A helping hand

Caritas groups give priests a chance to discuss the joys and rewards, challenges and struggles of the priesthood


by Kara Hansen
Special to The Leaven

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — “I see the priests who have been in prayer groups for decades, and I want what they have,” explained Father Andrew Strobl, associate pastor of Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe.

“Their ease with one another is incredible. They have gone through fire and crisis together. They have celebrated joys and milestones together,” he said. “It’s crazy to think that the group we just started might endure for decades.”

It’s the solidarity and accountability they see in these veteran priests’ groups that have made several newly ordained priests seek out such a group for themselves, early on in their ministry.

“I think that it’s paramount to have the structure of brother priests to share our lives with us,” said Father Patrick Sullivan, associate pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Lenexa. “It’s much like police officers or firefighters, who are able to rely on each other because they can relate to one another more than anyone else.”

Jesus Caritas priest groups are generally made up of five to seven priests and are formed following a loose model created by the Jesus Caritas organization. Each group requires its members to make a commitment to meet once a month for shared prayer, adoration, and a review of life. Usually, a meal is also shared. The meetings take up much of a day.

“The notion of having fraternal support in the priesthood is more important than ever,” said Father Mark Mertes, pastor of Holy Cross Church in Overland Park and the “national responsible,” or director, of Jesus Caritas. “Priests are living further apart than ever and are busier than ever before. It’s important to have a way for a priest to access support and set aside a time for contemplative prayer.”

Though he was ordained a short six months ago, Father Matthew Schiffelbein said he can already see how attending his newly formed Jesus Caritas group will be beneficial.

“Stepping away from the parish, even for a short time, can be important in helping refresh the ministry in the parish,” said Father Schiffelbein, associate pastor of the Church of the Ascension in Overland Park. “I can see how having our monthly group will help with that.”

Father Schiffelbein’s priest group includes Fathers Andrew Strobl, Pat Sullivan, Anthony Ouellette, Shawn Tunink, and Mitchel Zimmerman.

Father Schiffelbein said that being able to share the unique challenges that come with the priesthood was useful as well.

“There’s this amazing recognition that priests have the gift of entering into people’s lives at such important times — in moments of conversion, crisis, and great joy,” he said. “I might go from a funeral in the morning to a wedding in the afternoon, to hearing confessions and celebrating Mass, then back to the wedding reception — all in one day. You can go from the beginning to the end of life all in one weekend. We’re always changing gears, and that can be really challenging.”

Father Sullivan agreed.

“[The group is] really helpful for being able to talk about the many joys and rewards, challenges and struggles of the priesthood on an ongoing basis,” he said. “It’s also really helpful for holding each other accountable and calling each other on the carpet, so to speak.”

Being a part of a group with several recently ordained priests — as well as a few that have been in the priesthood for several years — has seemed to work well for the priests who were still seminarians not so long ago.

“Those of us who are new are able to share a lot of common struggles, while the more veteran priests can share from experience and offer feedback,” said Father Sullivan. “And I think we help them, too, with our new zeal for the priesthood and the new ideas we bring fresh from seminary.”

Father Strobl said he found the mix of experiences and personalities in the group beneficial. “

We’re all pretty much in the same boat, and the experiences of being a brand-new priest are fresh in all of our minds,” he said. “That being said, we have some very different personalities. That is such a blessing, because you really get to appreciate how God calls different men to meet the challenges of pastoral care.”

In a ministry and profession that requires major transitions on a daily basis as well as the larger transitions of changing parishes, the three recently ordained priests are looking forward to having their priest group as a constant in their lives.

“We know where the other guy is coming from. We see each other as brothers. We’re in this together. It’s awesome to be able to share and pray with other priests on a very honest and open level,” said Father Strobl. “Knowing you’re in this together for the long haul takes a lot of the pressure off. We know that none of us is going anywhere, and this support will always be there.”

For more information on the Jesus Caritas fraternity of priests, visit its Web site at: www.jesuscaritasusa.org.

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