The unique beauty of Colorado’s mountains and Coloradans’ dedication to the outdoors have roles to play in Catholic evangelization. That’s the view of Chris Lanciotti, the new executive director of the Creatio apostolate.
“Our wilderness, our mountains, are Colorado’s greatest resource and greatest gift. It’s why people come here,” Lanciotti told the Denver Catholic. “In the experience of beauty, we as Catholics sometimes forget these beautiful places at our back door or we don’t connect them with our spirituality directly,” he said.
Lanciotti advised that Colorado Catholics become experts in evangelizing through the beauty of creation. This is the purpose of the Denver-based Creatio apostolate, which brings together both Catholics and non-Catholics on outdoor trips and pilgrimages. The apostolate was originally intended as a Catholic outreach effort to students at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It now serves people of all ages, but especially young adults.
Creatio guides help lead hikes and backpacking trips in Colorado and teach outdoor skills to participants. They also take groups on pilgrimages to places like Chimayo, New Mexico and the famous 500-mile walking pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. The organization also organizes mission work.
Lanciotti, 36, is originally from Fort Collins. He studied biochemistry at Regis University, where he graduated in 2009. That same year, he moved to Peru and joined the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, a Catholic group recognized in the Church as a lay society of apostolic life. Lanciotti is a consecrated lay member of the Sodalitium and made his perpetual profession in the group earlier this year.
In 2014, Lanciotti returned to Denver and joined the Creatio staff. He has served as guide, program manager, and formation director. The apostolate now has seven people on staff, five of whom lead trips. Counting volunteers and board members, there are about 30 people closely involved in the work.
Lanciotti is an outdoorsman himself. He has hiked 70 of Colorado’s 100 tallest peaks and he tries to backpack about 250 miles a year. He is also a downhill skier.
In his new role as Creatio executive director, however, Lanciotti is praying for guidance.
“I really want to form a core of very intentional and well-formed leaders who are ready to walk with people,” he said. “We get a chance to speak into people’s lives in a way that no one else does.”
Creatio trips now reach about 400 to 500 young adults every year.
“Our goal is to speak into their lives and to give them an opportunity for the encounter of the truth to be a stepping stone to a deeper and more important encounter with a strong community in the Church,” Lanciotti said.
He noted the rise in the numbers of people who are religiously unaffiliated. He said he notices a feeling of spiritual homelessness in contemporary society.
“We feel that we have a huge responsibility to the young adults of our generation who are kind of lost in this milieu,” he said. Creatio aims to help them “discover their own search for and hunger for God.”
Creatio trips seek to provide an environment to encounter others, including the spiritually indifferent, and accompany them on their personal journey.
“The idea is that our relationship with nature and beauty draws us further into a more incarnational understanding of ourselves, and of God himself,” Lanciotti said. “The idea is to get Catholics and non-Catholics together on experiences in nature and allow the conversation to unfold.”
While Creatio trips do include the Colorado mainstay activity of hiking 14ers, they also frequent the Flat Tops Wilderness near Meeker on the Western Slope.
“We love Flat Tops Wilderness,” Lanciotti said. The area is accessible and available, but rarely used by others.
“That’s really special and allows us to enter into that ‘biblical wilderness’,” he explained.
Colorado trips cover about six miles of terrain a day. Lanciotti ranked these trips’ difficulty as moderate to challenging.
“There is something for everybody. But definitely there’s somebody on every trip who says it’s the hardest thing they’ve done,” he said.
These trips include communal prayer, communal conversation and dialogue, and reflections about pilgrimage and the stages of spiritual life. Catholic priests sometimes accompany trips and say Mass, but organizers are aware that not every participant is ready to return to Mass.
“Silence is a very important part of the of the trips’ activities,” Lanciotti said. “It sounds funny, because it doesn’t sound like an activity, this cultivation of contemplation and silence.”
Another goal is “to engage in a healthy way with beauty itself.”
Pope St. John Paul II, Lanciotti said, “opened up the way of beauty as an important path to the Church.” The sainted pontiff provided a “spirituality of beauty” and discussed how the objectively beautiful draws people to the truth.
Lanciotti said Camino de Santiago patron St. James the Apostle is another important spiritual guide for Creatio, as is 20th-century outdoorsman and devout lay Catholic Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, who prized summiting the mountains of Italy.
“I’m always quoting Pier Giorgio. He really took the opportunity to see the heights to which we are called as human beings,” Lanciotti said.
His best experiences with Creatio have come on the Camino. He praised the Spanish pilgrimage’s “enchantment” and its ability to be “a privileged place to really enter deep and long conversation with people.”
However, his experiences of getting caught in high mountain rainstorms are hard to forget, too.
“One time on Long’s Peak we got rained right off the top of the mountain,” Lanciotti said. “Those moments forge deep relationships, even though they’re just moments long.”