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Father Gregory Meystrik was walking to noon Mass at the Basilica of Ars in France when two children drew near and said something in their native tongue.
At first, he couldn’t understand them.
“I finally figured out that they were asking me if I’m a priest,” said Fr. Meystrik, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Rolla, Immaculate Conception Parish in St. James and St. Anthony Parish in Rosati.
The three exchanged pleasantries through gestures and facial expressions, and the children and their parents wound up sharing a pew with Fr. Meystrik at Mass.
“They were so kind and engaging in dialogue with a fellow who couldn’t communicate much in French,” Fr. Meystrik recalled. “Their hospitality and enthusiasm in meeting someone with an alb and a priest’s white stole in hand — that must have been a clue for them to inquire about me and Mass.”
It was an apt prelude to a holy gathering in a place priests have been turning to for inspiration for over 100 years.
Fr. Meystrik was one of 20 priests from the Jefferson City diocese who joined Bishop W. Shawn McKnight in France for an Easter Season pilgrimage and canonical retreat.
The town of Ars-sur-Formans was where St. John Vianney, known as the Curé of Ars, patron saint of parish priests, carried out his priestly ministry, offering daily Mass and hearing Confessions for up to 16 hours a day.
“Curé” is an archaic word meaning “one who exercises care of or cure for the souls.”
Fr. Meystrik encountered many other people in the town who were kind, engaging, helpful and cheerful — “what I’d call ‘ambassadors of hospitality,” he said.
It reminded him of home.
“I see this kind of enthusiasm and intrigue about faith and life in the children and students of my parishes,” he stated. “It absolutely warmed my heart to see the same thing in France.”
“Inspiration and memories”
Church law requires priests to make an annual retreat to help them stay prepared for the rigors of ministry.
This priestly pilgrimage to Ars was originally planned for 2020 but was delayed twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Priests individually paid $900 for the pilgrimage from their salaries, with some additional expenses covered by a donor.
They stayed in a monastery during their retreat, with simple but comfortable accommodations.
Several parishes back home had visiting priests offer weekend Masses for the pastors who were on the pilgrimage. In some parishes, with Bishop McKnight’s permission, deacons presided at a Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest, with the Eucharist having already been consecrated at a Mass.
Father Matthew Flatley, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Jefferson City, called the retreat “a stroke of genius” — “just what the Divine Physician ordered.”
“As full-time ministers in the Church, and just like many other lay ministers, we come out of the stupendous Holy Week Liturgies exhausted and in need of rest and refreshment,” he said. “This retreat and pilgrimage offered just that and more.”
The bishop and priests said they’re grateful for the sacrifices people made while they were away.
“It’s a blessing to have this time in prayer with priests from our diocese,” said Bishop McKnight. “This has been a time of grace for us on retreat and pilgrimage.”
“It was a wonderful experience filled with inspiration and memories — one that I’m grateful for and will benefit from spiritually for the rest of my life,” said Father Christopher Cordes, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Columbia, and diocesan vicar for priests.
“God bless all those who made it possible for me to be here with brother priests for a retreat and tours,” said Father Henry Ussher, pastor of St. Clement Parish in St. Clement, St. Joseph Parish in Louisiana and the Mission of Our Lady Queen of Peace in Clarksville.
Upon arriving in France, the bishop and priests visited Dardilly, hometown of St. John Vianney.
“What a blessing to be on retreat in the place where the patron saint of priests ministered in the vineyard of the Lord!” said Father Stephen Jones, diocesan director of stewardship.
The priestly pilgrims toured St. John Vianney’s childhood home and the place where he was baptized.
Bishop McKnight and the priests offered Mass together each day in the Basilica of St. Sixtus, the parish church of Ars.
For one Mass, Bishop McKnight used St. John Vianney’s own chalice.
The group toured the rectory where the Curé lived, pausing at the confessional where he tirelessly ministered as an agent of God’s mercy.
Father Joby Thomas, pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Moberly, marveled at seeing “the house, the items he used, the clothes, his coffin, the picture of his uncorrupted body and a few other photos of the surroundings.”
The priests and bishop stayed at “La Providence,” a former orphanage and girls’ school built by Fr. Vianney.
“It has been transformed into a simple guest house run by a community of religious sisters,” Fr. Jones noted. “They’ve been gracious hosts.”
The retreat director was Father Brett Brannen, a priest of the Diocese of Savannah, Georgia, who is director of spiritual formation at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio.
“He began the retreat by asking us to ask God what he will renew in us on this retreat ... and then allow Christ to do that renewing,” Father Gregory Oligschlaeger, pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Monroe City and St. Stephen Parish in Indian Creek, wrote to his parishioners.
Fr. Flatley said the message was incredibly affirming.
“First, he thanked us for being priests,” Fr. Flatley recalled. “He informed us that he considers priests to be heroes in the modern era. He extolled us to be men of prayer, and reminded us that our first vocation is to be holy. We are charged to bring Jesus Christ to the people, and the people to Christ ... to be men of mercy.”
Priests presiding at Benediction each evening used the monstrance St. John Vianney had used to bless his parishioners thousands of times as pastor.
