The Importance of Retreat

David Oatney Diocese of Knoxville, Prayer, Priesthood, Vocations


Bishop Richard F. Stika celebrates Mass with priests on retreat from the Diocese of Knoxville.

The priests of the Diocese of Knoxville are on retreat as I write these lines at Lake Junaluska in North Carolina. The Church asks all of her clergy who are physically able to do so to make a retreat at least once a year, something that their diocese or religious order will often facilitate (here you see Bishop Stika celebrating Mass for our priests on retreat). Our deacons recently had their annual retreat with Father Andreas Hoeck, Rector of St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver as their retreat master. I don’t need to wonder if it was a good retreat, as diaconate candidates have already enjoyed Father Andreas as an instructor and we’ll be having him again soon. He is a deeply spiritual man who, in my experience, radiates God’s love and the joy of his vocation. His happy yet humble apparent contentment in his vocation is an example to all of us.

Another such example of this kind of acceptance and joy in vocation is Father Michael Cummins, who led our Aspirant retreat in August. The theme of that retreat was service, and Father did a wonderful job not only giving exceptional talks about service, but causing us (certainly causing me) to meditate on the meaning of service. I was moved enough spiritually by the experience that I wrote about it here at Life At 25.

The entrance to the gardens on the Abbey grounds at Our Lady of Gethsemani

Retreats for priests, deacons, seminarians, religious, and aspiring clergy are often very good, and contain material that they need which will not only enhance their ministry, but their personal spiritual journey and overall relationship with God. The need for a retreat to recharge one’s spiritual batteries is evident to anyone who has ever had a close relationship with a member of the clergy. Those who spend much of their lives giving pastoral care to others need pastoral care themselves just as anyone else does.

The Church of St. Meinrad Archabbey. Several Knoxville priests have been educated at St. Meinrad. I am an oblate of this monastery, though I have not been able to make a personal retreat there since before I was married!

The Church of St. Meinrad Archabbey. Several Knoxville priests have been educated at St. Meinrad. I am an oblate of this monastery, though I have not been able to make a personal retreat there since before I was married!

The spiritual practice of a regular retreat shouldn’t be viewed as only something that clergy, people in religious life, and “holy people” do. Anyone who wants to better their relationship with Jesus Christ needs to make a retreat every now and then in order to get out of the world’s time and on to God’s time for a period more extended than we otherwise might feel that we “have time” for. That is an admittedly a great difficulty for many people in today’s society, since the culture no longer respects even a day of rest, but you don’t have to take a long time (though if you can, that’s wonderful) for a retreat to be of great spiritual value to you.

The Bergamo Center, Dayton, OH (

The Bergamo Center, Dayton, OH (

When I lived in Ohio, in the Dayton area there was a Marianist retreat house called Bergamo. Each year the Knights of Columbus council I was a member of at the time would sponsor a day-long retreat, usually on a Saturday. It was always directed by a priest, but we also had plenty of quiet time to ourselves to do the Stations of the Cross, pray the Divine Office, the Rosary, or just spend time alone with God. We also had adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Mass available. I would look forward to these Lenten day retreats each year, because at that time in my life to spare a planned day on a weekend was just about all that I could spare, but I often came away feeling like I had really spent some needed time letting the Holy Spirit actively speak to me.

The Guest Library at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Trappist, Ky.

The Guest Library at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Trappist, Ky.

One of the best retreats I’ve ever made wasn’t directed by anyone. It was a silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. I was invited to go by a Marianist priest I knew at the time, Father Cy Middendorf. Most of the people going were retired military personnel, I knew a few of them from the Knights of Columbus, and one of my best friends happened to be going so I roomed with him at the Abbey Guest House. However, once we had arrived and had Mass together, we were all on our own. We were told when meal times were, the rest was between us and the Lord. I followed the monks’ schedule all weekend, and prayed with them and went to Mass with them like clockwork. I spent time in the library reading and meditating on Scripture and other sacred books, sometimes nodding hello to a passing Trappist monk.


Christ Prince of Peace Retreat Center

We are fortunate in the Diocese of Knoxville to have the Christ Prince of Peace Retreat Center as part of our diocesan community. Having the center within the diocese means that “getting away” to make a retreat, even if for a day, is far more accessible to many East Tennesseans than it used to be.

What if you don’t have the time or the ability to go “away” on retreat? God wants you to spend time with him, and you can resolve to make a room or a space in your house your own “retreat center,” a place where you can get away to spend time listening to the Holy Spirit in the quiet of your heart. Making a retreat, even if that means a retreat to the front porch, parlor, bedroom, or kitchen table, isn’t just something for clergy and religious. The reason that clergy and religious have to make periodic retreats is because the Church has determined from centuries of experience that people who have a healthy relationship with Jesus Christ spend time in spiritual retreat, and the Church wants those who lead to have that kind of healthy relationship by taking the time to listen to the Holy Spirit in this way.

Aside from all that, I can speak from personal experience. If you enter into a retreat intending to make it a true retreat, to open your heart to God ready to hear what he might share with you, the Holy Spirit can use a retreat experience to change your life and help you impact the lives of others. Allow yourself to submit to God’s gift of a retreat in whatever form that might take, doing so with a prayerful heart. It will deepen your relationship with Jesus Christ, and if you let the Holy Spirit work, you’ll be a better Christian for having done it.