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Even as priests are stretched in their ministries, programs helping them find spiritual rejuvenation proliferate.
BY Susan Klemond
Making sure all his work is covered at the three Minnesota parishes he pastors can be complicated, but Father Kevin Finnegan knows the importance of breaking away for a retreat or day of recollection when he can.
“It’s more than just recouping, of course,” said Father Finnegan, who is pastor at Divine Mercy in Faribault, St. Michael in Kenyon and St. Patrick in Shieldsville. “It’s really having a time just to be quiet with God. To focus, to open my inner self, my soul, to know that God still loves me, to listen to God in quiet, to rest in his presence. … Sometimes we need to just rest.”
The availability of fewer priests means priests are doing more work, so it’s sometimes challenging for them to make time for an annual retreat stipulated by canon law for interior renewal, let alone any additional retreats. In addition, priests say there is less time for ongoing formation, which may or may not be required by their bishop.
Such formation helps them to continue developing different areas of their ministry and to understand how the shifting societal terrain is affecting their parish work.
While there are many locations for priests to make a retreat or receive formation, several retreat centers around the country offer retreats exclusively for priests and deacons. Centers for priestly formation also offer some retreats, while they provide spiritual, intellectual and practical training. And a new retreat center for priests and bishops that will open in Ireland promises to bring together opportunities for renewal, formation and fraternal association.
According to a 2009 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), half of U.S. diocesan and religious-order priests surveyed felt that too much work is somewhat or a great problem. Thirty-nine percent questioned said they are too busy to meet most of the pastoral needs of those they serve, and 43% say they’re too busy to pray as much as they’d like.
The CARA survey also revealed that priests are becoming pastors much earlier than in the past, and 47% of diocesan priests surveyed are pastors without an associate. Two-thirds of priests in the study said the shortage of available priests is a problem.
“Years ago there were two or three priests in a parish,” said Franciscan of the Renewal Father Benedict Groeschel, an author, speaker and TV host, and founder and associate director of Trinity Retreat, in Larchmont, N.Y. “Now there’s only one priest alone, and it’s harder for him to go away for a retreat. They have to get somebody to fill in for them.”
Founded in 1974, Trinity Retreat was one of the first U.S. retreat houses dedicated to priests and deacons, and it now offers a range of retreats for 15 retreatants at a time.
Fundamentally, said Legion of Christ Father Alex Yeung, “there is a need to bring our priestly heart back to its source, to a personal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ and a renewed loving response to his call to share in his mission of bringing as many people to know and love him.”
And since priests are “leaders of God’s people and particularly prone to activism, overwork and sometimes a feeling of being alone in the mission, extra effort — and sometimes heroic effort — is needed to dedicate time to spiritual renewal and continuing education,” said Father Yeung, director of the Legionaries of Christ’s Thornwood, N.Y.-based Sacerdos Institute for Priestly Life and Ministry, which offers priests’ retreats and tools for ongoing formation at sites in the United States and other countries.
Father John Harvey, pastor of St. Mary Queen of Apostles in Riverdale, Ill., makes an annual private retreat at Cardinal Stritch Retreat House in Mundelein, Ill., and getting away for quiet time to pray, read and relax keeps him sane, he said. “Whether it’s retreat or vacation, it keeps me from burning out and just being irascible and disillusioned.”
Having a prayer life is most important, and a retreat is a good place to grow it, said Joan Johnson, founder of the Christopher Inn International (ChristopherInn.org), a new retreat center planned for Ireland’s west coast. “(Priests) also need to know how that prayer life typically, or at least organically, grows and develops, so that they aren’t floundering.”
Going deeper in prayer is essential both for priests personally and for their ministry, said Father John Riccardo, pastor at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, Mich. “The whole town is at your door,” said Father Riccardo, who makes multiple retreats throughout the year in different locations. “You have to care for them, but after, make retreats as Jesus went to the mountain at night to pray.”
Prayer enables priests to do their ministerial tasks not as technical applications, but as disciples of Christ, said Deacon Richard Hudzik, director of Cardinal Stritch Retreat House, which opened in 1951 and now offers retreats for up to 48 priests and deacons. “That’s the beginning of any work they want to do in the Church,” he said. Cardinal Stritch “is a place to focus on that. It’s a place of time out. It’s a place of reappraisal and a place of renewal.”
The Church benefits when priests have the chance for renewal and continuing formation, said Father Richard Gabuzda, executive director of the Institute for Priestly Formation of Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., which offers ongoing formation, including programs, symposia, training and retreats.
“I’d sure like to go to a doctor who gets updated from time to time,” he said. “It would give me a lot of confidence that he was being renewed and refreshed. If a priest is a spiritual physician, we’re hoping that he himself is being renewed and refreshed — [and receiving] ongoing formation.”
Priests are supposed to continue growing in their spiritual life, Father Groeschel said. “Growth in ability to pray, growth in one’s dedication to the life of the Gospel,” he said. “Growth in caring for other people, reaching out and understanding the teaching of the Church and of the Pope at the present time.”
The Christopher Inn International will offer ongoing personal formation in the spiritual, human, intellectual and pastoral areas to the 200 priests and bishops it will be able to host, said Johnson of Excelsior, Minn. “What we’re doing is linking good bishops, theologians, priests and specialists together to create a very fine formation program,” she said.
In their “Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests,” the U.S. bishops have written, “Ongoing formation brings priests together not simply to rally around a common task, but to proceed in faith with the mission of unity. Ongoing formation serves the unity of presbyterates especially by regrounding priests in their common faith vision and by offering them a common vocabulary of communication.”
Formation is important, but so is relaxation and fellowship, Johnson said. “I think it’s just having them together in a beautiful setting with lots of grounds, lots of property and recreation — plus to be able to tour Ireland — is just healing and beautiful in itself, and very relaxing,” she said. “Just having them coming from all over the world and seeing that universality of the priesthood is a key thing.”
To further the Christopher Inn’s efforts to facilitate priestly fraternity and formation, the center’s developers plan to launch a new website called FiatWeb.org, a resource that will enable priests to communicate with each other, share knowledge, support each other in ministry and engage in ongoing formation.
Retreat and formation centers meet a perennial need of priests for renewal and ongoing formation, and sometimes for balance. “If I don’t live in balance, work will consume me, even if work is my ministry,” Father Riccardo said.
Said Johnson, priests “will always need times where they get together, times where they taste the universality of the Church. They’ll always need to know that the laypeople treasure and support them because they’re giving and giving and giving.”
Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.