Father’s Annual Retreat
A time to recharge and reinvigorate our sense of purpose
Father Adrian Burke Comments Off on Father’s Annual Retreat
When I was ministering as a parish priest, I included a line item in the annual parish budget called “Priest Retreat.” I learned early on in parochial ministry how important an annual retreat is for recharging spiritually and reinvigorating my sense of purpose. After a year’s worth of ministry, I felt the need to revitalize and, frankly, sometimes repair my vocational identity. The priest’s annual retreat should not merely be considered something good to do when he can find the time. The Church not only encourages priests to make time for a spiritual retreat, but canon law requires it (cf. Code of Canon Law, No. 276.2). But let’s not reduce this to mere obligation — a priest’s canonical retreat is a spiritual discipline meant to recharge his spiritual life, nurture vocational identity and renew his personal commitment to conversion.
I am a Benedictine monk and priest of St. Meinrad Archabbey, but for the better part of a decade I lived and worked in parishes in southern Indiana. Currently, I minister as a spiritual director and work in seminary formation at St. Meinrad Seminary. In the ministry of accompanying diocesan seminarians in direction, I lean on my parish experience a fair amount. I mention this because I want to reassure readers that I have not written this article without knowing firsthand what it is like to minister in a parish setting. I know how challenging it is to maintain a healthy rhythm of ministry, prayer and wholesome recreation, minding one’s physical, spiritual, mental and emotional well-being. At times, I felt as you have, perhaps “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread,” to quote Bilbo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Fellowship of the Ring.”
When ministering to clergy in retreats, during reconciliation and or in instances of spiritual direction, I often hear how “thin” they feel these days; especially how exhausting it has been to navigate the perils of COVID-19, a stressful situation in which their congregations are often divided over politics and social unrest. Many parish priests to whom I have ministered more recently suffer from acute listlessness after a long period of lockdown at the height of the pandemic. Some priests describe it as “burnout,” and many report not having had a retreat in over a year, sometimes more than two or three years! I find that worrisome.
Burnout, I’ve since learned, has less to do with being overworked and more to do with a vague or ambiguous sense of purpose, what I would call one’s “vocational sense of identity.” An annual retreat can go a long way to restoring a priest’s sense of calling and purpose. In my view, it is a duty for parish priests to take time to recenter on Christ, to allow grace to heal weary hearts and renew our dedication to service. This should be done daily, during times of personal prayer, but a more intensive spiritual therapy is needed, too, by means of an annual spiritual retreat.
Bishops expect their priests to take spiritual well-being seriously — in fact, their ministries rely on it. So, in my view, holding priests accountable for taking the time for an annual, canonical retreat is an important way bishops and religious superiors can support their ministries. The laity, too, should encourage their priests to take time for a retreat every year!
How can a priest make the most of his canonical spiritual retreat. First, he must be committed to making the spiritual retreat an annual event. Each year, as you plan the parish budget for the next fiscal year, include a line item to fund your canonical retreat (five days at least), establish the dates and block it out in your personal calendar, and the parish calendar, to make sure it happens! Then, find a retreat center, a quiet place away from the parish (and the rectory) and get away from your usual surroundings. By going away on retreat, you remove yourself from environmental distractions. Also, be disciplined about cellphone and laptop use (leave the latter at the parish), because they will disturb your recollection and sabotage your prayer. Check your cellphone just once or twice a day and, if necessary, turn it off for the rest of the day. And, please, refrain from social media while on retreat. Set up an automatic reply for your email letting folks know you are on retreat and that you will reply to their email when you return to the parish.
We like to keep our hands on the wheel when driving — which is good — but when spending time with God on retreat, allow the Holy Spirit to take the wheel. Control makes us feel secure, but God wants us to realize that our lives are in God’s hands, and to trust that. So, before you even depart for the retreat center, commit to releasing your white-knuckled grip on the wheel and allow the Spirit to shape your prayer. Don’t predetermine your agenda. God knows better than we do what we really need to hear in prayer and where growth, healing and mercy are needed. Prayer is our consent to what God wants to do in us, so allow God to do the heavy lifting!
In practical terms, we can let God direct us in a couple of ways. One way is to open the “ear of the heart” to the ministry of another by attending a preached retreat, with conferences offered in a group setting by a reputable retreat master. The internet is useful for finding preached retreats for clergy or priests. Don’t limit yourself, however; there is not a special Gospel just for priests. Being on retreat with a diverse group can be a powerful way to experience the whole Christ ministering to you.
Trust God’s Word to communicate what you need to hear, as you need to hear it. “Listen with the ear of the heart” is a Benedictine maxim apt for everyone. The discipline of attentive listening to God’s Word, pondering it and discerning a response — listen, ponder, respond — allows God’s Word to work on us from within, presenting new perspectives, deepening our perception and prompting us to loving action. This is the stuff of ongoing conversion and true obedience!
Some priests prefer private retreats. Another means of surrendering control to the Spirit is to practice solitude with holy Scripture, utilizing lectio divina as a rudder to steer through the week. Leave the choice of Scripture in the Spirit’s hands by utilizing the daily Mass readings. Through careful listening and prayerful engagement in meditation and reflection we exercise faith and entrust ourselves to God’s Word.
All sorts of retreat centers offer room and board to those seeking solitude and silence, and some places will even provide sessions with a private retreat director — don’t hesitate to ask about silence and the possibility of a director when making your reservations.
