Familyland is a spiritual oasis

Catholic relatives retreat to dwell on primary of God

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(This story was originally published Oct. 13, 1996)

BLOOMINGDALE, Ohio -- Middle-age men carrying cafeteria trays and young mothers with babies in their arms dropped to their knees in the hallways as the eucharistic procession proceeded out the door to the picnic area.

A priest, his alb fluttering in the fall breeze, held aloft the focus of their reverence -- the consecrated bread that was, in their eyes, the flesh of Christ himself.

It was enshrined in a golden monstrance adorned with figurines of the apostles. Two altar boys in black cassocks and white surplices carried candles, while another rang a cluster of hand bells, signaling everyone nearby that Christ was passing among them.

Welcome to Catholic Familyland, an 850-acre retreat center/resort on the grounds of the former seminary of the Diocese of Steubenville. In the summer, when campers splash in the swimming pool, ride the 200-foot water slide and travel wooded trails on horseback, everything stops at 3 p.m. Seated around the pool or beside their horses, they pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy for the salvation of all the world.

Ann Marie Lapkowicz, 42, of Harrisburg has taken three weeklong family vacations at Catholic Familyland with her husband and their five sons. Last weekend she came alone for the monthly First Saturday rosary and Mass.

After their first weeklong Holy Family Fest, the family began saying the rosary together each night and studying the Bible and the catechism weekly.

Although they had always tried to be good Catholics, their children didn't appreciate their efforts until they came to Familyland, she said.

"Prior to that, the children thought we were a little overzealous. We aren't. But the family is under attack, and my husband and I decided we had to begin somewhere," she said.

Now their children know hundreds of peers whose families take their Catholic faith just as seriously. The teen-agers have become pen pals. Last year, a whole group of them went together to see the pope.

"When you see all these other families, you realize you are not alone," she said.

God the focus of lives

Inside a newly renovated auditorium that was once the seminary gym, 250 people hear Jerry Coniker, 58, retell the story of Mary's appearance at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. The faithful believe that she came to warn the world that only through praying the rosary could the world avert a series of increasingly catastrophic wars.

At Fatima, Mary predicted both World War I and World War II, Coniker said. Reminding his listeners of the horrors that Hitler unleashed on the world, he said, "None of that would have happened if we had lived consecrated lives."

Coniker, with his wife, Gwen, is the founder of the Apostolate for Family Consecration, which owns and operates Catholic Familyland.

Thirty years ago, he was a time management consultant whose clients included IBM and AT&T, he said. But in the early 1960s, he became convinced that the moral foundations of America were under organized attack. Determined to fight the forces of evil, he became politically active in the precursors of today's religious right.

But in 1971, he encountered the teachings of St. Louis de Montfort, whose spirituality also would deeply influence Pope John Paul II. Coniker concluded that he "couldn't succeed politically without bringing people back to God," he said.

Soon afterward, he and Gwen consecrated themselves and their eight children - they would have four more - to Jesus through Mary. Then they sold their business and moved to Fatima. In 1975, they founded the Apostolate for Family Consecration in Kenosha, Wis. They began to experiment with Catholic television programming. They now produce two weekly shows for the EWTN cable network.

But their very first show was an interview with Mother Teresa, one of many Catholic luminaries with whom they have developed a working relationship. She asked him to develop a program to help parents consecrate their families so that God becomes the focus of their lives.

A cardinal in the car

In 1990 the Apostolate for Family Consecration bought the former seminary for $1 million, a debt Coniker says they finished paying this year. They have slowly restored the property, much of which had been unused for two decades.

Work on the buildings and grounds is an integral part of family weeks at Catholic Familyland.

The facility can now handle up to 1,500 visitors, although only about 400 can camp on the grounds. In the summers they often have to turn away hundreds of families. They are slowly adding more facilities, with a goal of accommodating 5,000. Architectural sketches include a series of dormitories and a hotel-style complex.

The center's programs are intended to combine inspiration with heavy duty instruction in Catholic theology. Visitors are urged to study the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the writings of Pope John Paul II. The Apostolate produces and sells many teaching tapes for that purpose.

As Coniker tells his audience after Mass, "Keep Cardinal Arinze in your car."

This is a reference to the many teaching tapes that Cardinal Francis Arinze has made for the Apostolate. Arinze, an important Vatican official who is said to have a real chance of becoming the next pope, spends part of each summer at Catholic Familyland.

These tapes are not for the faint of heart or lax of concentration. Some speakers address highly sophisticated theological topics in heavily accented English. However, some of the apostolate's materials are meant for children.

Good spirit and warmth

The centerpiece of all their books and tapes is the Apostolate's Family Catechism, a two-volume edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church with teaching aids to help parents explain it to their children.

"Parents have to pass the faith to their children, but it is hard to do that when you don't know the faith that well yourself. We try to give them a deep, rich experience and help them to become the primary educators of their children," said Sandy Redmond, 28, one of 21 young women and 18 young men who have dedicated their lives to the work of the apostolate as "consecrated singles." Known as The Catholic Corps, they are not technically a religious order, although they live and work at Familyland.

Two experts on religious education for the Diocese of Pittsburgh said the Apostolate's teaching materials were theologically sound.

The Rev. Ronald Lawler, director of family and adult catechesis for the diocese, was impressed with the Apostolate's Family Catechism.

"I think they have done a beautiful job. It has a nice style. There is a good spirit and warmth about the whole thing," he said.

The Apostolate's home-teaching materials help to fill a gap in Catholic education, because so little has been designed for family use, said the Rev. Kris Stubna, diocesan secretary for education.

"I would have to be very positive about their attempt to provide families with very solid materials that are based on the catechism," he said.

From bells that ring at the consecration to the omnipresent images of the sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary, to homilies that affirm church teaching against artificial contraception, it is clear that the Apostolate's is a deeply conservative expression of the Catholic faith.

Yet it is traditional without being traditionalist. The Apostolate is not trying to revive the Latin Mass, nor did any of its leaders criticize Catholics to their liturgical left.

Love letters to children

Much of the worship music is very contemporary, featuring keyboards, synthesizers and guitars. Nor does the Apostolate appear to have a problem with women in liturgical roles approved since Vatican II: the lector at last weekend's Mass was a 10-year-old girl who read the Bible magnificently.

"We are not archconservatives. We are trying to be mainline Catholics -- truly with the Holy Father, trying to institute the real reforms of Vatican II," said the Rev. Kevin Barrett, 42, who was ordained in Rome in 1992 to be the full-time chaplain of the Apostolate for Family Consecration.

Barrett is a reclaimed Catholic.

He was raised in the faith, but fallen away without truly understanding what he was turning his back on, he said. His work as a Chicago paramedic immersed him in so much evil and death that he began asking the questions that led him back to God and the church.

"As happy as I was to have saved people's mortal lives, I think it is much better to help them with their spiritual lives," he said.

Greg Musumano, 35, an admissions counselor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, comes to Catholic Familyland with his wife and four young children because it draws them closer together in the faith, he said.

"It's centered on orthodoxy and on the pope. . . . But it's also very future oriented, looking to the future of the church," he said.



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