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Echo Alumni Interviews: Michele Chronister

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In celebration of the upcoming graduation of Echo 12 on Saturday July 29, Church Life will feature interviews with select Echo alumni.

Today’s interview is with Michele Chronister, of Echo 6. Michele served as an Echo apprentice at the parish of St. Pius X in Granger, Indiana. Church Life caught up with Sophie on her current work, renewing the Catholic Imagination, and her reflections on her time in Echo

Are you currently working in theological education and/or ministry? What is your current role?

I actually have several part time jobs that allow me to continue my ministry while raising my young children. I work as the social media manager for the Archdiocese of St. Louis’s Office of Natural Family Planning. I love getting to work with people on the diocesan level, and getting a sense of the good work being done throughout the archdiocese. St. Louis is very blessed with a very active Office of Natural Family Planning, committed to the well-being of the women in St. Louis, and some of the staff members are some of the original founders of the NFP movement as we know it today.

In addition to that job, I also work with the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, an organization which works closely with the USCCB. Since there is no Office of Disabilities through the USCCB, the bishops rely on NCPD to fill that role. I serve as the co-chair of their Council for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. This position has been a true dream come true! Most of my work in Echo and undergrad were with persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities, and it is wonderful to be using my background in theology to have an impact on the national level. The staff at NCPD is committed to fidelity to the Church and to serving all Catholics with disabilities and mental illness in the United States. I’ve been working with them for several years now, and in my time with them, I’ve had the opportunity to develop documents and policies that are changing the way this ministry is being done in this country. I have a passion for the topic of the theology of vocation and disabilities, and have had the opportunity to use my theological background to help affect the shift to an understanding of those with developmental and intellectual disabilities having a significant role to play in the Church. It isn’t just about what we can offer them—it’s about the Church’s desperate need to benefit from the vocation of all the baptized members of the Church!

As an offshoot of that work, I’ve published several books, including my first book, Handbook for Adaptive Catechesis through Liguori Publications, and Faith Beginnings through the same publisher. My first book opened many doors for doing ministry with dioceses, and I’ve traveled to different dioceses to offer day-long and single formation sessions for DREs and catechetical leaders. In addition to providing workshops for a number of different dioceses, I’ve also done presentations for other conferences and organizations, including the NCCL. It has been an absolute delight to get to know and work with people around the country who are committed to ministry with those with disabilities! In addition to the presentations themselves, I also established an online resource for those engaged in this ministry, the Taking the Lift to Heaven website. I also have a number of books for adults and children that I have self-published through the platform I’ve established at my blog www.mydomesticmonastery.com, and I’m also a contributor for Catholic Exchange.

As a result, I’ve been able connect with a lot of women (especially Catholic women) who are facing the challenges that come with the vocation to marriage and motherhood. I’ve reflected on secondary infertility, miscarriage (especially the resources the Church provides and what Catholic theology has to offer for those grieving), post-partum depression, and hyperemesis gravidarum (a form of severe nausea and/or vomiting). I have experienced each of these situations, and I’ve used my theological background to try to offer hope for fellow sufferers. Finally, my most important job is as a mother to our children—Therese (who was actually born while I was a newlywed in Echo and was dubbed the “Echo baby”), Maria, Gabriel (the little boy we lost to miscarriage last year), and Zelie (our newest little daughter). More than in any other job, I have delighted in being their primary catechist, and in watching them grow in their faith and vocation.

How do you see yourself renewing the Catholic imagination through your work? How would you describe “the Catholic imagination”?

One of my favorite aspects of the Catholic faith is our understanding of sacramentality. The world is not meant to be despised, but to be claimed for Christ, and anything and everything good can lead us to know him more deeply. This is what I think of when I think of the Catholic imagination. The Catholic imagination seeks to find God anywhere that there is something true, good, and beautiful. A thing does not have to be explicitly religious in order to lead souls to God. I especially love engaging in this type of thought in my writing, as well as in my mothering. Our family homeschools our children, and we absolutely love the Classical method, because it seeks to expose students to everything that is true, good, and beautiful. Good literature, thought-provoking movies and TV shows, art, music, sports . . . everywhere you look you can find things that can point you to God. With my children, I enjoy finding beautiful books by classic authors for reading aloud, in order to train their hearts to love beauty. In my writing, I am also looking for traces of the story of our redemption in popular culture, including reflections on various superhero reboots, the Catholicity of Willa Cather in her prairie trilogy, and Doctor Who and the Church.

What has shaped your own Catholic imagination? How do you continue to nourish your imagination?

I have always loved reading, and it continues to be an outlet for me in times of relaxation. Through my online blogging and writing work, I’ve connected with a lot of other Catholics who have found God in the literature they read. My theological training has transformed my appreciation of literature (both classic and modern). At the essence of every good plot line is a story of redemption.  Every good book I’ve read—from Jane Eyre to What Alice Forgot—carries the theme of fallenness, repentance, mercy, and sacrificial love. Even books intended to genuinely be secular can’t help but have those themes! It literally saturates literature. Apart from literature, I really enjoy watching good TV and movies, with stories of substance and characters that reflect the reality of human nature.

Where do you see a need for a renewed Catholic imagination within the Church?

I actually think that that renewal is happening at a grassroots level. In a society hyped up on quick and easy entertainment, people are beginning to grow weary of such fare and are seeking entertainment of substance. In the world of Catholic writers and bloggers, I see a lot of other people engaged in the sort of thought I am—a desire to look for depth and come to know God more deeply through it. For example, Flannery O’Connor is an author I haven’t read much of yet, but who has played a significant role in the Catholic imagination and whose writings are very much a part of this renewal. Anyone who has read Flannery knows her stories are anything but happy and light-hearted! However, her stories offer a reflection on the presence of God in even the darkest places and times. This is the power of the Catholic imagination—the knowledge that what our faith teaches transforms everything. There are some Christian denominations who are under the impression that only what is explicitly Christian is Christian. That’s simply not true! We don’t live in a gnostic reality, but rather an incarnational one—a world in which God became man in Jesus. The created world has never been the same because of that!

What tips and tools would you recommend for others serving the Church who aspire to renew the Catholic imagination?

I think the most important thing we as catechists (and all who work for the Church) is simply to love our faith and to embrace the beauty of it! The Church is rich with tangible beauty, especially through our sacraments and sacramentals. Anyone who has ever attended a liturgy like those at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame knows what kind of beauty the Church has to offer—the music, the incense, the stained glass and golden vessels. This beauty isn’t pointless; it is a glimpse of heaven. It is a reminder that we are made for more than this world. The Catholic imagination begins with good liturgy and sound theology. Once your heart has been captured by those, you begin to see beauty, truth, and goodness everywhere you look. So, those are the two things desperately needed in the Church: rich, beautiful liturgies, and solid catechesis and catechetical resources. Both of these prepare our hearts and minds for the work of finding God in the world and sanctifying the world for Christ.