When Sara Mack of Lexington, Ohio, was invited by her friend Melissa Heichel to a local parish event more than a year ago, she went halfheartedly.
However, Mack’s life hasn’t been the same since.
She and Heichel attended a Spark/Ignite night, a monthly parish gathering that starts with a potluck dinner, includes a testimonial faith witness and ends with Eucharistic adoration, complete with praise-and-worship music.
“I was blown away that night, as we processed into church,” said Mack, a convert to Catholicism. “I didn’t know Catholics did this. My experience [of Catholicism] was Sunday-morning hymns, and I had never been to adoration before. I knew I had a relationship with God, but I felt different when I left [the event].”
That is the way it should work, according to Greg and Stephanie Schlueter, founders of Mass Impact Ohio, a growing apostolate that works to form communities of missionary disciples for Christ.
Their Spark/Ignite ministry is one of a number of evangelization initiatives, such as Catholic radio and television efforts, that they have launched in the Diocese of Toledo.
Greg explained that the idea came about when he was involved with Youth 2000, a movement among young people that began after World Youth Day in 1989. In his message to young pilgrims gathered for the event, Pope St. John Paul II called upon young people to take up the task of bearing witness to the faith and bringing it into the third millennium.
Around that same time, Greg began working with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in the Bronx, N.Y. He helped with a Youth 2000 night there, which featured Eucharistic adoration.
“The friars had a gym full of inner-city kids, many of whom belonged to gangs,” he recalled.
“As the monstrance was being processed in, tears were coming down these kids’ faces. At one point, a rival gang leader stepped across the aisle to comfort an enemy. I realized that night that if these kids can be evangelized then anybody could.”
Movement vs. Moment
The first Spark/Ignite event was held in Toledo, Ohio, in May 2013.
“This is a movement and not a moment,” he explained. “This goes beyond the experience of a good weekend retreat or doing some spiritual reading. It’s liturgically-based. The liturgy is structured so that we can participate in a life retreat, and it sets us on a path to becoming a saint. Liturgy thematizes our ultimate drama, in which we discover our identity and become what we eat: the Eucharist.”
Schlueter noted that, with its connection to the Church’s liturgy, there is no timeline to this movement.
“Unlike other retreat-based ministries, where there is a follow-up event or a series which is completed, Ignite has no expiration date or limited cycle, because it follows the Church calendar.”
Mass Impact’s “big-picture” plan begins with a parish retreat. Families, along with their pastor, are invited to attend a five-hour “Great Adventure Family Retreat,” where they are commissioned to reach their whole parish community through Spark/Ignite. Those families who attended the retreat are encouraged to schedule a time each week to talk and pray about the upcoming Sunday Gospel as a family.
Ultimately, this leads to the parish hosting a Spark/Ignite night, held at the church or a nearby parish each month. Schlueter said after the meal and fellowship the “real event” occurs, as those in attendance process into the church and enter into an evening of praise and adoration.
Father Michael Dandurand, pastor at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Assumption, Ohio, said that this vision is a perfect path to parish renewal.
“Every parish priest, I imagine, wants to constantly be renewed and strengthened in his mission of going out and making disciples,” he said. “Greg gives us the plan. It is fresh, at the heart of the Church, and it’s Eucharistic.”
Father Dandurand explained that Mass Impact allows him to truly pastor.
“I didn’t become a parish priest to manage decline,” he said. “Rather, I became a parish priest to share the Good News.”
Father Dandurand is currently working on bringing the program to his parish of 850 families. That means meetings with Schlueter and his parish council.
“The beauty of this is that it is a non-confrontational way to evangelize,” he said. “With the fellowship and adoration, we bring them to Jesus and let him do the rest.”
Father Adam Hertzfeld, pastor of St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Toledo, agrees. In 2013, during Advent, his parish hosted a Spark/Ignite night each Monday night of the four weeks. The first Monday, he and his staff were overwhelmed with 200 people. By week four, the church was overflowing with 500 people.
“It is an easy way to invite someone to a great event with praise, worship and adoration,” he said.
The parish has continued with a monthly event as part of the parish’s commitment to ongoing evangelization.
“We have what I would describe as a beautiful blend of our core parishioners who are on fire for the Lord and those who are more distant from the Lord,” he noted. “For the core leaders, this has become a chance for them to think as evangelizers, showing them whom God has put on their hearts and whom to invite to one of these nights.”
Appropriate to the season of Lent, Mass Impact has launched a Lenten package entitled “Rediscovering Love.” According to Greg Schlueter, the package is a seven-week Lenten journey into the heart of God, which begins with the family: the domestic church: “We are inviting families to commit to 60 minutes a week for the seven weeks, using our guides to talk and pray about the Sunday readings.”
After attending her first event, Heichel, who is part of her parish’s strategic-planning committee, knew that this is what her parish needed.
“I was blown away,” she shared. “It was so profound, and we knew that we needed to bring this back to Resurrection.”
In May 2013, Resurrection Catholic Church in Lexington, Ohio, hosted the first Spark/Ignite night for its deanery of 11 parishes.
Heichel recalled, “We thought that we would get 150 people that night. Instead, we had over 400. It was incredible. People were lined up out the doors.”
Heichel and her small parish haven’t looked back.
Neither have the Schlueters. While the apostolate is concentrated in northwestern Ohio, they are planning to spread the movement to Columbus and have had requests to begin in Florida and Alabama.
“We want to get pastors and parishioners everywhere in the game,” Greg said. “We cannot give what we do not live.”
Eddie O’Neill writes from