. Archbishop Vigneron released me from parish responsibilities to take on this new action plan. So rather than just having a feeling that God was calling us to something, a successor to the apostles has confirmed that this movement is of God.
How would you explain your mission?
We’re passionate about working with pastors and parishes to bring about renewal. Two things make this an urgent goal: the state of the world and the sickness within the Church. Numerous studies have shown that our culture is riddled with despair and isolation and loneliness, perhaps as never before. Last spring, a study reported that for the first time since 1918 (when World War I and the Spanish flu claimed many lives), life expectancy in the United States has declined for three years in a row. The despair that characterizes the present age derives not from the Spanish flu; but today our society is facing the opioid crisis, massive suicide rates and cirrhosis of the liver, especially among young people — leading to despair and, ultimately, to death. The solution isn’t better health care or science or technology; the solution is hope. And hope comes from knowing God and his saving action in Jesus.
How has your team’s background prepared you for this mission?
All of us on the ACTS XXIX team have served either in parishes or dioceses, and we’ve been part of the larger renewal that God’s doing in the Church. Four of our staff have come from Our Lady of Good Counsel parish; one worked in evangelization in the Archdiocese of Detroit.
That said, as with other stories throughout Scripture and throughout Church history, our “credentials” are simply that God has called us. I’m thinking of the passage in Scripture (2 Corinthians 3) when Paul asks the question, “Who of us is qualified for this?” The answer, honestly, is “Nobody!” And yet God calls and then equips those he chooses.
Is it fair to say that your mission is part of God’s desire for the world?
Oh, yes! God loves this world. He created it out of his love; and even when it went off the rails, he remained faithful to us. Out of love, he sent his Son to do nothing less than re-create it. As we say on the ACTS XXIX website, he wants his world back!
Pretty much everyone in parish work right now is painfully aware that something is broken. Priests and lay leaders are often exhausted, discouraged and overworked, and spend much of the day playing a whack-a-mole game or putting out fires. These pressures contribute to staff tension, to dysfunction, and leave little time or energy to make the changes that can bring about great transformation — because fires in the parish are raging all around and never stop.
Those of us here at ACTS XXIX know this; we’ve been there. And we’ve been blessed to be a part of God bringing remarkable transformation. We would describe ourselves as a small group of itinerant missionaries who want to work with pastors and their teams, to respond to crises that we understand firsthand. We don’t claim to have the answer; but we have some answers. We’re convinced that the culture change that we saw [at Our Lady of Good Counsel parish in Plymouth, Michigan] can take place anywhere. Over the past five or six years, we’ve worked with 50 or 60 or 70 parishes around the country; and we’re convinced that the culture change that we saw take place in those parishes can happen anywhere.
What is the work of ACTS XXIX, and how do you accomplish it?
Our work is informed by three fundamental convictions that we have: 1. Nobody is not alive right now by chance; God has destined each and every one of us to live at this particular time and has a mission for us. 2. The world is crying right now. To be sure, the world has been crying since the Fall, but right now it is crying in a unique way, especially in our country. 3. The Church is instituted by Jesus to be the means by which the world’s cry is answered and people experience the love of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit that flow from the death and resurrection of Jesus. Unfortunately, the Church herself is crying right now, as evident by things like the sexual-abuse crisis, the loss of trust, and the exhaustion that many of those who serve in a parish often experience.
Given that the primary place that most people encounter the Church is parish life, a crucial question is: How do parishes get well? Our work is intended to help address this question.
From these fundamental convictions flow our three essential principles. Each of these principles requires extraordinary effort but reaps extraordinary transformation. The first essential principle we call “re-acquiring a biblical worldview.” This worldview, which comes from Scripture and Tradition, enables us to accurately see God and his relationship to the world he created, loves and has rescued in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s imperative to get this worldview correct. It’s imperative to understand that even now — regardless of how it appears in the Church, our world and our country — Jesus is truly Lord and that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him.
To prayerfully soak in this worldview is to experience profound healing on countless levels, brings great confidence in the power of the Gospel and is restorative for priests and the people they serve. Ultimately, to soak in this worldview is to be overwhelmed by our true identity and to experience the satisfaction that is the deepest desire of the human heart: to be loved.
It is from this worldview that the third essential principle flows (we know, we skipped a principle ... we’ll come back to that in a moment). This principle involves walking with you to discern what and how God, the Master Architect, is asking you to build. God already has a blueprint for every parish, and our work isn’t so much to create something on our own, but to prayerfully discern that blueprint. We find passages like Psalm 127 and the instructions to Moses in Exodus, to “build according to the pattern” God shows him, to be very appropriate here. This ensures that a parish won’t simply replicate what they have seen work at another parish, but will arrive at a plan that is unique to their own particular circumstances.
