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Familyland: a cultural detox and spiritual warfare training center

Special Report Writer
Bloomingdale, Ohio

There aren't a lot of signs along the way, unlike the roads around some tourist attractions. To find this place, you must cross three bridges on a single-lane, unlighted road in the remote Allegheny foothills of Eastern Ohio.

This may not be Disney World, but once travelers discover the Vatican-yellow flags leading from the St. John Vianney Chapel and Retreat Center to the 850-acre Catholic Familyland campus, they know they've arrived at no ordinary vacation spot.

Despite its modest amenities and out-of-the-way location -- 50 miles from Pittsburgh and 125 from Cleveland -- many a Roman curia cardinal, numerous Vatican officials and a pride of American prelates have visited and paid return calls since Catholic Familyland opened here in 1989 on the grounds of the former seminary of the Steubenville, Ohio, diocese.

So, too, have hundreds of parents and their children, enrolling for three to five days in what Fr. Kevin Barrett, Catholic Familyland's chaplain, calls a "spiritual boot camp." It's designed, he told NCR, to teach families how to "take up arms against an enemy trying to destroy them." That enemy is Satan himself and his minions who, Barrett said, "work night and day to plot our ruin ... to destroy holiness, marriage and the purity and innocence of youth."

The war may be as old as scripture itself, but today the combatants are "the culture of death and the civilization of love and life," Barrett said, quoting Pope John Paul II, a principal inspiration for Catholic Familyland. The newly ordained, 43-year-old Barrett calls John Paul "the Moses of the 20th century, leading people from a spiritual desert into the Promised Land."

Today "the tools of warfare used by the fallen angels" are the media, especially rock music, television, magazines and newspapers, he said. Seventh- to 12th-graders listen to an average 10,500 hours of rock music yearly and watch more than 1,000 hours of television, much of it glorifying violence and illicit sex, Barrett said. He blames the media "for deforming the Christian consciences of families," and asks, "How can families cope against this insidiousness?"

Parents and children come here to get "detoxed" from such influences, said Jerry Coniker, a former business executive who cofounded Catholic Familyland in 1989 with wife Gwen and several of their 12 children. Both Barrett and Coniker describe Catholic Familyland as an evangelization and catechetical institute, but often refer to it as "a detox center for families."

God, nature and family

"People are apathetic about evangelization," Coniker told NCR. "They're doing it in a sloppy way. ... Here they can obtain the tools of evangelization. ... There are no Walkmans here, no TV, no radio, no liquor," he said, "just time to let God, nature and the family work together. When families leave here, they experience a real detoxification."

The Conikers and their family, which now includes 34 grandchildren, launched the Apostolate for Family Consecration in 1975 in Kenosha, Wis. They were acting on the encouragement of Mother Teresa, who believed that abortion would end only by families praying before the Blessed Sacrament and consecrating themselves to Christ through the Holy Family.

The apostolate is sponsoring eight Family Fest Conferences this year as well as two annual retreats for married couples. The weekends offer catechetical and evangelization programs for families, as well as priests, catechists and directors of religious education in what Coniker hopes will become a movement in the domestic church of the family to reform the church as a whole.

The process, as envisioned by the Conikers -- with Vatican approval -- is one of producing knowledge of God, unity with God and one another and reconciliation among families, neighbors and the world. The tools the Conikers and their staff use are the same as those they believe have been appropriated by the devil -- videos, CD/ROMs, compact disks, cassettes, books and magazines.

While visitors may be taking a break from the evening news or a favorite sitcom, they will not find a media-free environment at Catholic Familyland. In order to enter their workshops, seminars or even to attend the daily solemn high Mass, all must pass through a single-entrance display area as large as a basketball court.

Here the apostolate markets its wares alongside a 61-panel display of the Shroud of Turin, assembled and sponsored by the late Harry John's DeRance Foundation. The apostolate's output includes some 10,000 videotapes, hundreds of cassette tapes, books, compact disks, CD/ROMs, banners of the Sacred Heart, of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, of the Holy Family and of Mary and Joseph.

Encyclicals, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and The Apostolate's Family Catechism (in book, cassette and video format) are all marketed on video screens displaying Coniker, the pope, Mother Teresa and Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, who heads the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue and is the principal teacher of the apostolate's own video and cassette catechism. The three-medium approach is designed for living rooms, classrooms and the family car.

While registration and meals at Catholic Familyland are modest -- registration fees are waived for priests and nuns -- and lodging is discounted at several motels in the greater Steubenville and Pittsburgh areas, the apostolate's media products are pitched continually and strongly. The apostolate encourages families to make a 54-day rosary novena and promises, in Barrett's words, that "hell's going to be trembling from the power rising up in your home if you do."

The $900 program

The priest said he realizes that the $900 price tag on the "Save the Family Program" would require a sacrifice for most folks, but argues that if the transmission on your car goes, you fix it at once -- no matter the cost. "Here's your family being stolen from you. But you can take real action to consecrate yourselves in the truth and get the daily rosary started.

