June 24, 2016
Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River, NJ, has witnessed firsthand the power of well-designed retreats to attract, engage, and transform members of its community. For the past thirty-five years, Presentation has hosted multiple Cornerstone Retreats each year, and as a result many thousands of people have had their lives touched by Presentation’s ministries.
Cornerstone is a unique faith-fostering retreat weekend which originated at Presentation, though the retreat program has since been adopted by parishes in about twenty states across the country. It is a brief experience: just twenty-six hours, starting Friday night and ending the following evening. This timeframe, shorter than that of many parish retreats, was deliberately designed. “A lot of people were saying, ‘We can’t give you a whole weekend away from our family,’” said Fr. Bob Stagg, pastor of Church of the Presentation. “So they just give us one night.” Since participants are only required to spend one night away from their families, as well as retain part of their weekend, many more parishioners are willing and able to take part.
The Cornerstone experience usually consists of six or seven talks on various themes, all of which focus on the speaker’s life story as a witness. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is also offered on the first night. “It’s very powerful,” Fr. Stagg said of the opportunity for Reconciliation. “For many people it’s the first time in twenty, thirty years that they’ve been to Reconciliation.” Since weekends are held separately for men and women, retreatants sleep communally on cots in the parish center, which not only cuts down on retreat costs but fosters a sense of community. The retreat program also includes the opportunity to receive and read letters from friends and family, as well as a closing liturgy to which friends and family are invited — often to the surprise of the retreatants.
While Cornerstone itself often has profound effects on its participants, Presentation strives to ensure that the weekend is an entry point into the rich life of the parish. As Fr. Stagg put it, “It’s our main highway into Presentation’s life.” Retreatants meet the week following Cornerstone for a reunion, and participants take a leading role in organizing and facilitating next year’s retreat in conjunction with a permanent core team, creating a continual succession of participation and leadership. Retreatants are also encouraged to join a faith sharing group, either by continuing to meet with the small group from their own Cornerstone retreat or by joining an existing group. In fact, some of the standing faith sharing groups open to Presentation parishioners originated as Cornerstone small groups, and have been meeting regularly for over twenty years. These faith sharing groups and “Small Christian Communities,” as Presentation calls them, not only provide community and an opportunity to deepen one’s faith and spirituality, but also engage in service to the parish and the wider community. Two other retreat programs also are meant to follow up on the Cornerstone experience: “Journey,” which is a full three-day weekend retreat off campus intended to provide additional time for individual prayer and reflection, and “Celebrate the Dance,” another full-weekend couples’ retreat.
All told, about six hundred people per year participate in Presentation’s various retreats, with immense impact for the parish. Cornerstone retreats are designed to attract even busy, disengaged parishioners and foster the desire to engage more deeply with their own faith and the parish community. By reaching out to those who might be less likely to attend a more traditional, involved retreat program, Presentation continually invites more and more people into an engaged, committed faith.
By: Katherine Brown, Los Angeles, CA