Special to The Catholic Commentator 

David Fleshmen was initially skeptical, engaging reasoning such as a busy work schedule or not the right time as impulses to back out of an ACTS retreat he was scheduled to attend through St. Aloysius Church in Baton Rouge.   

Fleshman, who grew up attending Presbyterian and Episcopal churches with his parents, said he felt like an outsider in Catholic church pews while attending Mass before he made the retreat.   

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“When attending Mass, I wouldn’t participate in Communion, which only reinforced my feelings that I really didn’t belong,” he said.   

Fleshman said attending the retreat “almost instantaneously transformed many of the ‘strangers’ I’d seen at Mass or passed at the childcare center into some of my closest friends. I had never felt God’s presence and love more than I did during that weekend.”  

The powerful experience also inspired him to complete the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) and become a full member of the Catholic Church.   

“This is a place where I see my faith growing and my relationship with Christ growing,” Fleshman said.  

An ACTS retreat is a parish-based, parishioner-led weekend retreat that first originated in San Antonio, Texas in 1997. The term “ACTS” serves as an acronym, signifying the retreat’s themes of adoration, community, theology and service. According to the ACTS Missions website, the retreats offer an “opportunity to experience the love of Jesus Christ,” and to “build Christian community at a parish.”   

ACTS retreats have been held in at least 27 states and six countries. In the Diocese of Baton Rouge, at least four parishes have hosted ACTS retreats.   

“I’ve yet to meet anyone who didn’t take something positive away from the experience,” said St. Aloysius parishioner Dr. Ryan Boone. “It truly is a ‘come as you are’ experience and meets you wherever you are in your personal faith journey.”  

Although each retreatant has their own experience, all agreed that ACTS helped to bring them closer to God, family and community, while increasing their participation in the sacraments and service throughout the diocese.  

“Seeds are being planted, and roots are growing today that will bear fruit for our community for a long, long time,” said St. Aloysius pastor Father Randy Cuevas.  

 Ashley Pere said ACTS helped her cultivate a “daily relationship with Jesus” with a “trust that transcends all understanding.”   

She said the retreat deepened her appreciation of the Eucharist. “Now Mass is no longer an obligation, but something I truly enjoy,” Pere said.     

Brooke Reynolds said ACTS strengthened her “knowledge that I am deeply loved” and helped her place “complete faith in God’s plan” as she and her husband prayed about their recent choice to expand their family.   

Joseph Britt credited ACTS with helping him become a better husband and father.   

“Prior to ACTS, I routinely worked 60-plus hour work weeks with my career taking priority before God and family,” he said, mentioning important milestones he has since witnessed in his young child’s life.   

Father Jerry Martin, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Prairieville, said he has witnessed couples going through troubled times fix their marriages after attending the retreat. He praised ACTS for bringing so many people “back to” their Catholic faith and called it “awe inspiring” to see so many individuals receiving the sacrament of reconciliation.  

Paul Coreil said he could count parishioners he knew by name “on one hand” after 20 years of Mass attendance at St. Aloysius.  He said ACTS connected him to almost 100 men that he knew would support him in his journey and help in his day-to-day struggles and blessings as he works toward salvation.  

Mary Bowen said she joined St. Aloysius in 1980 but knew few parishioners before her retreat in 2016.   

“Now, I know and feel I am part of the community, brothers and sisters in Christ who openly share my faith, challenge and support me,” she said.   

“It really transcends ages,” Steven Brooksher, Jr. said, describing close bonds that ACTS has fostered among people with different backgrounds, including as many as 80 men who now attend 6 a.m. Mass and gather for fellowship on Wednesday mornings.    

Michael Giorlando said ACTS participants joined many of the more than 100 parish ministry opportunities available through St. Aloysius. ”

ACTS is not an end all or even considered as a parish ministry,” he said. Instead, it “serves as a beginning, a beginning to motivate the men and women to become active participants” in the community.  

“We can really change lives by humbly serving others. It has a way of spreading,” Fleshman said, discussing a group of men who recently started cooking and serving free meals to people in a low-income neighborhood near Owen’s Grocery, less than two miles from the church doors of St. Aloysius.   

 The grocery store’s owner, Cynthia Green, described a cold day when the men served hot gumbo to school-aged children, single moms and homeless people who sleep under a nearby interstate overpass, who were “able to be fed” and “left knowing that people did care.”   

“When Bishop (Michael G.) Duca was installed last August, he spoke about our need to ‘pick up the mission of Jesus and go out into the world’,” Father Cuevas said. “Our parishioners are doing just that, investing their time and talents throughout our community, bringing new life to the parish and helping to grow God’s kingdom.”