Thirty Oak Park Catholics braved the cold, wind and snow last Thursday evening to participate in a town hall discussion about designing a Center for Lifelong Learning and Faith to become active in the summer of 2023.

Marci Madary, director of Lifelong Formation at the newly combined parish of St. Catherine/St. Lucy and St. Giles, began the meeting with a poem by John O’Donohue:

In our out-of-the-way places of the heart,

Where your thoughts never think to wander,

This beginning has been quietly forming,

Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

Madary talked about how the concept of such a center has evolved:

“Two years ago, religious education leaders in the four then existing parishes in Oak Park started to discuss how to combine religious education programs across their parishes.”

When the archdiocese “married” St. Catherine/St. Lucy and St. Giles into one parish and Ascension and St. Edmund into another, the work of creating a Center began in earnest, and a committee composed of representatives from both new parishes created a tentative vision for how the center might be structured.

“A Catholic center for lifelong learning and faith formation for Oak Park and the surrounding communities is being created,” they said. “This is being done to call people, regardless of age, into a life of discipleship … to meet people where they are in their faith journey, and to share resources for the benefit of all.”

The committee invited lay members of both parishes to participate in two ways. One was Thursday evening’s townhall, which included small-group discussions in which participants were asked to share “their ideas, hopes, dreams and needs for what this center can be.”

The small-group facilitators asked the participants four questions:

  •  What is something faith-related that you would invite your neighbor to?
  •  Have you had a significant experience that made your faith come alive?
  •  After hearing the introduction [on the vision for a center] what do you feel?
  •  What do you see as the potential for this center?

Laura Kelley reported that in the group she facilitated some of the responses to the first question were an African Mass, Taize, Day of the Dead festival, contemplative prayer, plus “coffee and …”

Responses to the second question included centering prayer, “having people walk with me,” “this community which helps me get through,” and going to Mass.

On the new center’s potential, Kelley reported that one person said it could build bridges between members of the four constituent parishes while another said it could function as a liaison, and one said it could promote evangelization.

Bob Gorman, a registered member of St. Giles, seemed to be speaking for most of the attendees when he said he was “impressed by the depth of the living faith exhibited by the participants, awake and alive to a community about which they care deeply.” 

The townhall ended with another verse from O’Donohue’s poem:

Awaken your spirit to adventure;

Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;

Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,

For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

A second option for input from lay members takes the form of a survey that can be found at Included in the 12 questions were questions such as:

  •  What are you looking for in your spiritual community?
  •  If there is one thing the church could offer you, what would that be?
  •  If you don’t currently regularly participate in parish life, what are the reasons?

After participating in the townhall and having already completed the survey Gorman said both seemed part of “a genuine attempt to be a bottom-up, lay-inclusive process.”

When asked if this was something new in the Catholic Church, he said, “Yes and no.  Vatican Council II of the 1960s said that now is the age of the laity. A hundred years is a day in the life of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis and the synodal process will accelerate the process of laity involvement in the Church. There is resistance on the part of some who loathe giving up authority and control.

“I have been part of a number of experiments [at inclusion] since the ’60s. If a bishop does not like them, he will squelch. Some will support. Big question. No easy answer.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...