By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
About 15 years ago, Derick Cranston and Bill Roush met at a Christian Experience Weekend (CEW) in the Iowa City Deanery. It was Cranston’s first time; Roush had attended CEWs before. Upon hearing Roush’s faith story, which included the death of his wife and raising two daughters on his own, “I immediately had a lot of respect for him and noticed his deep spirituality,” Cranston, now a deacon, said.
A lot has changed since that weekend. Both men discerned a vocation, Deacon Cranston to the diaconate and Father Roush to the priesthood. Both serve St. Mary Parish in Riverside. Their friendship and faith has endured. “It’s amazing the bonds you form in such a short time,” Deacon Cranston said. “CEW taught me that the Holy Spirit is very much alive in the Catholic faith.”
What is a CEW?
Many parishes in the Diocese of Davenport host CEWs each year, often in January, February or March when schedules are less busy, parish CEW leaders said. CEW is a lay movement using a formal process that provides spiritual enrichment and promotes Christian community in relationship with God, self and others, according to leadership materials. The emphasis is on sharing how the Holy Spirit has worked in the lives of the leaders and the attendees. Confession and Mass are part of the weekend. “It is intended for any person who wants to grow in their relationship with Christ and others,” said Martha Conway, a lay CEW leader at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Bettendorf.
While the CEW program is rooted in Catholicism, the weekend experience is ecumenical. At St. Ann Parish in Long Grove, about half of all attendees are non-Catholic, according to lay leader Jeni Rochholz. This often leads to rich discussions and mutual respect. People often have preconceived notions of what the Catholic Church is and what Catholics are like, “but CEW opens peoples’ eyes,” she said. Chris Olds, a lay CEW leader at Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport, recalls a Baptist who “was a bit nervous about coming” but came away from the weekend seeing more similarities than differences between Catholicism and the Baptist faith. “That speaks volumes,” Olds said.
Generally, women and men participate in separate CEW weekends. Some parishes have tried co-ed CEWs; however, leaders say people generally feel more comfortable with the separate weekends, especially men. “Guys tend to be more open around other guys,” said Mark Herrington, a lay CEW leader at the Long Grove parish.
Finding faith and fellowship
Conway said she believes CEWs are effective in helping people grow in their Christian faith “because the message heard again and again is that God loves you no matter where you are in life, and desires a relationship with you.” Hearing that from “ordinary people” who have experienced that love can have a profound impact.
Olds said he was “angry at God” when he first signed up for a CEW weekend. “My wife had been struggling with breast cancer. We had two small children. I didn’t like being angry at God.” Whenever the CEW groups would attend Mass, he noticed the joy in their eyes. “I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted what they had.” When he attended CEW for the first time, “it allowed me to take a deeper look inside myself and realize that there were people out there who had been through similar circumstances. I wasn’t alone.” The friendships he gained, along with a reinvigorated sense of faith, have endured for more than 15 years. “The weekend isn’t as much about catechism as it is about the Holy Spirit and how the Holy Spirit can work in your life. It’s about looking at yourself and hopefully seeing life through the eyes of Christ.”
Deacon Cranston said his first CEW “had a profound effect on me. It showed me there is a very spiritual side to our Catholic faith. I was just coming back to it after not having practiced for about 10 years. It made quite an impression.”
Kari Wright, a lay CEW leader at Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport, said that the friends she has made through CEW are like family. “This community has prayed with me and for me many times in the years since.”
Olds said CEW is “It is a wonderful way to meet people. We get people of all ages.” He said he didn’t know many people at the parish when he attended his first CEW. Through CEW, he established a core group of close friends to accompany him on his faith journey.
To keep the spark of faith and friendship going long after a CEW weekend is over leaders organize monthly “renewals” to give participants a chance to reconnect for an hour or two. “You’re surrounded by that community that strengthens your faith. I think that compounds the faith aspect,” Olds said.
Something for everyone
CEW “Just gives you that spark you need and a little push,” Rochholz said. “You hear other peoples’ stories and figure out where their journey (with God) has taken them. It just shows you that you aren’t alone in this crazy ride we call life. … No matter where you are on your journey, there is a spot for you.”