Going on retreat with the Lord this Lent, The Anchor, February 22, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Out Into The Deep
February 22, 2013

Back in 2008, Pope Benedict said that Lent is “like a great spiritual retreat lasting 40 days.” That’s why last Sunday we heard of the principal inspiration for this holy season, Jesus’ 40-day retreat of prayer and fasting in the Judean desert.

Lent is a time in which Catholics have traditionally sought to take time away from the circus of daily life, filled with a cacophony of entertainers and peddlers vying for our attention and dollars, in order to go away, be with the Lord, and seek to give Him their full attention. The same Holy Spirit Who drove Jesus into the desert wants to impel us to join Him in an undistracted, uninterrupted communion and prayer — which is what we call a retreat. That’s one of the reasons why Pope Benedict and all the members of the Vatican Curia made their annual spiritual exercises this past week.

Not too long ago, such Lenten retreats were very common. Retreat houses couldn’t be built fast enough by dioceses, religious congregations and other Catholic institutions. Cursillos were thriving. Retreat programs for teens, young adults, singles, engaged couples, married couples, businessmen, housewives, divorced-and-separated individuals, seniors and so many other groups were in high demand. People recognized their need, like Jesus’ first disciples, to respond to His invitation to come away with Him for a while and rest with Him.

But that’s not the way it is now. Retreats that used to be held monthly are held yearly. Retreat weekends for those preparing for Confirmation or for engaged couples that used to extend from Friday night through Sunday afternoon have been reduced to one-day sessions, and often half-days at that. This is not because the need for retreats has lessened. Quite the contrary: Pope Benedict said a few years back that “in an age when the influence of secularization is always more powerful” and people, formed by modern culture, are living as if God doesn’t exist, the need is ever greater that there be places and opportunities “for intense listening to [God’s] Word in silence and prayer.” The importance of a retreat, he added, “can never be insisted upon enough.”

But while the need has not at all decreased, the demand certainly has, because many people simply do not prioritize it. Caught up in the hustle, bustle, push and muscle of daily life, enslaved and addicted to instant communications and to the gadgets that were supposed to save time rather than gluttonously swallow it up, few people sense themselves even able to make a holy hour, not to mention escape for a weekend, or a work-week, or longer.

But the holy season of Lent is an opportunity for all Catholics to recognize our need for God and make a commitment to fast from other activities so that the Lord can have true primacy of place. It’s a time we resolve to follow Christ into the desert on retreat, to go away with Him for a period so that He can refresh us and send us back renewed. Especially in this Year of Faith, it’s even more important than ever for us to experience the deep renewal of faith that a good retreat is designed to bring about.

One of the great joys of my priesthood has been making and giving retreats. Priests are required to make an annual five-day retreat and it’s a blessed time to escape from phones, doorbells and the pastoral concerns that weigh on us each day in order to give the Lord our full and undivided attention. It’s a time to enter into more intense prayer than can be done ordinarily in parish life, to examine one’s life, to make the most thorough Confession of the year, and to rest with the Lord. My time of retreat is one of the great highlights of each year.

I also love preaching retreats, which I think is among the most beautiful and fruitful — not to mention demanding — of all priestly work. I’ve had the privilege over the last decade to preach many retreats to priests, seminarians, deacons and religious, those discerning, lay men, lay women, college students, the faculties of colleges, high schools and other Catholic schools, those preparing for Confirmation, and more. The more I’ve preached retreats the more convinced I’ve become of how important they are, as privileged times of conversion, as opportunities to put the Lord first and make resolutions to keep Him first.

I’ve just returned from preaching a retreat in Los Angeles for 92 women. In two days, I heard Confessions for 14 hours, gave six hour-long conferences and three 30-minute homilies, and spent most of the time in between writing the nine talks. As exhausting as retreat work is, it’s also exhilarating, as I get to observe God’s sons and daughters give their undivided attention to Him as God helps some of them turn their lives around and others to grow much more intimately in their relationship with Him.

In this Year of Faith, I would strongly urge you to make the time to make a retreat.

We’re blessed that we have so many good retreat programs and retreat centers within and close to our diocese. The Anchor regularly runs information on retreats for post-Confirmation teens and young adults, like ECHO, YES! and Emmaus. The Sacred Hearts Retreat Center in Wareham and the La Salette Retreat Center in Attleboro offer many retreats throughout the year for people of all ages and walks of life. There are Cursillos offered several times a year at the Holy Cross Retreat House in North Easton, which is one of the most effective retreat experiences for lay people, as thousands of Catholics across the diocese can attest.

Within an hour’s driving distance there are great retreats houses like Arnold Hall in Pembroke run by Opus Dei (arnoldhall.com) where I regularly make my retreats; Miramar Retreat Center in Duxbury, which is often used for the official retreats of the priests of the diocese (miramarretreat.org); and St. Joseph Retreat House in Milton, run by the Oblates of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where many priests and lay people from our diocese go to make retreats according to St. Ignatius’ spiritual exercises (omvretreats.org). Altogether, if my count is accurate, there are 18 different Catholic retreat houses in eastern Massachusetts alone.

If someone genuinely cannot make the time to get away to one of these retreat centers, however, there’s another way to make a retreat. Many of the deaneries in our diocese as well as several parishes take the retreat experience to parishioners in the form of Lenten missions. I’d urge you to try to attend one. The Anchor will be running news about these offerings in upcoming weeks.

And if that’s still not possible, there’s the possibility of purchasing the CDs of retreats given at some of the best retreat centers across the country (like sisterservants.org) and listening to them at home. Just last week I found another resource to help you to do this. Father John Bartunek has begun publishing a series of “Do-It-Yourself Retreat Guides” on the internet (rcspirituality.org). He’s prepared a brief retreat and offers it for free in three forms, a very easy to read booklet, a series of audio files if you prefer to listen to the retreat in a chapel or a quiet place, and videos, so that you can watch him preach it. Each of the three resources are well-produced and the content is rich and solid.

This Lent, as the Lord — retreat Master, mission Preacher and Guide — invites us to come away with Him in prayer for a while, we don’t have to go with Him to the Sahara Desert. He’s given us so many opportunities. Let’s respond to His invitation so that He can do with us what He regularly did with His first followers when He led them on retreat.