Report on a Gathering of Retreat Givers

Kensington NSW, 20-22 October 2003.

Twenty seven priests and bishops met in Kensington NSW for two days in October 2003, to reflect on retreats for diocesan clergy. Most of the participants had given such retreats in recent years, or were about to do so for the first time.

In each diocese in Australia there is a priest who has responsibility for ongoing formation and professional development of clergy. The titles and job descriptions vary somewhat (Vicar for Clergy, Director of Ministry to Priests, Director of Clergy Life and Ministry, etc.). In this report they are referred to as "diocesan directors", and six of these priests were present, including the diocesan directors from the largest archdioceses, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

I convened the gathering in my role as Executive Officer of the National Catholic Commission for Clergy Life and Ministry.

Genesis of the Gathering

The genesis of the gathering was the realisation that many Australian priests, particularly in larger dioceses, were not taking part in the regular diocesan retreats, and were perhaps not making other arrangements for an annual retreat. Discussion of this issue at the National Commission led to the decision to invite retreat givers and diocesan directors to come together to see what might be done to improve these diocesan retreats, helping them better to meet the challenges and needs of diocesan clergy. There was, of course, no expectation that all diocesan retreats should be conducted in the same way. Rather, it was hoped that the gathering might encourage and enable each retreat giver to exercise this important ministry even more fruitfully. If this hope is realised, then it is hoped that more diocesan clergy will participate.

An invitation was sent to every bishop and priest who had given a retreat to diocesan priests in Australia during the last five years, and to the diocesan directors of clergy life and ministry in the major mainland capital cities. Several of the retreat givers are also, themselves, diocesan directors. A diocesan priest from New Zealand who works in this field also attended.

At the gathering there were twelve diocesan clergy (including two bishops) and fifteen religious (from seven congregations). About twenty other bishops and priests apologised that they could not attend the gathering and expressed their encouragement and support.


Each day's timetable included Morning Prayer, Midday Eucharist, Evening Prayer and Night Prayer. We prayed the Prayer of the Church slowly, not only reciting the psalms and canticles but drawing also on the hymns and poems in the breviary.

The first working session was called The annual diocesan clergy retreat - an overview. Diocesan directors were asked to spell out the needs and expectations of the clergy who are attending a retreat, while the retreat givers were invited to answer the question "when I am giving a diocesan retreat, what am I actually trying to do?" Small group discussion was followed by a general forum.

The same process was used for the next session, The structure, mood and ‘feel' of the retreat. This led to discussion about the different ways of arranging the timetable, ways of celebrating the liturgy (including the Sacrament of Reconciliation) and the availability of one-to-one ministry. We also talked of the need to balance the values of silence, on the one hand, and, on the other, companionship or conversation during a retreat. This is an important issue particularly in large, remote dioceses where clergy meet each other only once or twice a year.

A third session was Prayer in the life of diocesan clergy, in which we discussed how to make the retreat itself a prayerful experience. The retreat givers spoke of the ways each of them talks about prayer and prayerfulness during a retreat, and what ‘exercises' he may provide to help and encourage people to pray (such as selected Scripture passages for lectio divina, or meditation points after each talk).

One evening the participants were free to indicate topics which were of particular interest to themselves, and form their own groups to discuss these. Five groups formed around sometimes-overlapping themes - diocesan spirituality; goals and planning of retreats; retreats as agents of healing; diocesan priests talking to diocesan priests; and identifying the reasons why some priests do not attend retreats.

The final session provided an opportunity to address any other issues and invited the retreat givers to reflect on the question "what will I do differently, next time I am leading a retreat for diocesan clergy?" An evaluation form invited comments on the pluses and minuses of the gathering, and suggestions for how this conversation can be carried forward and broadened.

Two other practical issues are worth noting. Extended meal times, and supper after Night Prayer, provided opportunities for leisurely companionship, often glass-in-hand. And participants agreed in advance to a fare equalisation scheme in addition to the conference fee. Thus, a priest from suburban Sydney paid the same travel amount as priests from Darwin and Cairns. The generosity of the local priests and their religious communities made it feasible for others to travel the long distances to attend.

Some issues that emerged

Duration of the retreat. In about half the dioceses in Australia the annual retreat begins on Sunday evening and concludes at lunchtime on Friday. (In one diocese it does not finish until Saturday morning). However, in other places the retreat does not begin until Monday night, and/or finishes at breakfast on Friday.

Diocesan clergy often arrive at the retreat venue tired after the extra preparations involved in getting away, with their usual weekend workload followed by the travel to the retreat venue. It is to be expected that it will take two or three days for a retreatant to feel relaxed and to have achieved some significant stillness.

There was a strong consensus at the gathering that the longer the retreat, the better. An obvious move would be to consider starting the retreat on Sunday evening if this is not already happening, and continuing until Friday lunchtime if possible.

There is also the possibility that a priest make a longer retreat which includes a weekend away from his pastoral appointment, at least in some years. Such a retreat may begin for example on a Wednesday evening and conclude the Thursday morning of the following week. At least in the capital cities there are places where such a retreat could be negotiated with retreat houses, houses of prayer and similar. Diocesan directors in the capital cities might investigate arranging such a retreat option and advertising it well in advance to the clergy of neighbouring dioceses.

