For Robert Coniker, the Catholic faith is “all in the family.”
The son of Jerry and Gwen Coniker, founders of the Apostolate for Family Consecration and Catholic Familyland, Coniker has worked in the apostolate all his life, helping families find holiness right at home.
Now Coniker, one of 13 children and the father of eight, has succeeded his father as president of the apostolate, which was founded in 1975. He has already made great strides in meeting the challenges Familyland faces, as more and more families take “spiritual vacations” at the Bloomingdale, Ohio, headquarters or make use of its programs in their homes.
But, as he points out in a recent interview with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen, the apostolate is not a “family business.”
A 1993 graduate of Franciscan University in Steubenville (20 minutes away from Familyland) and a former certified public accountant, Coniker spoke about his plans for Familyland and the Apostolate for Family Consecration.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
I basically grew up in this apostolate. I was born in 1970 and was 2 years old when my family moved to Fatima (Portugal) for two years, then moved to Kenosha, Wis., where I grew up. My parents founded the Apostolate for Family Consecration in 1975, then moved the entire apostolate to Bloomingdale in 1990. After I graduated from Franciscan, my dad asked me to come to work full time in the AFC. He needed an accountant. I thought this would be a good starting point before I moved on. Basically, I’ve been here ever since, and my whole life has been in this work.
Will you share a favorite memory or two about your parents from growing up?
One profound memory is when I was in eighth grade, and Dad asked me to go to Rome with him and my mom. He was making a pioneer trip to gather support from the Roman Curia. My duty was to lug a bunch of camera equipment to videotape them. I got to meet Pope John Paul II and go to his private Mass. To have Mass with the Pope and then have him greet us was a moment I appreciate now even more than then, realizing what a grace that was.
My dad made a series of trips. That’s how Cardinal [Francis] Arinze became one of his greatest friends and supporters of this apostolate. Cardinal Arinze has been coming here 23 years consecutively.
Another special memory is of my mom: how wonderful and loving she was as a mother and lovingly meeting needs of the family. I was 8 years old, and my parents were having a dinner party downstairs. They tucked me in bed. I had an earache that night, hurting badly, and I was crying softly but didn’t want to go downstairs and disturb my parents. Next thing I knew, my mom came up and treated me with such love and tenderness — it was her love and sixth sense of awareness of her children’s needs. I never forgot that moment, and I have held on to it ever since.
Your mother, Gwen, passed away in 2002, and a cause for her beatification was opened. Any updates on that?
First of all, it’s the work of the Holy Spirit, who will have to move it along. I understand it’s pretty close to the phase of completing all the interviews (at the diocesan level). Bishop (R. Daniel) Conlon of Steubenville was transferred to Joliet, Ill., and we’re still awaiting our new bishop. If God can use this (canonization cause), he will let it happen.
And what about your own family?
I’m married with eight children. I have a wonderful wife, Nisan, and am really blessed. We met at Franciscan when freshmen … and were married on Nov. 26, 1993, also her birthday. We have eight children — four boys and four girls. The oldest is 17, and the youngest is a year and a half.
The children work a little at Familyland in the summertime and participate quite a bit. They have friends from all over the country they reunite with and make new ones each year. These become lasting friendships based in faith.
Because of the unique status of the Apostolate for Family Consecration and Familyland, the torch wasn’t automatically handed to you as president. How did that come about?
The AFC and Familyland is not a family business. It’s a pontifical association, a movement within the Church. Its pontifical status and statutes govern how the apostolate is to run. There has to be an election for the president. It’s not someone for my dad to appoint. That was important to me.
In 2010, I resigned from the board and from my employment to allow for a free transition so anyone could be chosen. I actually prepared to do something else. I took an outdoor-educators leadership course with NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) and spent 30 days in the Sonora Desert. I was planning to start a Catholic version of Outward Bound with a friend of mine, taking people on expeditions in the wilderness as a retreat-type setting and getting priests or seminarians to do that with us. While I was in the desert, my dad retired.