"What's $900 compared to the personal salvation of my family?" he asks fathers and mothers, urging them to become "the foot soldiers of the new evangelization" in their homes, parishes, communities, "becoming ever more loyal and consecrated to the Holy Father."

The Montufar family of Providence, R.I., considered buying the program, but wavered because husband Rolando had recently lost his job. Along with his wife Adela, daughters Eliza, 9, Alyssa and Melissa, both 8, the Guatemalan family spent 18 hours in their car trying to find Catholic Familyland and attend its first ever bilingual weekend for Hispanics. The event was held in mid-August.

The Montufars, traveling in tandem with another Hispanic family of four, got lost in Ohio. Later their car overheated and the family spent the night in it "praying, singing, asking God to show us the way," said Adela, who leads a Legion of Mary prayer group in Providence.

Rolando said he was moved by Coniker's evangelization talk in which he told Hispanics, "Don't change your ways. Don't become Americanized." Rolando said, "Hispanics have been changing to be like Americans for the past 15 years."

He said he believes that the Hispanic "sense of togetherness" is a gift to the American church and said he wanted, along with his wife and travel companions, "to work in the community, to try to instill values, to teach Guatemalans ways to handle themselves around town, to make them feel comfortable."

Other families came from Ponce, Puerto Rico, along with their parish priest and the bishop of Ponce, Juan Fremiot Torres Oliver, who sponsored Barrett's education for the priesthood in Madrid and Rome and arranged for his ordination by the pope.

Colombian couples drove from Georgia looking for answers to problems with an interfering mother-in-law, suspicions about marital infidelity and questions about homeschooling. Puerto Rican and Mexican Americans came from Pontiac, Mich., and provided the weekend's worship music.

Mexican guitarist Ernesto Munoz, who joined the Pontiac musicians, is part of a traveling Charismatic band of performers who evangelize as artists. He thought the apostolate's catechism (soon to be out in Spanish), and its 60 Spanish "Be Not Afraid Family Hours" videos, could aid his home state of Chihuahua. He said a typical priest serves 30 towns and comes once a month to minister to groups of 700 to 10,000 Catholics.

Church officials from Mexico City who attended the mid-August conference want the apostolate to begin a pilot catechesis program there, said Tana Friedrich, the apostolate's Spanish coordinator.

A native of Barcelona, Spain, Friedrich told NCR she came to the Apostolate after pouring out her grief before a statue of Our Lady of Montserrat in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in October 1989. She was in the Honduran capital to identify the remains of her husband, who died in a Honduran plane crash.

In Washington, D.C., where she and her two toddlers lived at the time of the crash, a friend directed her to one of the Peace of Heart Forums, facilitated by the apostolate. Some 400 such groups meet weekly in private homes to watch a video that has been produced in the St. Maximilian Kolbe Studio here.

The video acts as a guide to a spiritual book. Forums allow for discussion, faith-sharing and support, Friedrich said. Her own association with the group lead her to move here with her children five years ago.

Targeting Hispanics

It is not surprising that the apostolate wants to target Hispanics. At a conference earlier this summer, Catholic Hispanic leaders pointed to demographic reports that predict Hispanics will make up more than half of the Catholics in America by 2005. Catholic leaders are also concerned with consistent reports that Pentecostal churches are attracting great numbers of Hispanics, many of them among once-Catholic Latino churchgoers in North and South America.

Friedrich said the U.S. Catholic Conference provided her with a list of dioceses with sizable numbers of Hispanics. "We are trying to reach the lay leaders of the Hispanics, to know what is going on in the Hispanic world." She called the apostolate's work "planting the seed" and noted that devotion is prevalent among many Hispanic Catholics, "but formation is lacking, especially among the youth.

Friedrich believes that a spiritual resurgence is at hand among Hispanics, but not before "a real spiritual battle" ensues. She exhibited a trait evident in conversations here -- attaching specific spiritual meaning and direct divine intervention to events, from the everyday to those that grab world headlines.

When a committee finished translating the Spanish edition of The Apostolate's Family Catechism, Coniker told her, "expect a battle." In her estimation, she didn't have to wait long. Driving home from her office that day, Friedrich said, she had a car accident and arrived home to find that her toilet had flooded the bathroom.

Coniker, however, points to what he considers the greatest evidence that the devil is out to destroy the family. On May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul was shot -- the day he declared the formation of the Pontifical Council for the Family. "Only Our Lady's intervention kept the bullet from killing him," Coniker said.

Some other, more positive, coincidences followed. When the pope discovered that his attempted assassination had occurred on the anniversary of Mary's first apparition at Fatima, he ordered that the bullet that had pierced him be placed in Mary's crown at Fatima the following May 13.

That date in 1982 coincided with the visit to Fatima by Barrett -- now the Catholic Familyland chaplain but then a Chicago fireman -- and his mother. Long worried over her son's lapsed faith, Barrett's mother prayed for his return to the church. Barrett told NCR that the specter of people's suffering, which he saw at fires and during his work in a psychiatric hospital, made him question his own life.

