Several years ago, Sr. Briege and I gave a retreat to sixty or so French priests in the town of Nouan-le-Fuzelier. We did this in response to an invitation from Mrs. Cathy Brenti of the Community of the Beatitudes. At the end of the retreat, Cathy asked us if we had any other ideas about future retreats in France; we said "Why don't we have a retreat in Ars, the home of St. John-Vianney, patron Saint of parish priests?" She thought this was an inspired suggestion and immediately went about organizing it.
Sr. Briege and I were to be the main speakers: other speakers were engaged to conduct workshops each day. The Liturgy was solemnized in the most beautiful way; the music being provided by the Community of the Beatitudes. I have often noticed that when priests come together in a voluntary way to make a retreat, how God really blesses them. For my own part, this was the most important retreat that I was ever asked to give and it was blessed by an extraordinary outpouring of God's grace.
Sr. Briege and I use the Blessed Sacrament in all of our healing services. It is always my privilege on these occasions to carry the Blessed Sacrament amongst the people. What I experienced as I walked amongst the priests was something unique and beautiful; such faith and such confidence and hope that I saw on the faces of these priests brought me almost to tears.
We decided that part of the retreat should be a one day pilgrimage of reparation to the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Paray-le-Monial. Clearly the participation and the fervor of the priests brought them great consolation. I am convinced that that pilgrimage of reparation will be like a fountain of grace flowing out into the whole Church.
There was a complete absence of agendas in Ars. There were no murmurings from left or right. We were all there to seek a personal encounter with the Risen Christ. No one was ashamed to admit that he was a sinner in need of forgiveness and healing.
In addition to that, communal recitation of the rosary, prayer in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed and the constant celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation created an atmosphere of prayer into which all were drawn. I believe that every one attending the retreat was conscious of the number of people throughout the world who had taken it upon themselves to pray and intercede for this retreat.
Eucharistic Procession Through the Streets of Ars
She brought the idea to the Congregation of Clergy in Rome who suggested that it should be an International Retreat instead of being confined to France. On the run up to the beginning of the retreat, we were wondering how many priests would register and show up. As it turned out, over eight-hundred and fifty priests along with twenty-three bishops came from seventy-one countries. Nearly twenty priests came from China.
Many people will know that the priesthood has been under attack for some time now. This has been due to the actions of a minority of those in the ordained ministry. My own experience is that God the Father wishes His priests to understand how much He loves them and cares for them.
How much He desires to heal and forgive them because of their identification with His Son Jesus Christ, the Eternal High Priest. That was the experience of all the priests who came to Ars. One of the great graces at this retreat was the witness that these good decent men gave to each other; of their repentance and of their desire to be healed.
When we were planning the retreat with Cathy Brenti, it seemed to me that an important element should be a time of reparation and repentance by us priests for the sins and scandals relating to the priesthood, which have received so much publicity over the last number of years.
One of the most moving experiences of the retreat was the number of Bishops and priests, who with tears in their eyes, thanked Sr. Briege and I. One old priest from South America told me that in all his years in the priesthood that he had never attended a retreat that moved him so much.
Sr. Briege and I feel that retreats for priests should always contain those elements that are familiar to priests. During the retreat we solemnized the Eucharist, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who prayed for us during those days. Please continue to pray for the priesthood throughout the whole Church. Pray in a very special way for our Holy Father Pope Benedict and for all of our Bishops who have so many heavy burdens to bear in the course of their pastoral ministry.
Written by Rev. Kevin J. Scallon, C.M.