Related to this issue is the increasing practice of clergy being interrupted during retreats, sometimes going back to their parishes, especially for funerals. Everyone at the gathering understood something of the pressures upon parish-based clergy but, as one participant commented, "when Jesus took his disciples into the boat so that they could get away to a lonely place to be by themselves for a while, would he have allowed James The Less to bring on board his mobile phone?"

The spirituality of the diocesan priest. When this topic was suggested for discussion in the time-slot devoted to interests of particular concern, eight people took part - a retired diocesan bishop and seven priests from religious orders! Yet, the issue was constantly referred to in discussion throughout the gathering.

Diocesan priests have often found that their ordered spiritual life in the seminary takes something of a battering when they begin their pastoral work. It is more difficult to maintain a discipline of prayer, the Prayer of the Church is almost always prayed on one's own, and every day one has to prepare some reflections on the Readings at Mass.

Diocesan priests are often diffident, sometimes almost ashamed, to speak openly about their prayer life. It is often spoken of in terms of what it is not - "I'm not praying the breviary as well as I should", "I don't meditate as much as I ought to", "I don't make enough time for spiritual reading". They often feel they are falling short of some sort of idealised "monastic" spirituality as they live their lives as "secular" priests, "in the world".

All participants, however, spoke of the great wellspring of wisdom and holiness that many diocesan priests draw upon daily in the pastoral ministry. Grappling with the Scriptures in preparation for their Sunday and weekday homilies means that, as one priest noted, "the Lectionary becomes our companion". If "wanting to pray" is a first stage in prayer, then many diocesan priests are hard at it. Nor can we underestimate the prayers said at traffic lights, or waiting for the doorbell to be answered at a home where there has just been a bereavement. It would simply not be possible for so many priests to maintain the quality of their pastoral care if they did not have a deep, solid, humble spirituality.

The richness of the traditions of the religious orders. Our discussion was often enriched with insights from the various religious traditions of those taking part - Benedictine, Carmelite, Franciscan, Jesuit, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, Oblate and Redemptorist. All these traditions, as well as others not represented, have much relevant wisdom to offer to diocesan priests. Many participants commented that one of the blessings of the gatherings was that priests from such different spiritual backgrounds and traditions could engage so deeply on these matters. A religious priest said in his evaluation form that one of the things he would do differently in future retreats was to "respond to the diocesan call to hear more of my own prayer life". A diocesan priest said in his evaluation that "the gathering has tapped into depths far greater than I imagined. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to share in these days".

Retreat teams. Retreat houses can offer varying styles of retreats led by teams consisting of clergy, religious and lay men and women. The preached diocesan clergy retreats traditionally are led by a bishop or priest or the occasional religious. Diocesan directors agreed that a team approach, and the perspective of women members of a retreat team, could be valuable assets to priests making a retreat. As a practical outcome, it may be possible to arrange for an occasional clergy retreat in major metropolitan cities to be conducted by such a retreat team, with invitations extended to priests in neighbouring country dioceses. Similarly, more publicity can be given to such retreats which are already part of the program of local retreat houses.

Participants were asked on their evaluation form for suggestions about how this conversation can be carried forward and broadened. Some of the ideas that were proposed included:

  • a written report of the meeting be prepared and published
  • in time a newsletter could be established for those willing to contribute, and/or a website be dedicated to this topic
  • engaging someone or some body (a theological institute?) to study the whole question of retreats for diocesan priests
  • an article be written for The Swag (the diocesan directors of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane have agreed to prepare this)
  • a national symposium be held on priestly prayer and spirituality
  • evaluation forms be given to retreatants after each retreat, and a survey form be filled out also by the retreat director (what seemed to "work" this time, what did not, etc.)
  • invite priests around the country to discuss "what are you looking for in a diocesan retreat?" and "what has turned you off from them in the past?" This might take place in deanery meetings, support groups, etc., with reports being forwarded to the diocesan director
  • another gathering along these lines be organised in about two years (2005), hoping that others who missed out this time will be able to attend,
  • investigate the resources of the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska (

In the evaluation forms several participants said that the gathering had been, itself, like a retreat, because of the spirit of prayerfulness throughout, and because of the depth of discussion about spirituality.

Other comments included that one of the good things of the gathering was the "meeting of consumers and producers!" (The exclamation mark is his). Another said that "the presence of two bishops was a real plus".

Several retreat givers said that, in future, they would spend time with the diocesan director before the retreat, to try to get some sense of the unique features of the group of priests who would be attending the retreat. One religious priest said he would go so far as to try to visit every retreatant in his home parish before the retreat.

A diocesan director added that "I was touched to hear the high regard and respect in which diocesan priests are held - an appreciation of their busy, isolated and sometimes lonely lives".

The National Commission for Clergy Life and Ministry is keen to continue and foster this discussion. I would welcome any feedback from individuals or from groups of clergy. Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or by mail to GPO Box, 3133 Canberra 2601.

  • Created: 24 August 2008
  • Modified: 23 April 2009