"I used to sneak into church and meditate, or I'd hide in my firehouse bunk and say the rosary," said Barrett, a University of Notre Dame psychology graduate. The Fatima pilgrimage, enhanced by the pope's appearance, ignited Barrett's spiritual life.

A decade earlier the Conikers, with seven children, made what Coniker called "a two-year retreat" in Fatima. When their savings ran out, they moved to Wisconsin to work for the Knights of the Immaculata at its U.S. headquarters in nearby Libertyville, Ill. The Marian group was formed in 1917 and is headquartered in Rome.

Fatima remains a spiritual oasis for many at the apostolate. Coniker dreams of building an amphitheater where pilgrims to Bloomingdale can watch pilgrimages to Rome, Fatima and the Holy Land in a multiscreen setting.

He also longs to develop the apostolate's hillside property with a 600-room motel -- able to sleep 2,000 -- and with trailer, log cabin or tentlike facilities for 800 more guests. With such crowds and the possibility of hosting weeklong programs, Coniker envisions having a 1,500- to 1,800-seat auditorium ready in time for the next millennium.

Such development could cost $30 million, said Barrett, who spends a good part of his week fundraising. As a possible portent of things to come, he recalled that earlier this year someone called Mother Angelica's Eternal Word Network saying that a $55 million check in support of the nun's work would be on the way. The station interpreted it as a crank call, Barrett said, until two weeks later when the anonymous gift arrived.

Coniker would not say how much it costs to run his operation. "Only Cardinal [John] O'Connor [of New York] gets our financial statements," he said. Barrett put it another way: "We go forward as if we had money when all we really have is bills."

Belonging to the corps

Love and sacrificial service help keep the apostolate's staff costs low. Coniker is assisted by several of his children and by 39 members of the apostolate's Catholic Corps, plus a number of volunteers. Members of the corps live in separate women's and men's communities on campus and work a six-day week for a $25 weekly salary.

Members of the corps differ little in appearance from workers at an airlines counter or television studio, dressed in navy blue outfits and sporting walkie-talkies, cell phones and clipboards. Technicians operate sophisticated sound and light boards. Others engage in filming, editing, electronics, publicity, marketing and distribution.

All rise early and spend 6:30 to 9 a.m. in prayer, a practice that many who spoke with NCR said is the heart of their day. The stress of deadlines and providing for up to 1,000 people every two weeks this past summer can take its toll. When it does, corps members said, they go to Fr. Barrett.

"It's hard work," said Sandy Redmond, 29, who volunteered 10 years ago and has worked with the apostolate's women's community in the Philippines. "But we wanted to be saints. We wanted to be challenged. That's why we're here." Redmond, along with others in the corps, have committed themselves to celibacy.

The hard-driving staff is dreaming many dreams on the eve of the millennium. Barrett would like to get the apostolate's Holy Hours and other materials into prisons and onto ships, while Coniker envisions their spread nationally and globally via expanded radio and television links. Many who come to Catholic Familyland do so, he said, because they have seen its messages broadcast free over cable stations and on the Eternal Word Network.

Lawyer Mark Henry of Tucson, Ariz., lauded Coniker's media tools: "It's a turnkey system that makes it easy for people without an evangelization background to get going." The system includes made-for-TV promos and videos, posters, church bulletin and local newspaper announcements as well as instructions for how to use the videos, cassettes and books.

Henry gave up a law and accounting practice in Hawaii and a 30-year love affair with surfing last year and moved to Arizona, because he and his wife opposed the state's new domestic partnership law, which recognizes same-sex couples and allows for teaching about such unions "to enter the public school system as early as grade three," said Rina Henry. The Henrys have two young children.

"The tolerance level is so high in Hawaii that everything is okay," Mark Henry said. Rina Henry said the number of Catholics fell sharply in the 16 years she lived in Hawaii. "There's not a single church in the state with perpetual adoration," she said.

Henry offered an estate planning seminar at the conference, encouraged families to make gifts or loans to Catholic Familyland and held one-on-one sessions with likely donors.

Barrett, his backup man, warned Catholics that they often invest in organizations detrimental to the church. "If you invest in a bank, that bank may support Planned Parenthood, which is totally undermining God's work," he said.

How does the chaplain understand the church's preferential option for the poor in light of the apostolate's $30 million appeal? "We've put most of our eggs into the basket of the spiritually poor," he told NCR. "Our ministry is a spiritual work of mercy."

In the coming months Coniker hopes to meet one-on-one with several U.S. bishops. Ideally, he said, he would love to address the bishops' annual meeting. The apostolate's tools of evangelization are already at work in more than 100 of the nation's 195 dioceses.

Although grayed and grandfatherly, Coniker is only in his late 50s and intends to be around into the next millennium. "The pope has said that the 21st century will be a great period of evangelization with the media." He and his crew are ready.

Futher information about Catholic Familyland may be found at its World Wide Web address: www.familyland.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 3, 1997