A serene retreat setting in the wilderness. (OSV News photo/Mabel Amber, Pixabay)

Finding Pilgrimage Opportunities

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On the one hand, it is only common sense that priests, just like anyone else, need their rest and opportunities for recuperation. On the other hand, sometimes even common sense needs to be legislated. The Code of Canon Law states that priests “are equally bound to make time for spiritual retreats according to prescripts of particular law” (Canon 276.2.4). But this cannot simply be limited to “days off” each week, time to “unwind” or be “off the clock.” There is a certain spiritual recharging of the batteries that is needed from time to time, and private or guided group retreats are one way that this can be accomplished.

There is a great deal of Scriptural basis for this need for retreat and rest, in both the Old and New Testaments. From the beginning of creation, for example, we read about God’s own rest. “On the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation” (Gn 2:2-3). This, of course, is the basis specifically for Sabbath rest, but is a principle that should be applied more broadly to the need to rest from work.

There is also a tendency among some (you know who you are) to burn the candle at both ends, to push ourselves too hard, not acknowledging our legitimate human weakness and need for rest. The Psalmist had something to say to those of us, “It is vain for you to rise early and put off your rest at night, To eat bread earned by hard toil — all this God gives to his beloved in sleep” (Ps 127:2).

The prophet Isaiah showed us that taking our needed rest can lead to victory over our oppressors. It is no exaggeration to say that the devil makes idle hands his playthings, and the same can be said for tired bodies, as well as tired minds and hearts. So when we take up that rest, we prepare ourselves for battle. “On the day when the LORD gives you rest from your sorrow and turmoil, from the hard service with which you served, you will take up this taunt-song* against the king of Babylon: How the oppressor has come to an end! how the turmoil has ended! (Is 14:3-4).

The prophet continues to describe the rejuvenation that comes from an appropriate restful retreat: “They that hope in the LORD will renew their strength, they will soar on eagles’ wings; They will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint” (Is 40:30-31).

Our Lord himself, during his earthly ministry, emphasized the need for rest, and the fact that we can find our true rest in him. The truest, most profound rest we can find, is in taking on the yoke of Christ. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,* and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Mt 11:28-30).

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that resting from our work means ceasing that work; again, while this may seem like a commonsensical point, it is something that many of us need reminding of: “Therefore, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God. And whoever enters into God’s rest, rests from his own works as God did from his. Therefore, let us strive to enter into that rest, so that no one may fall after the same example of disobedience” (Heb 4:9-11).

For a final reflection from Scripture, we return to the Old Testament, where we read about Elijah’s exhaustion and frustration, and the tremendous impact that retreat, relaxation, and refreshment had on him: “[Elijah] went a day’s journey into the wilderness, until he came to a solitary broom tree and sat beneath it. He prayed for death: ‘Enough, LORD! Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’ He lay down and fell asleep under the solitary broom tree, but suddenly a messenger* touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat!’ He looked and there at his head was a hearth cake and a jug of water. After he ate and drank, he lay down again, but the angel of the LORD came back a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat or the journey will be too much for you!” He got up, ate, and drank; then strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb” (1 Kgs 19:4-8).

Retreat opportunities for priests

We have seen how Scripture emphasizes the value of rest, true rest during which we cease our labors and seek respite in the Lord. More than a day off, this is a retreat into the wilderness with Our Lord, or perhaps even joining him in the Garden of Gethsemane, retreating away with him to take his yoke upon our shoulders so that he can give us his rest. There are many places throughout the country that offer opportunities for priests to go on retreat, whether privately, or in a group setting.

Here we take a look at a few particular retreat houses and opportunities around the country.

Priest Retreat House at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama. This retreat house bills itself as “dedicated to the service of priests, deacons, seminarians, and religious brothers”, to provide opportunity for rest, reflection, and recharging “in an atmosphere of peace, brotherhood, and sacramental grace.” The Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration provide the retreat house on the grounds of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament. The sisters recognize, through their devotion to the holy Eucharist, the importance of our priests, and the importance to prayerfully (and logistically) care for them.

Accommodations include a bedroom; a refectory so that retreatants can share meals together communally; a gym; communal and private sitting rooms for reading, spiritual direction or recreation; beautiful grounds; chapels for the celebration of private Masses; and much more. The retreat house can comfortably accommodate 18 people, and as many as 24. Most guests stay an average of four nights, although priests can stay up to 2 weeks, and all others are typically restricted to one week. The Retreat House is offered at no cost, but a donation of $60 to $80 per night is encouraged, for those who can afford it.

Holy Family Passionist Retreat Center in West Hartford, Connecticut. A spiritual center in the Passsionist tradition, Holy Family is open to “all who seek to deepen their relationship with God and one another,” according to the center’s website. This ministry is by no means restricted to priests. There is a wide variety of retreats offered, including those specifically geared towards priests. The most recent retreat for priests, for example, was Sept. 18-22, 2023, on the theme of the servant leadership to which priests are called. The Passionists, founded by St. Paul of the Cross 300 years ago, have apostolates all over the globe, and Holy Family Passionist Retreat Center is the order’s largest ministry in the world.

Joseph and Mary Retreat House at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois. Joseph and Mary Retreat House was originally founded to serve the priests of the Archdiocese of Chicago, but is now open to priests, deacons and laypeople from outside the archdiocese as well, particularly those from Illinois and Region VII (which includes Indiana and Wisconsin, as well). The Retreat House “strives to serve all who are seeking to nurture their faith by coming to this center for spiritual renewal.” The 40-acre grounds are heavily forested and feature a large lake, which provides an atmosphere of serenity and tranquility. There are 48 guest rooms, intended to be places of prayer and contemplation. There is also a stunning, small and intimate chapel that seats 54 and features liturgical books in English, Spanish and Polish. The Joseph and Mary Retreat House offers group retreats for priests, on various topics, led by priests and bishops from around the country. Costs for these retreats vary, but are usually in the $250-$350 range.

Our Lady of Bethesda Retreat Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Our Lady of Bethesda Retreat Center began in the 1960s as an apostolate of the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Name Province, but in the 1990s the archbishop of Washington, D.C., asked the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi to take over the facilities for their retreats and ministries. The center offers 5-day and 8-day silent retreats for priests, and these retreats are based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Directed retreats guide the retreatant by providing suggested meditation themes each day according to the Spiritual Exercises, and the retreatant meets every day with a spiritual director. The prolonged periods of silence in these week-long retreats provide an opportunity to really listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, and grow in intimacy with Our Lord. Our Lady of Bethesda Retreat Center Center also offers ministries for laypeople, including marriage enrichment programs, marriage preparation programs, father-son and mother-daughter activities, a clinic specializing in mental health services, and much more. There are even virtual retreats in the tradition of the Spiritual Exercises, with the understanding that a virtual retreat is better than no retreat at all.

This is a sampling of but a few of the places that offer retreats for priests. There are also retreats offered at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio; Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana; Clear Creek Abbey in Hulbert, Oklahoma; Sacred Heart Retreat House in Alhambra, California; and many more.

The importance of rest cannot be overstated, and not just rest, but recuperation and retreat with Our Lord. There are numerous opportunities for this, all around the country, including virtual retreats, which can be done from the comfort of home. There are many different styles of retreat, as well, which is important, as different styles are effective for different people with differing tastes and dispositions. So the opportunity is there — take advantage of it!

PAUL SENZ writes from Oklahoma.

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