March 14, 2009

Creighton Web site helps millions explore their faith
Lessons on Lent

Google "Lent," and aCreighton University Online Ministries site is 11th on the search results that pops up, or at least that was the case Friday. Though popular, it has a lot of company. Here are some online resources from major Christian denominations in Nebraska and Iowa: 

Lutheran Hour Ministries, of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, has a "Lenten Devotions" Web page that includes podcasts, e-mailed devotions and printable files. 

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's main siteincludes prayers, readings and links to sermon discussion groups, plus for this Lent, a series of daily e-mails entitled "Living Earth: A 40-Day Reflection on Our Relationship With God's Creation." 

United Methodist Churchsites include daily devotions, family study materials and activities, plus a variety of approachable reflections.
Still, she stuck with the online discussion - and she said it made Lent of 2008 a more spiritually enriching season than any Lent had been for her.

That's a theme heard often by the main people behind the site, the Rev. Andy Alexander, director of Creighton's Collaborative Ministry Office, and Maureen Waldron, its associate director.

Millions of people worldwide - in 2007, Creighton Online Ministries had 21 million hits - seek material for individual spiritual growth, and many find connections with other seekers.

The site, which Alexander and Waldron started in 1998 to be a Lenten exercise for the Creighton campus, has grown into a virtual gathering place for Christians around the globe. It's one of the more popular among many sites that have sprung up to serve time-crunched people hungry for spiritual depth.

Individuals follow the daily reflections written by Alexander, Waldron and about 50 other faculty, staff and students at Creighton.

The reflections are designed to be relevant to people's lives. For example, Waldron wrote about her mother's Alzheimer's disease, including how she and mother prayed the rosary together.

Others follow an online-for-busy-people version of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order.

Some download online retreats, available in English, Spanish, Japanese and Russian. Others log in for short daily prayers.

Numerous Catholic and Protestant churches have borrowed materials from the Web site for members' use. One Creighton Online Ministries feature, "Praying Lent," is so popular that Loyola Press, a Jesuit publishing house in Chicago, turned it into a book this year. It sent copies to Catholic parishes across the United States.

Alexander said he's heard from people who read the site while at home on a western Nebraska ranch, at a train station in Singapore and on the "L" rapid transit system in Chicago.

In Serbia, Kovacs discovered Creighton Online Ministries nine years ago and has used it pretty much daily ever since.

She found depth in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, going through a 34-week retreat that she said would not have been possible to do in person where she lives, because no one is there to guide it.

"Everything is there," Kovacs said. "But the most important thing is sharing your experience with others. You can share, write, ask, read other comments, impressions. It's a lively community of participants who carry each other on the journey which is not easy."

Kovacs downloads or prints a lot of material from the Creighton site to use in the religion classes she teaches. She also has shared its resources with her church.

She's following the Lenten reflections and prayers on the site again this year.

"It's peak season to reflect upon it," she said. "I have lessons today all in connection with Lent. We are moving toward Easter slowly through careful thinking what does it mean to our lives."

But the 2008 Lenten experience is still fresh in her mind, when she found her heart could bear more than she thought it could.

Alexander had persuaded Kovacs to try the Creighton Web site. Then, just as Lent began, Kosovo declared independence. People rioted in the streets of Belgrade and elsewhere in Serbia. It looked as if the horrors of the 1990s could return.

Kovacs stuck with the program, though, virtually joining people from Nebraska, California and Pennsylvania to South Africa, France and the Philippines.

Kovacs waded into study and reflection on "They Come Back Singing," a book by the Rev. Gary Smith, a Jesuit priest, about his experiences with Sudanese refugees in Uganda.

She found there such horrors as attacks on the refugees by Ugandan rebels. But she also found hope, a wider view of looking at and participating in the world, and a deeper faith.

"I was opened because of care and love of those people at Creighton and from different parts of the world," Kovacs said. "Finally we are not Christians of Serbia, Croatia, India, but of one family, and I felt it for first time. We were moving together in one line.

"I was like an invalid, weak and exhausted in troubles of repeated hatred in my own country, but I walked day by day only because I had friends to walk with me."