LAWTON, Okla. — Faced with the troubling news of the Church’s clergy sex-abuse scandal, Father Brian Buettner and the priests in his support group wanted to find a way to “fix it.”
Recognizing that the task was beyond them individually, they decided to embark together on a 90-day journey of rigorous abstinence and prayer known as “Exodus 90,” offering their prayers and fasting for the victims of sexual abuse and for a deep and lasting purification of the Church.
From Sept. 5 to Dec. 6, they followed the Exodus 90 regimen of making a daily Holy Hour, limiting internet use to essential tasks and fasting from alcohol, sweets, eating between meals, TV and comforts like hot showers, meeting regularly for encouragement and accountability.
Now, from Jan. 21 until Easter Sunday, Father Buettner’s bishop, Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, and thousands of other priests and laymen will be offering their Exodus 90 experience as a campaign of prayer and sacrifice for the Church.
“I’m eager to get started with Exodus 90 as a way of offering some concrete form of penance for the healing of our Church during a time of crisis,” Archbishop Coakley told the Register. “It will certainly enhance my experience during the coming season of Lent. It will be an added plus to walk this path in solidarity with many men all over the country, including right here in Oklahoma.”
Originally developed for seminarians who were seeking greater personal freedom in a society enslaved to sin — and later expanded to include laymen — the program is taking on a new dimension in the wake of the abuse crisis.
Ryan Foley, who had solicited prayer intentions from friends and others for his own Exodus 90 experience Sept. 21 to Dec. 25 last year, said one came from a bishop asking him to pray for the healing of the Church “because of the great injury of the sex-abuse crisis.” After Foley completed Exodus 90, he approached James Baxter, the program’s executive director, with an idea: Make Exodus 90 participants men of prayer for others and specifically for the Church.
Foley, vice president for business development at Covenant Eyes, an internet accountability firm, also proposed asking apostolates, dioceses and Catholic leaders like Jason Evert, Matt Fradd and Father Michael Schmitz to invite men to join the campaign. Those who sign up are put on a waitlist keyed to the individual or group that issued the invitations and receive emails about Exodus 90 in the days leading up to the start.
For example, a Jan. 2 Facebook post from Fradd, a well-known author, speaker and podcaster, asks followers, “Looking for something to totally rock your prayer life? Still time to join me on Exodus 90!” The post includes a link to Fradd’s waitlist.
Baxter said he thinks Catholic leaders were receptive to promoting Exodus 90 because of what they are witnessing in their own apostolates. “These folks are in the trenches. ... They see that the times we are in are different. ... There’s a darkness over the Church, and they now feel like there’s actually a place to move people.”
How It Works
About 7,000 men, including 1,100 who signed up at the recent “SEEK 2019” conference for college students, are currently on waitlists for the next Exodus 90, but as momentum builds, Baxter said he is confident no fewer than 10,000, and possibly more, will be on board by Jan. 21. Registrations tend to flood in the day before and the first day of a new 90-day cycle, he said, and those on waitlists will be asking others to join them.
Even though men register for Exodus 90 individually, one of the program’s four “pillars” is “fraternity,” meaning participants make the spiritual exercise as part of a small group that meets regularly and is guided by a spiritual director, who can be a priest or layman.
The other pillars of Exodus 90, which is designed specifically for the spirituality and struggles of men, are 90 days, prayer and asceticism, or self-denial. Ninety days is considered both a manly challenge and the length of time needed for the brain to “reset,” and the four pillars in combination are part of the Tradition of the Church, particularly the spirit of the early Christian hermits known as the Desert Fathers.
Thomas Wurtz, a Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) staff member who went through Exodus 90 in 2017, said the program’s pillar of asceticism is key to revitalizing men in the current culture. “Men tend to be lazy and fearful,” he said, in contrast to their calling to guard, protect and engage. “Something like this pulls men out of themselves.”
Since Exodus 90 began in 2013 as a pilot program for seminarians, 7,500 men — 60% of them between the ages of 20 and 39 — have been through the program. Wurtz, who is 40, said younger men are being drawn to it because they know they were made for something more in a culture that is promoting mediocrity.
Wurtz, the director of Varsity Catholic, the FOCUS outreach to athletes, has promoted Exodus 90 among FOCUS missionaries for the last three years, and they in turn have led dozens of others into the program. “I am impressed by our men and their love for this regimen. It demonstrates that the Church has been lacking in this kind of spirituality for men since the 1950s, when asceticism was much more common and when it was talked about and promoted.”
Wurtz said of his own Exodus 90 experience: “It purifies you, it reorients you to proper priorities and helps you understand the attachments you have. Some of the things you’re asked to give up really open your eyes. You didn’t realize how hard it was going to be — how much you love to snack between meals, for example.”
Father Buettner, who has been ordained five years and serves as a pastor and vocations director, said the program changed his priesthood and refocused his mission. Although it was difficult, he said the fraternity of his support group was sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and they grew closer as brothers with each penance.
Additionally, he said he noticed that the advice he was giving in confessions felt inspired by the Spirit, as did his celebration of Mass. “Everything was becoming more clear about the true sanctity of who I am as a priest. ... It felt like my heart was beating with the Lord’s.”
The Exodus 90 image is one of walking with Moses through the desert to the Promised Land, Father Buettner said. “We have become slaves in our world in a culture that is trying to enslave us with technology or any distraction that will separate us from the Lord. Like Moses, we leave slavery behind and start walking toward the Promised Land.”
By committing to 90 days of prayer and self-denial, he said, men discover that in surrounding themselves with the comforts of the world, they have become like the culture.
Father Buettner said he and his fellow priests realized, for example, that they were coming home and turning on the TV in the evening, wasting the time before they went to bed. “[Exodus 90] allowed us to get back to reading, listening to music, spending time in fraternity with one another, purifying every hour of our day and sanctifying it.”
Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.