Priests Experience Holy Week Anew After Jerusalem Retreat

JERUSALEM — His body will be in church this Holy Week, but his mind will be thousands of miles — and two millennia — away.

Father Michael Caridi took a Holy Land Retreat for Priests this year that brought the life, death and resurrection of Christ vividly to his mind.

“This was my first time in the Holy Land, and the experience deepened my ability to understand Jesus my Lord,” Father Caridi said during a guided tour of some of Jerusalem’s most cherished churches. “When a man and a woman fall in love, they want to know each other better. The same is true with a priest and the Lord Jesus.”

The twice-yearly retreats are organized by the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, run by the Legionaries of Christ, a pontifical institute of the Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University. They took place under the auspices of the Vatican Congregation for Clergy and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

The program, which was conducted in English, Italian and Spanish, combined study of the Scriptures with visits to the places mentioned in the Bible — Jerusalem, Galilee, Nazareth and Bethlehem. The priests, who hailed from two dozen countries, also engaged in ecumenical dialogues, pastoral workshops and meetings with Holy Land Christians.

The participants were also personally greeted by the two highest ranking Church officials in the Holy Land: Archbishop Michel Sabbah, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, and Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the former apostolic nuncio to Israel who is now nuncio to the United States.

“The goal of the retreat was to provide spiritual renewal, to refresh the vocation and the enthusiasm for the priestly ministry,” said Legionary Father John Solana, director of the Pontifical Institute. “Every human being must be renewed, and priests are no different.

“On the one hand, priests minister to many people, sometimes several thousand people, and the stress is very high,” he added.

Legionary Father Alfonso Corona, the retreat’s Vatican-based secretary and organizer, said, “Priests benefit from a time of peace and serenity with a priestly community that shares their goals. We started out as a diverse group of priests of different ages and nationalities — Americans, Canadians, Brazilians, Indonesians, Koreans — but by the end of the retreat we became a single family.”

While priests have the opportunity to attend retreats in many parts of the world, “there is nothing like the Holy Land,” Father Solana said. “This is the place where Christ instituted the priesthood, the place where Christianity was born.”

Father Daniel Vacca, from the Diocese of Wichita, Kan., said that this, his first visit to the Holy Land, brought the Scriptures to life.

“From now on, I’ll be able to actually visualize the Bible,” he said. “I especially appreciated our time in the Galilee, where Jesus went from town to town. It was moving to go out on the Sea of Galilee, where Our Lord walked on water and calmed the storm.”

The pilgrimage to the Sea of Galilee was also a high point for Father Albert Hauser, the pastor of three country churches in Morristown, N.Y.

“When we took the boat across it was so easy to imagine that I was right there with Jesus,” he said. “His presence was overwhelming. We had just read the Gospel from Matthew (28:20), which says, ‘I will be with you always,’ and that is how I felt.”

Father Hauser said the Holy Land retreat held special meaning for him.

“I came here not only because it was an opportunity to do the pilgrimage but because the retreat was designed for spiritual renewal,” he said. “I very much felt the importance of asking God for his grace to reignite the energy and enthusiasm I had when I was newly ordained 25 years ago.”

The group’s visit to Nazareth was a turning point for Holy Cross Father Pascal Garcon, who heads a boarding school in Brittany, France.

“There is a grotto in Nazareth, in the Annunciation Church, that is so simple and for me the simplicity is a sign of God’s actions. I just sat and prayed. It was good for me to stop and pray and read again from the Gospels,” Father Garcon related.

If anyone needed time for quiet contemplation and prayer, it was Father Francis Xavier Savarimarithu, the parish priest of Tamil Nadu, a southern section of India devastated by the 2004 tsunami. Father Savarimarithu, a member of the Missionaries of St. Francis De Sales, lost congregants in the killer flood, and one of the church’s four substations was destroyed.

“In our community, 150 families lost all of their possession in the tsunami, and one of the substations located on the shore was washed away. Three parishioners were killed,” Father Savarimarithu said. “It showed me that you cannot go against nature, and that life is not guaranteed.”

Father Caridi said he will never forget his visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem “where Jesus died and rose.”

“This retreat,” he said, “reminded me that there is a fraternal bond of support among priests and that we are united in spirituality.”

Michele Chabin

writes from Jerusalem.


Holy Land Retreat for Priests

The next retreats are scheduled July 15 - Aug. 3 and Jan. 21 - Feb. 9, 2007.

On the Internet: Go to and click on “Priestly Renewal Course.”