In order to prayerfully discern and construct God’s “blueprint” for your parish, a pastor and his staff must transition from being merely a staff to being a healthy team and ultimately a family. This is the second essential principle. To be sure, this requires an enormous investment of time, work and energy, but it’s worth it! We draw heavily on the excellent insight of Pat Lencioni and his work around organizational health. We are absolutely convinced that without this work, it’s not possible for a parish to be all that God intends it to be.
How do you discern where God is calling you?
We believe God has shown us that the blueprint for the way forward is to go to those places where the bishop invites us to work with his entire presbyterate and other parish leaders. This allows us to share with them our vision for parish renewal. From there, we identify a small number of parishes in that diocese to accompany. We anticipate that this work will result in pastors and teams eager to support their peers in the work of parish renewal within their diocese.
When you partner with a parish, what do you actually do?
At the heart of our work, our team goes on-site for several visits to work with the pastor and his team. Over the course of these visits, we unpack in greater detail, through retreat-like experiences, workshops and conversations with key players, the work of implementing the three phases at the heart of our mission.
In recent years, the Holy Spirit has raised up a number of organizations within the Church which focus on renewal. All of these apostolates play an important role in the Church; but ACTS XXIX is unique, in that we do not charge for our services. While we ask that parishes cover the cost of our transportation and lodging, there is no charge for our consultation.
Have you seen your efforts bear fruit in an actual parish?
Yes, we’ve been privileged to be part of God’s remarkable work in a parish within the Archdiocese of Detroit for the past 12 years, as well as mentoring and coaching almost 100 parishes around the country. Four of us served at Our Lady of Good Counsel, and one worked in evangelization within the Archdiocese of Detroit. We’ve incorporated many of the ideas of our board member Pat Lencioni, founder of The Amazing Parish.
What do you hope has happened after you have worked with a parish?
Our desire is that the pastor and his team are all operating from a biblical worldview and are experiencing a renewed, unshakable confidence in the Lordship of Jesus which flows from that worldview. Secondly, we hope that the staff has become a healthy team and a family and, related to that, we hope that the pastor doesn’t feel isolated or alone any longer. And third, we hope that the pastor and his team have seen the blueprint that God has for their parish. We would hope that the pastor and his team, fueled by a biblical worldview and the Architect’s plan, which they are beginning to build, are better equipped to raise up disciples of Jesus who truly understand that discipleship isn’t just about personal spiritual growth, but is about becoming an instrument in God’s hands.
What does ACTS XXIX want to say to the Church?
I’d say it this way: I’m convinced that you and I are alive not by chance right now, at this moment. For whatever reason, God has chosen that we should be alive now — in the middle of everything that’s going on. God has made you, the reader, right now; he has made you for this moment. I find tremendous encouragement and exhortation in the line attributed to St. Joan of Arc: “I’m not afraid. God is with me; I was born for this.” God chose you and me for this moment; and we want to say that to the Church. He’s got something he wants to do for the Church right now, at this time.
Someone once said, with regard to the faith of people in the pews, that it isn’t that they haven’t heard it; it’s that they don’t really believe it. So our goal at ACTS XXIX is not simply catechesis, but, rather, to open people to an understanding that there’s more to life than what appears. What happens at Mass is not something totally out of the ordinary; what happens at Mass is the most intense expression of what’s always happening. Everything is sacramental, because God is acting in all areas of life.
Who are the people at ACTS XXIX?
Well, I guess we’re a pastor and his leadership team who have experienced transformation. We’ve personally experienced having been rescued by God in his mercy. None of us are impressed in the least with ourselves; but we have the utmost confidence in God and in his power, and we understand that he’s able to work through really broken vessels for his glory.
My experience as a pastor is that many people who sit in the pews — even those who attend Mass every week — may not have heard the story of salvation in a compelling way. They haven’t encountered the power of the Gospel that Paul speaks about in his Letter to the Romans; they mistakenly think that the Gospel is just ordinary news. But it’s the only news that can rescue us from the despair and the loneliness that’s plaguing our world!
Your goal is to help parishes—but you’re not able to visit every parish in America. What help do you offer to parishes that aren’t partnering with you?
While we can’t work with a large number of parishes, we are convinced that God wants us to partner with certain pastors in strategic locations. For parishes that aren’t partnering with us, we’re creating a warehouse of online materials — podcasts, videos, written materials — that anyone can access for free. I’m currently moving to our website the recorded talks from Our Lady of Good Counsel parish and from Ave Maria Radio, organizing them topically so that people can easily find the talk that will be of most help to them. And we’re creating new material which will break open the three essential principles of our work in greater detail. So even if we can’t come to you, we can offer helpful resources for parish growth and evangelization.
Kathy Schiffer writes from Seneca, South Carolina.