“They’re a great group of priests you have there. Wonderful human beings, great priests, holy men.”
Archbishop Emeritus Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis spoke of 28 priests of the Jefferson City diocese who were on a June 28-July 2 retreat he directed at Mercy Conference and Retreat Center in Kirkwood.
He believes it was one of the best retreats he’s ever led.
“That has a lot to do with the people who were participating,” he stated. “They were excellent in their openness and full participation and in their questions.”
He said two of the greatest strengths he recognized among the priests were their closeness and mutual respect.
“They are fraternal with each other, they are respectful to each other, there was none of the sarcasm you sometimes find,” he said. “Where there’s humor, it’s good-natured, nothing with an edge.”
The theme for the retreat was from Chapter 4 of the Rule of St. Benedict: “Prefer nothing to the love of Christ.”
Archbishop Carlson drew extensively from Chapters 13 through 17 of St. John’s gospel, which he calls the Priestly Chapters of John.
“The love of Christ is a tremendous blessing, but it comes with a challenge,” he noted.
Many who attended the retreat commented on the archbishop’s willingness to speak openly about lessons he had learned from past experiences as a priest.
“A retreat that has excellent theology is fine,” he noted. “But if you’re going to touch the heart of somebody, you have to give them a view into your heart.
“If you’re going to talk about weakness, you talk about your own weakness,” he said. “If you’re going to talk about prayer, you talk about your own prayer. And you have to talk from the heart.”
They key is to address the group in a way that meets each participant where he is.
“You want that individual to be able to reflect on the joy he experiences as a priest and as a son of God, along with any crisis of holiness he may be dealing with,” he said. “Otherwise, the retreat is not going to be real.”
He challenged the priests to be aware of their own personal challenges and shortcomings as they strive to be servant leaders, in the image of Christ, to the people.
He shared stories from his priestly youth and how he would handle things differently now, given the wisdom that comes with taking the time to pray and cultivate a deeper personal relationship with Jesus.
He emphasized the importance of being in a good relationship with God in order to offer Mass and administer the sacraments well, especially Reconciliation.
He called to mind a few of Pope Francis’s observations about what it takes to be a priest today.
“If we’re going to be effective, if we’re going to bring Christ to people, we have to reflect on being close to the people we serve, and on being people of compassion,” the archbishop said.
It might be easier to scold someone who does something wrong, “but compassion is what’s going to bring them to Christ,” he noted.
He said everyone knows someone who radiates the love of Christ in a way that makes their example irresistible.
“They could be very intelligent or simple and down-to-earth,” he said. “But whoever they are, something happened that opened their heart to the Lord’s heart, and as a result, they are able to love and make a difference.
“That’s something we’re all called to do,” he said.
Fifty-one years into his Priesthood, Archbishop Carlson still asks God every day to love him more.
“I’m fond of asking people, ‘When is the last time you asked Jesus to love you more?’” he said. “‘Or do you think you have enough?’”
He pointed out that the Church must evangelize differently now in order to carry-out its mission effectively.
“Big institutions just don’t have the influence they used to have,” he said. “It’s got to be one-on-one. You have to reach out to the individual.”
He said the Church in the United States has reverted from a state of Christendom to something more like Apostolic Times.
“When I was growing up, there were 19 Dominican sisters in my grade school, there were three priests in the parish,” he noted. “There were 21 seminarians just from my parish.”
A priest could preach whatever he thought he needed to, and no one would challenge him.
“Of course, you always said what Father should say,” he noted. “Some took it to heart and became great Catholics, some floated around but weren’t going to rock the boat, because ‘this is Christendom and everyone just accepts that.’”
In Apostolic Times, Jesus’s Apostles went out, filled with the passion of the Holy Spirit, and talked about Jesus Christ and His place in their life.
Some accepted the Good News, some walked away.
“Today, we’re in a time of relativism, where ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’ are not the same and I won’t listen to you if you don’t accept my truth,” Archbishop Carlson observed. “That makes the role of the priest much more challenging.”
It starts with inviting people to open their hearts to the love of Christ.
“If we don’t love, it’s hard to minister,” he said.
Time well spent
Priests of the diocese or ministering in this diocese are expected to take time out for a spiritual retreat each year.
This was one of two retreats the diocesan Ministry to Priests Committee organized for the priests in 2021.
Many who were present said it was one of the best retreats they’ve ever attended.
“I thought it was one of the best diocesan retreats I’ve been on,” said one of the priests. “I heard the same from a number of other priests who were there.”
Another lauded “the downto-earth personal experience and honest challenges the archbishop incorporated into his presentations and reflections.”
“He did a nice job speaking to us as a fellow priest,” a priest stated.
“He was so open,” another priest said. “He gave us great sacramental theology.”
“I found the retreat and the quiet and prayer time very uplifting,” another priest stated. “And I always enjoy visiting time with the other diocesan priests as well.”
“We really appreciated him and he seemed to really appreciate being with us,” said another. “He said he really enjoyed being with this group of priests, who have a lot of care and concern for each other.”
Pray for priests
Archbishop Carlson emphasized that priests need a lot of prayers.
“We expect them to pray for us, and we should also be praying for them,” he said. “Sometimes, we forget they’re human just like everybody else. And because they’re human, they need prayer every single day.”
Specifically, people should pray for their priests to be men of compassion and tenderness, who are close to the people they serve.
“I’m just stealing Pope Francis there, but it’s true,” Archbishop Carlson said.