WATERBURY – When an evangelical movement is named after a beloved pope, it seems reasonable to assume that it was founded by a renowned cleric or member of a religious order and accepts only fellow Catholics into its fold. With the John XXIII Movement, both assumptions are wrong.
Active now in several parishes in the Archdiocese of Hartford, the “Movimiento Juan XXIII” was founded in 1970 by a layperson, Nelson Rivera, who was disheartened by the meager attendance at Sunday Mass at his parish in Puerto Rico. Inspired by Saint Francis of Assisi’s call from God to “rebuild my Church,” Señor Rivera began organizing one-day retreats to evangelize the community. In 1973, the first three-day retreat took place at the Church of Fatima in Vega Baja, P.R.
Forty years later, the movement also thrives in Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Spain, Honduras, Italy, Nicaragua, Peru and the United States. The (mostly) Hispanic movement reaches out to people struggling with addiction, crises of faith and other problems.
Father Robert Villa, archdiocesan spiritual director for the John XXIII Movement, holds four retreats a year – two each for men and women – at St. Margaret Church in Waterbury, where he is pastor.
“The first [three-day] retreat [in 1973] was attended by 24 individuals who were alcoholics or drug addicts,” Father Villa said. “It was to attract those people in the Church who have no niche in it, haven’t found a way to become active members outside of the Mass, and to encourage them to become more involved in the Church,” he said.
Father Villa said he doesn’t try to convert people. “We want to give them an opportunity to find out about the Church,” he said. “We throw the nets into deep waters so that we can reach the people that somehow the Church has not been able to reach,” he added.
In 2006, with Archbishop Henry J. Mansell’s approval, Father Villa brought the movement to the Hartford Archdiocese. It is active now at St. Joseph in Bristol, Our Lady of Sorrows in Hartford, St. Peter in Torrington, St. Rose of Lima in Meriden and St. Margaret.
What happens during three-day retreats is so personal that participants and organizers do not share details with nonparticipants. After the Mass that caps the retreat, attendees join in a ceremony in which they very emotionally discuss how it affected them.
“It’s a moment when basically the entire thing is brought to conclusion and everything they have dealt with and discussed in the three days of the intense retreat, they express it,” Father Villa said. “If there’s any forgiveness that needs to be expressed, they express it with the family members who are there. It can be a very emotional thing for many people.”
Madeline Garcia, a parishioner at St. Margaret, said she couldn’t go into details but that her experience on a retreat in August was “very beautiful and spiritual.”
She said that her husband told her about it, “but God actually showed me the way. I have learned a lot, a lot more about God, and what to expect from Jesus Christ.”
Asked how it will change her life, she said, “I will be more spiritual, pray more and be a better person, be a better mom, a better wife.”
Father Villa said that about 200 people in the archdiocese are active in the movement, either as retreatants or facilitators. Many conversions and baptisms have resulted from the movement here, he said, and many marriages within the Church have taken place between people who had been living together.
Eduardo Torres, a parishioner at St. Augustine in Hartford, said he made a retreat and now helps organize them. “After I made my retreat last year, I kept working for this movement and just tried to give to somebody else whatever I received,” he said. “The retreat is good because it tries to push you into a more intensive [relationship] with Jesus Christ. It gives [participants] some opportunity to get to know who Jesus Christ is and what he can do for us.”
Father José A. Mercado, pastor of St. Augustine and St. Anne-Immaculate Conception parishes in Hartford, said in a 2008 interview, “What’s unique about this is that the person on retreat doesn’t have to be Catholic. Some retreatants from other faiths have joined the Catholic Church. The key goal is to reach the unchurched, those who are off in the world alone. It really is a life-transforming experience to have that contact with the Lord.”
Information about participating in the John XXIII Movement is available from Father Villa at 203-754-6101. For information in Spanish, go to www.juanxxiii.org.