From Florida To Michigan, Communities Are Forming In Way Of Catholic Refuges
We recently paid a quiet visit to the southern Florida project known as "Ave Maria," a Catholic town built by Domino's billionaire Tom Monaghan.
There is certainly no doubt about its Catholicism: The center of the skyline is a church (not an office building, not town hall) and atop is a 13-foot-high cross. The streets have names like "Assisi" and "Annunciation."
There are 11,000 potential households in the 5,000-acre town, and those who have already moved there make no bones about the fact that they wanted to move to a place with a Catholic foundation -- with limited access to the evil that surrounds the rest of society. Monaghan once suggested that birth control and pornography would be banned from Ave Maria (which of course means Hail Mary) -- causing the ACLU to threaten a lawsuit and Monaghan to backtrack (he now says it will be "suggested" that stores not carry contraceptives or pornography, and that cable TV would have no adult channels; legally, his developers were forced even to say that gays -- if they want such an atmosphere -- will be allowed).
But we get the point: this is a Catholic place. It is also the most ambitious in what could be called a series of "refuges": since the explosion of alleged Marian apparitions in the 1980s, Catholics and indeed Christians of all stripes have been flirting with the idea of safe havens both to protect their families against the onslaught of societal darkness and perhaps to weather events, natural or otherwise, that may affect cities and perhaps even a region of the nation.
While Monaghan went to Medjugorje, the apparition site in Bosnia-Hercegovina, there is no overt indication that the apparitions, which portend major happenings, had anything to do with the town, which is to surround Ave Maria University, the first new Catholic college in decades and one that was also financed by Monaghan. Indeed, the location in southern Florida makes it prone to hurricanes, though far less so than communities closer to the coast (this spot is significantly inland, an hour from Naples, butting against the Everglades).
But Monaghan once described Medjugorje as "a high point of my life," and in other cases purported revelations have influenced a number of Catholics to consider spots where they can congregate with like-minded believers away from the tussle of mainstream society, as well as potential future chastisements.
It is an area that necessitates caution. Communities built solely on a small group of faithful can tend toward cultishness -- with devastating results. Such has occurred in Catholic settings where leaders allegedly have made off with money or where the disillusioned find the community evaporating, despite grandiose claims and revelations that at best turned out to be premature.
In Australia, one such cult was founded by a Marian "seer" who made outrageous prophetic claims (declaring himself to be a future pope) and is in prison for sexually abusing a minor. In Africa a doomsday cult that fed off such revelations was the scene, like Guyana, of a horrible massacre.
But those are extremes and there does seem a "prompt" in the spirit to divorce oneself from the coarseness of modern society, the lasciviousness, and in general the gathering darkness.
Most interesting and ironically in Monaghan's home state is the case of a priest named Father Jack Fabian, who has founded a community in the wilderness of Michigan's Upper Peninsula in the area of Whitefish Bay (nearest town: Paradise). Here, private revelation undoubtedly played a role.
"After I became pastor of St. Charles Church in Newport in 1982, an occasional person would come along with visions and even messages (inner locutions) from the Lord," he recalls. "I looked on these with disfavor and encouraged those coming to see me not to take these things too seriously. But the messages continued, and I had to admit that they were bearing healthy spiritual fruit. Eventually, I began to take the messages more seriously and even marveled how God was at work here.
"On May 7, 1989, a message was given to me that I was to establish a religious order. While I would not have thought of that in a thousand years, or ever had a desire to belong to a religious community, I knew instantly it was true and what this community would be about.
"I understood in a flash how inner callings that I thought were for my private interest and growth had, in fact, been nurtured within me for a greater purpose.
"Specifically, there were two main callings: my interest in Catholic spirituality, and my deep respect and love for the out-of-doors. I could see spirituality and wilderness coming together and working together as they did in Jesus, as well as in the patriarchs and prophets. The wilderness is the birthplace of spirituality. It is here that God's people were formed under the leadership of Abraham and Moses. Jesus also allowed Himself to be formed in the wilderness, withdrawing there for forty days. Confirmations of the message about my new calling were quick to follow."
As it happens, one of the confirmations came through a priest who prayed over Father Fabian and suddenly uttered, "Jack, you will begin a whole new ministry" -- without remembering what he said afterwards. Other "words" came through various people who didn't know about the original locution.
"Hardly a week went by without someone telling me about a dream, an inner vision, or locution confirming the original message," he says.
The mission turned out to be a new religious order, which he has called Companions of Christ the Lamb, currently a "public association of the faithful" but moving toward diocesan designation as a formal clerical institute with third-order lay members. [above, left, Bishop Walter J. Schoenherr offering Mass at the new chapel.]
The unique aspect of the community -- set eight miles from the nearest paved road -- is that it teaches its sixty lay members and three priests (with another five who want to enter the seminary) how to survive in the wilderness or as pre-technological farmers -- skills he believes may become useful one day soon.
Most importantly, the "primitive" way of living (there is no electricity) is to bring those in the order closer to nature and thus closer to God.
This he once knew as "solo wilderness retreats." Now the group offers retreats of up to forty days.
Fascinating it is that he should hear such a calling at the same time that alleged messages speak of the future breakdown of technology.
"That is our goal, our vision: to live more simply," says the priest. "We teach Amish-like homestead skills and even primitive technology like fire-making. Most of us live in or around the town of Paradise, but four live at the retreat center. We built the buildings ourselves and logged the logs. We did the lumberjacking and milling and built a beautiful chapel. I studied mystical theology, and I saw it all working together, bringing together what I had learned in the outdoors with theology. Look at the way Moses, Jesus, and John the Baptist lived."
Their patron is the Indian convert Kateri Tekakwitha, who was by nature in tune with the world as God had created it.
As John Paul II once said, "Turning to nature, escaping for a while the pressing and sometimes obsessive rhythm of the city, allows you to listen to that ancient and always new language which, by way of beauty, brings one to the threshold of mystery."
And the future?
"We're doing the mission as best we can," said Father Fabian. "I have a meeting coming up with the bishop. I was really skeptical of messages. But I read the prophecies now and take them very seriously. I know we're headed for a turn in the road soon -- 'soon' in God's time."
[Father Fabian can be reached at Companions of Christ, P.O. Box 12, Paradise, Michigan 49768]
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[resources: Tower of Light]
[see also: Apparitions precede major events]