By Jodi Marlin | Catholic News Service
FORT WAYNE, Ind. (CNS) — A visit to the Holy Land can be transformative for the faith life of Christians.
Among those who work in ministry in the Catholic Church, the monumental and formative experience also finds fertile ground for evangelization.
The leadership and staff of Verso Ministries, a Notre Dame, Indiana, pilgrimage company, want to give back to the Catholic Church in the U.S. from among their blessings by showing parish ministers, Catholic schoolteachers, diocesan staff and those in nonprofit Catholic ministry what an understanding of the physical context of Christ’s earthly ministry can mean for their own spirituality and for the faith of those with whom they engage.
A new opportunity called the Frassati Fellowship has been developed by the company. It offers an academically informed tour of sites in the Holy Land, accompanied by a process that will equip participants to share what they learn with others.
Practically everyone has heard the Bible stories that take place in the Holy Land, Verso founder and CEO John Paul Lichon told Today’s Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.
“They’ve heard of the cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem; they’ve heard the stories of what Jesus and his disciples said and did in boats on the Sea of Galilee,” he said. “But I think there’s a disconnect. It can be hard to imagine them in places we’ve never seen. Sometimes we forget that these places still exist.”
He likened a visit to the Holy Land to going to visit a college roommate’s hometown.
“You see their parents and the restaurants they always talk about. You meet their old friends and see the high school they went to. You get a different perspective, and you learn things about the person that makes your picture of him more complete,” Lichon said.
“It’s that same kind of feeling. You more intimately know who Jesus is after visiting his birthplace and the places he ministered,” he said. “It’s a very personal kind of awakening. I can only hope that’s going to impact the way that those who work for the church will teach and pass on the faith.”
Pilgrimage and ministry: Verso’s origins are rooted in both. Lichon started the company in late 2016 after feeling called to make a career change during a pilgrimage of his own to World Youth Day in Poland.
“We’ve always viewed this business as a ministry, as our calling to get people to these holy places. It’s an evangelistic exercise, not just traveling, visiting these places and even celebrating Mass each day. It’s truly an opportunity for evangelization, an opportunity to impact people’s life of faith.”
That passion for ministry, coupled with the inspiration and example of the company’s patron saint, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, laid the foundation for the Frassati Fellowship.
Accepted applicants will spend a four-month period of education, mentorship and establishing community before embarking on a 9-day visit to Israel, the land where Jesus ministered and his salvific mission was fulfilled.
“We were thinking about what we could do for ministry leaders to help them re-imagine their faith or be rejuvenated so they come back with renewed enthusiasm and dedication and understanding,” said Lichon. “It’s about helping them to think of creative ways to bring the Gospel to people, to continue this work of evangelization.
“Understanding who Jesus is so foundational to our understanding of our faith, ourselves, our ministry, our church. If we can transform the lives of 25 ministers, that’s going to multiply, hopefully, when they’re back in their parishes or schools.”
Formation will be incorporated to prepare participants fully for the experience.
Participants will meet virtually for bimonthly meetings that include activities presented by the team.
Lichon and associate director of operations Stephanie Petrie are graduates of the Echo program at the University of Notre Dame and have master’s degrees in theology, and guest educators, including clergy and university faculty, may direct the learning and spiritual development as well.
Mentoring sessions will take place with clergy and experienced ministers, and participants will be expected to engage with readings and in prayer in anticipation of a July 14-22 trip to Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee.
The three pillars of the fellowship — formation, community and travel — have equal weight and are integral in helping ministry leaders prepare for, process and grow from what Lichon hopes will be “an intimate encounter with the person of Jesus.” The community aspect is more than having people to walk with during the experience, he noted.
“Depending on their parish and their ministry, they may not have a support system. They may not have a mentor that’s walking alongside them. They may not have someone to bounce ideas off of. So to give them a cohort of people to learn from and support them and walk together with is really important as well.”
Following the pilgrimage, each fellow will present a creative capstone project expressing ministerial outcomes from their participation.
Two types of church ministers — and the ministries they lead — stand to gain the most from the Frassati Fellowship, Lichon said.
The first is a person “who has some years under their belt, who maybe is feeling tired and like, ‘Gosh, I’m always giving, I’m always the leader, I never get to be the participant,'” he explained. “This is a way to feed and rejuvenate those type of ministers.”
“The other person is someone who’s ‘in discernment mode,’ perhaps volunteering at the parish or in part-time ministry and considering making a larger commitment, someone who’s willing to grow and is seeking something at this time,” he said.
Individuals volunteering or working in paid ministry positions are welcome to apply for the Frassati Fellowship, as are those enrolled in full-time graduate studies in theology, divinity or related fields. Program cost is $2,499, plus the cost of round-trip airfare to Israel. The final cost includes a $2,000 scholarship from Verso Ministries.
Applications should be completed online at www.VersoMinistries.com/Frassati-Fellowship by April 1. Finalists will be invited to a virtual interview, and decisions for the 2021 cohort of 25 will be announced later in April.