“What a great gift to be able to bless my brother priests and bishop with Christ’s Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, using such a storied and revered item!” said Fr. Jones.
Father Dylan Schrader, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Westphalia and St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Folk, noticed numerous reminders of the Church’s mystical unity in Christ.
“Such moments are visible expressions of Catholic communion across time and around the world,” said Fr. Schrader.
He observed how Bishop McKnight, praying the Eucharistic Prayer with the priests at Mass, referred to “Francis our pope, me your unworthy servant, and my brother, Olivier, the bishop of this place.”
“Within the Mass, one of the visible bonds of communion of the Catholic Church is expressed by the fact that the priest always names the Bishop of Rome (the pope) and the local bishop,” Fr. Schrader said.
When a bishop celebrates Mass in his own diocese, he names the pope and mentions himself by saying “and me, your unworthy servant.”
“When a bishop celebrates Mass outside his diocese,” Fr. Schrader pointed out, “he names the pope, mentions himself, and names the local bishop.”
Fr. Schrader said it’s extremely important in Catholicism to be in communion with one’s own bishop, in communion with the college of bishops throughout the world and the head of the college of bishops — the Bishop of Rome.
“That communion is not just lip-service,” Fr. Schrader stated. “It has tangible, on-the-ground expressions.
“It’s the same as a second-century presbyter appealing to his bishop, ordained by the Apostles, just with more links in the chain,” he said.
Upon conclusion of the retreat, the priests and bishop traveled to Paray-le-Monial, where St. Margaret Mary Alacoque received apparitions of Jesus, renewing the Church’s devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The group offered Mass together on Divine Mercy Sunday in the chapel where the apparitions took place.
“This is where Our Lord appeared to St. Marguerite Marie Alacoque three times, asking the world to turn to his Sacred Heart to receive the mercy of God,” said Fr. Thomas.
Fr. Jones pointed out that while the Christian faith is in decline in much of the Western world, especially in Europe, “that does not seem to be the case in Paray-le-Monial.”
“We visited two churches in a fairly small town, both of which were in the middle of Mass upon our arrival,” he stated.
“Both churches were full of locals, and the Mass in the basilica was overwhelmingly packed with people under 40 and tons of families and kids,” he said.
The group also visited Nevers, France, where St. Bernadette Soubirous spent her later years as a religious sister in the Convent of St. Gildard.
As a child, St. Bernadette received apparitions of the Blessed Mother under the title of the Immaculate Conception in a grotto in Lourdes.
The priests and bishop visited the convent on the 144th anniversary of St. Bernadette’s death.
From there, they went to Bourges to visit the massive, medieval Cathedral of St. Stephen and then the 800-year-old Cathedral of Our Lady in Chartres.
“My camera could not do justice to the grandeur of any of these places,” Fr. Thomas stated.
They spent the following night at Mont-St-Michel, offered Mass in the morning in the local parish church, and toured the mountaintop village and the former Benedictine abbey there.
Some gave all
On April 18, the pilgrims visited Pointe du Hoc, the wall of rock scaled by U.S. Army Rangers on D-Day in World War II, and the beach at Omaha, on which thousands of Allied troops landed in the campaign to defeat Nazi Germany.
The group also visited the American Cemetery in Normandy, where 9,000 plus soldiers who died in the war are buried and memorialized.
The priests and bishop observed the flag-lowering ceremony at dusk, accompanied by the playing of “Taps” and the ceremonial carrying away of the flags of France and the United States that are posted over the cemetery.
Father Nicholas Reid, a priest of the Jefferson City diocese who’s serving as a U.S. Air Force chaplain, led the praying of the Rosary there.
“We are thankful for all who gave their lives for our freedom,” said Bishop McKnight.
“In our midst”
On April 19, the priests and bishop concluded their pilgrimage by celebrating the Votive Mass of St. Thérèse of Lisieux in the crypt of the basilica that bears her name.
Fr. Cordes said the entire journey combined a restful, spiritually uplifting retreat surrounded by the spirit of St. John Vianney and the beauty of the French countryside, with an invigorating, fast-paced, road-trip-style pilgrimage to meaning-filled locations, concluding with a quiet day in Lisieux, “still filled with the influence of St. Thérèse.”
“Spending the days with Bishop McKnight and 19 priests of our diocese, enjoying the Liturgies and prayer times, French foods, conversations and other adventures provided a unique opportunity to celebrate diocesan Priesthood and the mission of pastoral service that we share,” he said.
Fr. Flatley said he returned to his post, filled with gratitude.
“Grateful to be engaged in ministry, grateful for the exquisite opportunity to serve as a shepherd, and grateful to be a priest,” he said.
Fr. Meystrik proclaimed: “We can give thanks for the life within the Church. I think the Lord is doing good things in our midst — at home and in France.”
Much of the information in this article came from correspondence with Fr. Cordes, Fr. Flatley, Fr. Meystrik and Fr. Schrader and from social media posts by Bishop McKnight, Father Cesar Anicama, Father Paul Clark, Father William Debo, Fr. Jones, Father Boniface Kasiita Nzabonimpa, Fr. Oligschlaeger, Fr. Thomas and Fr. Ussher.