I’m an introvert, but when I’m nervous I talk a lot! That’s how I used to pray. I did most of the talking with minimal listening. Allowing God to do the talking is particularly challenging when God’s primary way of communicating is through communion, according to the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Being attentive to the Word that comes to us in the everyday events of life is a vital spiritual discipline. An especially effective means of honing a discerning heart is to practice lectio divina — the slow and deliberate reading of Scripture; meditating and reflecting; responding with interior movements of praise, compunction, solicitude and gratitude; and, finally, simply resting silently in the Word just encountered. In the final “movement” of lectio divina — contemplation — we relinquish all agency to God, resting receptively in God’s pure and simple presence, the end and goal of our prayer.
Another way to cultivate a listening, discerning heart is to practice silence at various times of the day while on retreat. Eat a meal in silence; relish your food and attend to its flavor and texture, enjoy the sense of taste and the pleasure it provides. Slow down, be attentive! Take a walk outside and allow your mind to slow its discursive stream of consciousness. Be attentive to your senses without analyzing. Practice open receptivity without mental comment. Spend time before the reserved sacrament each day focusing only on God’s simple presence without the need to say anything. Just be present: “Be still and know that I am God!” (Ps 46:11).
I enjoy reading, it’s my preferred form of relaxation in the evening, but I would encourage the bibliophiles among us to avoid taking a lot of books while on retreat. Not that you shouldn’t read anything besides Scripture, but limit yourself to just one or, at most, two spiritual books besides your Bible. Take reading material with you that will spark reflection and prayer. Don’t bring something you’re just trying to get through because it’s been on your books-to-be-read pile for a long time, a stack of books, which, for bibliophiles like me, is always too high.
Keep in mind you are on retreat, not on vacation. Retreat is a time for disposing oneself to grace by engaging with the Word of God. Know what you are there to be renewed, recentered and to recommit to your priestly ministry. Novels are for vacation; they provide entertaining escapes into imaginative worlds. Spiritual reading is for awakening a deeper sense of God’s world. Leave the theologically dense books at home, too, and keep your spiritual reading inspirational. Academic or technical works are geared more to study than prayer.
Contemporary spiritual authors are good, and so are the “greats.” Diocesan priests are often drawn to Ignatius of Loyola, Francis de Sales or Augustine. I have also found that the Second Vatican Council’s “On the Ministry and Life of Priests” (Presbyterorum ordinis) or “The Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes) can breathe new life into a deflated or tired priestly identity.
It shouldn’t be taken for granted that the sacramental forms of God’s self-communicating grace are critical to ongoing conversion. Allowing a place for the Eucharist in your retreat — whether celebrating alone in your guest room or with a group in the chapel — deepens awareness of and consent to God’s ongoing work in us (as St. Paul notes in 1 Thessalonians 2:13 and Philippians 2:13) and of our communion with the whole Christ (Totus Christus, as St. Augustine says), who continues to do the works of the Father (cf. Eph 2:10; Heb 13:21). We are made to receive God’s love and mercy, and we belong to Christ as ministers of his Gospel. In my view, there is no more significant way to renew our vocational sense of self than by encountering Christ as Word and Sacrament in the Eucharist.
Sometimes I hear priests say that they prefer their own confessor to a stranger (I used to say that myself), so they refrain from availing themselves of the Sacrament of Reconciliation while on retreat. I believe this is a missed opportunity. If our retreat is meant to revitalize our vocational sense of self, it is critical that we consent to receive the very grace we’re ordained to minister in the Church — the reconciliation that comes through the mercy of Christ.
Finally, I’d like to suggest taking a notebook on retreat to jot down thoughts, insights received or inspirational quotes and biblical passages to revisit in the days following your retreat. Reread what you wrote and continue to engage those thoughts in prayer. Sometimes the Spirit provides further insights over time. I carry a pocket-sized notebook with me every day and jot down thoughts that come to mind during prayer, lectio divina or spiritual reading, some of which occasionally end up in homilies. Be generous. What God gives you is meant to be shared. Let your retreat bear fruit in you that lasts.
FATHER ADRIAN BURKE, OSB, is a Benedictine priest monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana. In 2022 he celebrated 25 years as a priest and his 30th year since entering monastic life. He earned an STL in spirituality from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome. In addition to serving as a spiritual director for seminarians, he directs private and group retreats for clergy, religious and the laity.
“In leading their lives, clerics are bound in a special way to pursue holiness since, having been consecrated to God by a new title in the reception of orders, they are dispensers of the mysteries of God in the service of His people.
In order to be able to pursue this perfection:
“1/ they are first of all to fulfill faithfully and tirelessly the duties of the pastoral ministry;
“2/ they are to nourish their spiritual life from the twofold table of sacred Scripture and the Eucharist; therefore, priests are earnestly invited to offer the eucharistic sacrifice daily and deacons to participate in its offering daily;
“3/ priests and deacons aspiring to the presbyterate are obliged to carry out the Liturgy of the Hours daily according to the proper and approved liturgical books; permanent deacons, however, are to carry out the same to the extent defined by the conference of bishops;
“4/ they are equally bound to make time for spiritual retreats according to the prescripts of particular law;
“5/ they are urged to engage in mental prayer regularly, to approach the sacrament of penance frequently, to honor the virgin Mother of God with particular veneration, and to use other common and particular means of sanctification.”
— Code of Canon Law, No. 276