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STEUBENVILLE, OH—"The building block for the renewal of the Church is the priesthood," said renowned Scripture scholar Father Francis Martin. "What I see is that more and more priests are understanding that, they're understanding the life of prayer, and they're willing to offer themselves at the Eucharist along with the Lord Jesus."
From June 13-17, 150 men attended "In God's Hands," Franciscan University of Steubenville's 36th annual Priests, Deacons, and Seminarians Conference, structured for the first time in a retreat format. Coming from as near as Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and as far as Haiti, Ireland, and Washington state, the ordained and those aspiring to ordination gathered for a week of refreshment, renewal, and learning to rest in the Father's hands.
"Priests have a hard time keeping up with the pressures and demands of modern-day contemporary society, both within the Church and in the secular world," said Father Clement Machado, SOLT, author of Holy Hands and retreat master for the week.
"Now more than ever, we do need some time to rest in the Father's hands. How good it is to be together as the Lord's anointed."
He told the retreatants that the best way to promote the vocation to priesthood and religious life is for the brothers to "love each other and support each other through thick and thin. We belong to an order. We are not priests and deacons in isolation. One of the greatest sufferings a priest can have is the indifference of your brother priests, especially in the same area.
"The first priests were mocked, they were persecuted, they were derided, but one thing they kept was supernatural love, supernatural support through thick and thin. A priest is not a priest for himself. He is a priest for his brothers, a priest for others," said Father Machado.
And, in light of the gift at the heart of the ordained ministry, the retreat leaders see a renewal gradually occurring in the priesthood.
"I think there's a new spirit in the priesthood, a breath of fresh air," said Father Dave Pivonka, TOR, '89 cohost of the conference with retiring Franciscan University chancellor Father Michael Scanlan, TOR. "While we've come on hard times over the last couple of years, I think there's just a real reenergizing going on. You see that in an increase in vocations when you'd think most people wouldn't be interested in being a priest today. We're seeing guys who want to stand up for the person of Jesus and the Church and the priesthood and let the world see that we fail and we make mistakes, but we love the Lord and we're trying to be faithful."
Throughout the week, scores of priests concelebrated at the daily liturgies, heard confessions, and joined the deacons and seminarians for praise and worship, eucharistic adoration, and prayer. Bishop Pierre Dumas of the Diocese of Anse-à-Veau et Miragoâne in Haiti served as principal celebrant and attended the conference for the first half of the week.
"This is for me, this is for my church, this is a new beginning for my ministry," said Bishop Dumas, head of the Catholic relief organization Caritas in Haiti. "I came here to recharge my battery, to return to the sources of the faith. The days I've been here with you, God has opened my eyes.
"The situation of my country is so hard sometimes, you get fear. To come here, to stay, to pray, to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, I think is a very unique experience. I hope next year I will be here, and my priests will be here."
Bishop Martin D. Holley, an auxiliary of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., interrupted his attendance at the USCCB's national gathering in Seattle, Washington, to attend the conference for the latter half of the week.
"It's refreshing, it's a shot in the arm, to be back here now after 20 years," said Bishop Holley, reminiscing on his first Franciscan University Priests, Deacons, and Seminarians Conference when he was a newly ordained priest. "I'm looking forward to coming back again."
When asked his perspective on the state of the priesthood, he responded, "I would say that the priesthood is very strong. It is refreshing to sit here and hear some of these young men's testimonies where they say they want to follow the call of the Lord Jesus Christ. There were challenging times in the past, there will be challenging times in the future, there are challenging times now, but it is God's Holy Spirit that calls and helps the young men to discern to follow him. That call is still being renewed, refreshed in God's Church."
One man hearing such a call was Mark Bristol '11, soon to be a seminarian for the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York.
"The conference was amazing in strengthening us and calling us on to holiness, especially in the area of brotherhood, calling us men in formation and priests to love one another, to show that love to others and to share that love with the faithful we minister to."
In interviews after the talks, the speakers emphasized the responsibility of the laity to actively walk with their pastors on the straight and narrow road to sanctity.
"I think it's so important that the laity realize we depend on their constant prayers for us," said Father Tom Valenti, associate pastor at St. John the Baptist Parish in Yonkers, New York. "I would love to see more people in their prayer groups pray for their pastor, for their associates by name, for their deacons."
Kimberly Hahn, giving a midweek workshop, reiterated the responsibility of the laity to be educated in their faith.
"The world is not a playground; the world is a battleground. If we get into being casual Catholics, we'll be casualties. We need fathers who challenge us to learn our faith," said Hahn, author of Beloved and Blessed: Biblical Wisdom for the Family Life.
"Some people's faith is so private they hardly know it exists. Dear fathers in Christ, please tell the truth! Eternal souls are hanging in the balance. Let them know you didn't create these standards. They come from the heavenly Father who loves us, who made us, and knows what will work. I beg you, please, father us well. Draw on all the grace of the sacrament you've been given and provide a river of grace to us all."
For audio recordings of the main talks by retreat speakers, visit the University Bookstore Web site Conferences page.
Upcoming Franciscan University summer conferences include the St. John Bosco Conference (July 20-24) for Catholic educators, the Applied Biblical Studies Conference (July 27-29) for anyone seeking a deeper knowledge and understanding of Scripture, and the Defending the Faith Conference (July 29-31), which focuses on Catholic apologetics. For more information, including a complete list of conferences for adults and youth, go to www.franciscanconferences.com.