The board asked if I would consider being a candidate for president. I went on an eight-day silent retreat and was able to discern to be a candidate. They had five people they were asking. I was elected on April 7, unanimously, by the international life members of the apostolate who, according to the statutes, elect the president.
What are your immediate goals for Catholic Familyland and the apostolate?
The short-term goal is to focus on Familyland and the Holy Family Fest events in particular this first year. The Family Fests are basically bursting at the seams, so we need to do something to accept as many as we can. This year we were able to take about 800 families, 4,200 people. We try to save enough space for 30% new families. There’s lots of pressure from returning families not to be left out.
Two years ago we had only four (weeklong) events. This past year we had five for the first time and were still bursting at the seams.
The first thing I did as president was put our heads together to see how we could synergize and run more Family Fests. We’re restricted with these events to the summertime. We determined we could do it in the future but still have a few obstacles to overcome.
You have a “problem” many wish they had — numbers exceptionally increasing at your Holy
Family Fests. The reason?
It’s definitely a work of the Holy Spirit. It’s a mixture of faith and fun, and there’s something about the experience, about this type of community — a vacation setting that gives you a sense of “this is what life is meant to be.”
The secret is the sacraments. Fest life is centered around the Eucharist, and the sacrament of confession is available every day. Everyone goes to confession. Everyone goes to daily Mass. A portion of the morning after Mass is dedicated toward formation. Everyone learns something of their faith.
We have a very special message. We promote the true devotion of St. Louis de Montfort. We help families live holy lives. This unique experience of the strong emphasis on sacraments and formation and the rest is fun happens to the entire family at one time.
This becomes a vacation that has meaning — a spiritual vacation. It bonds families and people. Friendship happens at all levels, with the kids, with parents, and even with visiting priests. They get a glimpse of “this is how my parish can be.” They’re hearing confessions under a shady tree, with families playing all around them all afternoon. All the testimonies from the priests that come say it’s not a vacation for them, but is spiritually refreshing.
What else is part of your main message for families to build a culture of life?
Sin is the cause of all unhappiness, and grace is the answer. It’s more powerful than sin. We emphasize what Our Lady asked at Fatima: the daily Rosary. The First Saturday devotions. We enroll everybody in the scapular. The message that Our Lord told to Sister Lucia is that the penance he wants is the faithful fulfillment of our religious and worldly duties, which is basically fulfilling what we’re supposed to do, and then everything becomes an act of prayer. The True Devotion tells us giving all these acts to Mary multiplies that, and she presents it more perfectly to her Son.
We try to have every family commit to four action points: the message of hope, enthrone the Sacred Heart as the King in their home [or Holy Family image with the Sacred Heart on the Infant Jesus (based on the apparition at Fatima)], the consecration, and a commitment for continuous formation in your faith and to prayer.
And your long-term goal?
After we bring Familyland to capacity, we’re going to take the essence of our Familyland faith-and-fun mixture to parishes for “mini” Holy Family Fests, not only in the United States, but with a global plan to carry on in all our mission centers.
Where are they located?
The U.S. center is the global center of the world. This center allows all the other centers to operate. We fund them with content and direction, not financially. Our missionaries are in the Philippines, Mexico, Belgium, Myanmar, Russia and Nigeria.
What is the backbone of your materials for teaching and learning the faith?
One person doesn’t have to be the expert; people have the expertise in the audios and visuals. The Familyland Catechism (endorsed by Church officials, including then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) is unique in that it cross-references to the Church’s Catechism and the Scriptures.
Another very unique thing is it’s filled in with media content, as more and more of our video library is being added to the cross-referencing. It’s going to be a tremendous resource, alive with all the different figures who talk on topics of the faith and Scripture.
We have over 2,000 programs with Cardinal Arinze alone. For example, he comments on all the Vatican II documents. That’s a wonderful resource if someone wants to learn more.
Then we have Familyland TV, with great family-friendly shows.
We’re becoming more and more effective: helping good families become holy families — little reflections of the Holy Family.
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.