Jesus Caritas groups bolster priests’ prayer lives
by Jessica Langdon
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — As pastors and associates departed in droves this week for the fall priests’ workshop at Conception Abbey in Conception, Mo., area Catholics were reminded of the need for priests to take time to recharge and renew — as well as to receive support in their ministry from each other.
But what do priests do between the two archdiocesan-wide priest gatherings each year?
Some, explained Father Mark Mertes, pastor of Christ the King, Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady & St. Rose parishes in Kansas City, Kan., belong to Jesus Caritas groups — small prayer and support groups for priests.
If your parish priest ever tells you he’s going to his prayer group, advises Father Mertes, there is only one appropriate response: ‘Please do!’”
“It’s a good thing,” he said simply.
And he should know.
Father Mertes was recently chosen for a second three-year term as the national responsible — or leader — of the U.S. Jesus Caritas region, part of the Jesus Caritas Fraternity of Priests.
The philosophy of the program is simple. Five to eight priests comprise a group, committing to meet on a regular basis. At their meetings (many meet monthly), the priests pray together, review their lives and encourage one another. Most are diocesan priests, although all are welcome.
Father Mertes has been part of a Jesus Caritas group for all of his 24 years in the priesthood.
“Once people get in Jesus Caritas, they generally stay in,” he said.
Likewise, once members attend a national assembly — like the one held in Kansas City, Kan., Aug. 1-5 — they tend to come back for the next one.
This summer brought together 40 priests from across the country at Savior Pastoral Center for the Jesus Caritas National Assembly. The assembly takes place once every three years, during which some business is conducted and elections are held.
But, true to its purpose, event organizers of the national assembly set a lot of time aside for fellowship and prayer.
Father Mertes was elected national responsible for the first time during the national gathering in Cleveland in 2008. This summer’s assembly resulted in his second term.
The role has allowed him to connect with priests not only in the United States, but around the world.
“It’s been a real blessing,” he said.
So were the days the group shared at Savior this summer. It was “profound” to experience prayer in the presence of so many longtime priests. The gathering took them back, said Father Mertes, to the type of prayer they always expected to have as priests.
Everything — from the meditative prayer to the meals — was memorable.
“This group knows how to just be together and listen to one another,” he said. “The prayer times were probably the highlight for me.”
This year, some of the presentations focused on one of the vital activities Jesus Caritas members undertake when they gather — a review of life.
Father Richard Warsnak, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Emporia, gave a reflection on that very topic.
“He invited us to ‘bring food to the kitchen’ that is our spiritual life,” explained Father Mertes. “So often we try ‘to cook without food’ — that is, work without being based in prayer. A daily practice of attentive prayer will help us to hear God’s ‘tiny, whispering sound’ in our hearts.”
Jesus Caritas draws its spiritual inspiration from Brother Charles de Foucauld, who was born in 1858 in Strasbourg, France, and became known for his life of faithful simplicity.
Father Mertes’ own small Jesus Caritas group has been a vital part of his life.
It has helped him address the temptations he faces as a diocesan priest.
“One is to work instead of pray,” he said.
His group draws him to daily prayer, especially eucharistic adoration.
“And the second temptation is to kind of be a lone ranger,” he said. “[My Jesus Caritas group] reminds me and helps me know the blessing of being in fraternal relations with brother priests.”
The group also shifts the focus away from many of the blessings one might enjoy in suburban surroundings.
“Brother Charles inspires us,” he said, “to always remember: Are we looking out for the interests of the poor among us?”
‘It’s very local’
Worldwide, Jesus Caritas has about 4,000 members, and there are roughly 1,200 in the United States.
In the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, there are seven groups with about 40 priests participating.
Any priest can start a Jesus Caritas group, and Father Mark Mertes encourages priests to look into joining a group or starting their own. More information, resources and links are available online at: www.jesuscaritas usa.org.