Catholic Familyland Fosters Fellowship With ‘Families Just Like You’
The Apostolate for Family Consecrationmakes strides in domestic-church catechesis.
Kids speed past on their bikes headed to the pool or maybe the new pickleball courts. Pavilions lined with picnic tables are filled with a patchwork of families and religious wearing habits. Suddenly, the loudspeaker blares: “Attention families, it is now time for the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit …”
Welcome to the Apostolate for Family Consecration (AFC) or Catholic Familyland (CFL).
The apostolate has long focused on one goal: sanctifying families. But, today, with a new president at the helm, changes are moving the organization forward to further reach its goal.
Randy Christensen, father of seven, was named president of the AFC in November 2019, after being involved in the organization since 1986.
Established in 1975 by Jerry and Gwen Coniker, the AFC offers “Holy Family Fests” every summer hosted on the sprawling campus in Bloomingdale, Ohio. Each fest lasts a week and gives families a safe, fun and sacred environment to pursue holiness together.
Fast-forward to right before COVID-19 hit, and Christensen, newly inaugurated, began preparations for the fateful 2020 summer.
During the Christmas season of 2019, before most had even heard of COVID-19, Christensen received the Consecration to St. Joseph: The Wonders of Our Spiritual Father, written by Marian Father Donald Calloway, and used it to form his staff.
Then COVID-19 hit.
“We had already set the summer staff; and as a staff we were pretty unified: Stay and work or take vans to visit the families.”
Christensen thanks divine Providence and the power of prayer to St. Joseph as the reasons the AFC was able to operate. Because most of the AFC activities are outdoors, the summer fests qualified as outdoor camps under Ohio’s pandemic restrictions. Licenses to operate in hand and precautionary measures such as assigned seating in place, the AFC cautiously entered the summer.
Only one family went home during the course of events with symptoms similar to COVID-19, and the turnout was overwhelming.
As Christensen recalled, “One family came three times because there was nothing else to do” with the COVID-imposed shutdowns.
Jim and Becky Fair had thought about coming to Catholic Familyland before 2020, but the pandemic pushed them to actually do so.
“We were looking for something normal to do,” Jim Fair recalled. “We knew nobody,” but the kids “made new friends instantly and had the best time in the world.”
The Fairs brought their four children ranging in age from 4 to 11 at the time.
Becky paused to think about the impact Catholic Familyland had that summer. “The first year was extra special, just because nothing was open, and that spoke volumes to us: that being a Christian is countercultural, and it gave us a lot of courage. … Christians are not called to live in fear, but with courage and confidence.”
Not only were 2020 fests well-attended, but the AFC broke attendance records in 2021 and 2022. According to Christensen, the apostolate served 4,172 people part of 772 families in 2021 and 4,781 people part of 820 families in 2022.
Capitalizing on the newfound expansion, the AFC republished its “Family Catechism” in 2021 and challenged families to read through each question during the year, 304 questions in 365 days.
“Our distributor had gotten to low inventory for the Family Catechism. … Consequently, we thought it would be a good idea to introduce [it] to families in attendance,” said Christensen.
The challenge included a free copy for any family who would commit, in hopes they would “pay it forward” after completing the questions.
According to Christensen, “families who took up the challenge found it to be an incredible experience.”
“All the ‘woke’ agenda is countered by the Catholic faith,” said Christensen. “Unless we review basics of faith, we lose it.”
In 2022, CFL added a sixth fest to its weekly camps for families, and a seventh fest has been added to the 2023 calendar.
Three new retreats have appeared on the 2022 schedule: a Catholic Advent retreat, a Catholic marriage retreat, and two “Laborers in the Vineyard” retreats.
The Advent retreat is designed to “prepare people for Christmas and the coming of the Lord,” explained Christensen.
The marriage retreat has been resurrected after many years off the schedule, and the “Laborers in the Vineyard” retreats focus on young adults.
“A few years ago we realized young people out of college had aged out of programs offered,” said Christensen, noting the unique challenges they face in discernment and living in society post-college.
Beginning in 2020, the AFC offered young adults a chance to meet, share and listen to talks in the evenings during Holy Family Fests. The program blossomed into hosting its first retreat in spring 2022.
Gala Garcia traveled all the way from California to attend that first event. She describes her experience as “my journey to really dig deeper.”
“I always wanted to go on a retreat to better myself. I got out of a relationship in April and was heartbroken. The first thing I did was look up a retreat,” said Garcia.
The first option that turned up via Google was the AFC “Laborers in the Vineyard” retreat — and she discovered it was only two weeks away. “This was it. I’m going to Ohio,” Garcia recalled thinking.
At the retreat, Garcia had a powerful experience encountering Christ through the “Surrender” novena and being received into the welcoming community of fellow young adults.
Her story is one reason the AFC expanded the program to include more retreats: one last month, with another following in the spring.
The AFC has a summer volunteer staff of high-school youth — the Service Corps — and 20-plus college-age and young adults serve as part of the Alumni Corps.
But “Laborers in the Vineyard” isn’t only about retreats. Adam Miller, a member of the summer 2022 Alumni Corps, told the Register about the program’s activities during the fests. “There wasn't so much of an agenda,” said Miller. “I just did my best to promote good conversation topics.”
With young adults, the topics came freely. Miller said that community, parishes, COVID-19 and prayer were frequent discussions around the evening campfire setting.
Twice, the group was even visited by a bishop. Both Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Coffey of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, spoke to the group.
“They weren’t only bishops — they were people, too. We would stop and ask questions. It was a talk, but it was conversational,” said Miller.
Stephen Baker, summer youth program administrator, gladly highlighted the group’s youngest participant: an infant of about three months. It may have been a late night for the baby, but his young-adult parents benefited from the community.
“In Genesis, it says, ‘It is not good for man to be alone,’” said Baker. “The Christian journey was made to be walked with people; to be encouraged by and encourage the other.”
But growth at Catholic Familyland doesn’t only mean events. Scott Anthony, manager of youth and young adult ministries, explains how the increase in numbers warranted additional staffing.
Speaking of the Alumni Corps specifically, Anthony noted, “I think we had over a hundred applicants last year that applied for summer 2022, and we took 46.”
Another 42 Service Corps joined the ranks for a total of 88 volunteers in 2022.
A part of the growing interest may be due to a college scholarship opportunity, explained Anthony.
Now, summer volunteers can receive money toward their college educations after they complete a summer of work. “This opened up the door for more candidates to say, ‘Hey, I could actually consider this now.’ … I think it helped us to really get … the cream of the crop,” said Anthony.
Ultimately, for Christensen, all of the recent changes reflect one important thing. “We really promote a message of hope. At CFL, everything revolves around the Fatima message, and Our Lady wins. The Holy Family has ultimate domain in a world that is very dark. … There is a feeling of not being alone: There are 100 other families just like you.”
Alex McKenna is a recent graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville.
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