Following the Footsteps of Christ

Spiritual Renewal Course for Priests Offers Formative Experience in Holy Land

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JERUSALEM, NOV. 30, 2012 ( Spiritual Renewal Course for Priests, begun in 2005, is held twice a year – at the end of January and the end of July – in Jerusalem. It was launched by the Sacerdos Institute, an international organization dedicated to the ongoing formation of Catholic priests. Participants of the program experience firsthand the spiritual and historical importance of the Christian Holy Places, walking, as it were, in the footsteps of Christ traced by the Gospels.

Five basic elements are offered in this formative experience. First, it provides a clearly spiritual atmosphere, including three days of Spiritual Exercises. Second, the brotherly atmosphere created during these days among the priests is a golden opportunity to share experiences of the priesthood and exchange ideas for pastoral ministry. Third, there is the opportunity to experience ecumenical encounter as well as dialogue between different religions. Fourth, the chance to meet the local Christian communities and religious leaders is provided. Fifth, and most important, the program’s itinerary progresses according to the Gospel, in which priests can relive, step by step, the most important events in Jesus´ life in the places where they really occurred. These five ingredients combine to achieve one goal: the spiritual renewal of priests.

Fr. Juan María Solana, LC, Director of the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem, spoke with ZENIT on the program.

ZENIT: What does it mean to do a Spiritual Renewal Course?

Fr. Solana: A period of spiritual renewal is greatly needed in the life of a priest. All of us grow tired as time goes on, and as cars and machines need to be tuned up, I think people do too. Sometimes weariness, or perhaps illness or overwork, make it necessary for a priest to take a break and reflect, looking at his vocation as a whole. For such a break, it helps that it be quiet, relaxed, in the company of fellow priests, in a prayerful and spiritually sustaining atmosphere.  

ZENIT: Why the Holy Land?

Fr. Solana: A while back, I read a phrase that a group of Holy land pilgrims had printed on their caps: “It’s our common birthplace”… referring to Jerusalem. And it’s true: our Christian faith, our vocation, the very religion we profess was born there, between the desert and the river, in the city referred to by Old and New Testaments. So coming here is really a great spiritual renewal; it means going back to your roots, your beginnings. About 700 priests have attended the course in these past seven years, and I must say that the fruits are overflowing. God blesses those who make it a point to return to their roots and be renewed.  

ZENIT: What importance does this have in the Year of Faith?

Fr. Solana: This Year of Faith is above all a GRACE. God wishes to give us once more this marvelous gift. Yes, the faith gets worn out in this world, so strongly laicized, secularized, and far from God. The Pope, in his homily at the Inaugural Mass for the Year of Faith, spoke of a “desertification” of the world in the realm of spirituality and religion. What we need to confront this “desertification” is fresh water to irrigate our lives and renew us. I believe – and I say this from experience – that coming to the Holy Land during the Year of Faith is an even greater grace.

Just in the past few weeks, groups of pilgrims have come and left with their faith renewed and bolstered. I think this is a special gift that God wants to grant those who visit the Holy Land this year. As well, a pilgrimage, whether in Rome or in the Holy Land, is one of the Holy See’s recommendations for this year. If priests do this, their faithful will certainly benefit greatly, from their preaching as well as from their celebration of the Sacraments. In the parable of the Sower, it was Christ himself, who from this starting point, planted the first seeds of the Christian faith.

ZENIT: What will the participants find there?

Fr. Solana: First of all, they see just how real the events narrated in the Bible are. They experience that the colors painted by the Gospels are varied, and that each one has a special significance for the message of which they, as priests, are heralds. I like to use this image of going from a black and white TV to color. How often, people who knew a priest before he took the course, and now after the course meet and hear him, have told me how much has changed, for example, in his way of preaching the Gospel! 

ZENIT: How’s the record from past years?

Fr. Solana: We started during the summer of 2005, and since then we’ve been having two courses per year, one in the summer and one in the winter, with an average of 40-50 priests every session. I think the experience, along with the sharing between priests who share the same vocation, the same moments of tiredness and temptation, is very valuable.

ZENIT: What can be expected for the future?

Fr. Solana: My dream is that in time, the course can be offered the whole year long, so that thousands more of my brother priests can live this experience and receive these benefits for their vocation and ministry. I’ll do all I can so that this dream becomes a reality. I wish all priests could have the opportunity to visit the Holy Land at least once in their lifetime! Why in a course like this? Because it offers more time and more space than a simple pilgrimage, and also because a group of priests is a beautiful atmosphere in which to live these moments.   

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