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Since 1732, the Redemptorists — a congregation of missionary priests and brothers — have followed in Jesus’ footsteps, preaching the Word and serving the poor and most abandoned.
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‘That minute started my life over’

From the Summer edition of Plentiful Redemption.

Editor’s Note: Names of retreat participants have been changed to respect the privacy of the individuals and the confidential nature of the retreat experience.

By Stephanie K. Tracy

On a beautiful summer morning, Darlene and her neighbor were on their hands and knees pulling weeds from the flowerbeds that they tended between their two houses.

Darlene worked 12-hour shifts and didn’t have much time for anything besides work and these few precious hours in the garden. On this particular day, however, her neighbor made her an offer that changed all that.

“She mentioned she was getting ready to go on retreat and asked me to come,” Darlene said. “Well, I hadn’t been on a retreat since I was a teenager!”

The group spent the weekend at the Redemptorists’ Notre Dame Retreat House in Canandaigua, NY, and the weekend “opened up a whole new area” for Darlene.

“That retreat that one year turned my life around,” she said. “Church wasn’t just going to church once a week anymore. It gave my faith more of an anchor so I really, really understood it better. I didn’t just accept the word on blind faith. The retreats have shown me just how rich and beautiful our Catholic faith is, and how exciting it is to be part of it.”

Thousands of people just like Darlene take time out every year to attend a Redemptorist-led retreat. No matter the theme, the season or setting, each retreat offers a unique experience – one of unconditional welcome and a life-changing encounter with a loving God.

“The way we preach is different. The way we hear confessions is different,” said Father Michael Sergi, retreat house director at Notre Dame. The retreat house offers 20 retreat weekends annually to a wide variety of groups — parishes, priests, religious, teachers, youth groups and everyone in between. “We find that people really get to unburden themselves here. Confessions are unbelievable; they start at 2 p.m. and sometimes we’re not finished until almost 5 p.m.”

Retreat ministry has long been part of the Redemptorists’ mission. When St. Alphonsus Liguori founded his spiritual family in 1732, their main ministry was preaching missions, a sort of extended retreat, in the rural areas outside of Naples. Retreats for religious sisters and priests, and eventually for lay people, quickly became a natural complement. These forms of “extraordinary preaching,” that is, the telling of the Good News outside of the usual setting of Mass, continue to lie at the heart of Redemptorist life.

Meg, a Catholic from birth and a graduate of 12 years of Catholic schools, grew up with what she called “a pretty frightening image of God.”

“It was this ‘you better do this or you’re gonna go to hell’ image of God, and it scared me as it would scare a lot of kids,” she said.

But about 20 years ago, during a dark time in her life, a friend told her about the Matt Talbot retreats held at the Redemptorists’ San Alfonso Retreat House in Long Branch, NJ. The friend encouraged Meg to attend, enticing her with the scenic location on the northern New Jersey shore. In addition to Matt Talbot retreats, San Alfonso offers more than 40 retreats every year, including retreats for religious sisters, charismatic retreats, and time for groups like Cursillo.

Meg, who’d been looking for a place to spend some alone time, agreed to try it out.

“Father Gerry (Chylko) led me to a point in my life where I can call God my friend,” Meg said. “He also showed me how I don’t have to have a prayer book in front of me to talk to God. That’s had a huge impact on my life; it’s a complete 180-degree turn!”

Matt Talbot retreats began in 1943 in Morristown, NJ, and are offered specifically for recovering alcoholics. The Redemptorists got involved in Matt Talbot retreat ministry more than 40 years ago thanks to the efforts of Father Joseph Kerins. Father Kerins was the provincial superior at the time, and himself a recovering alcoholic. Eventually, he began recruiting some of his Redemptorist confreres, several of whom were also in recovery, to participate in and lead the retreats.

Father Gerry Chylko, as a newly ordained Redemptorist, was one of those confreres persuaded by Father Kerins. Recently sober himself, Father Chylko agreed to help Father Kerins with confessions at one of the retreats. He’s been leading them for the last 30 years.

“Our preaching on the retreats is pre-evangelization a lot of the times,” he said. “Very often we get people who’ve been away from church for a long time and are just coming back now. In our talks we always give them content, we’re not just telling stories. There’s a theme and then we actually give our listeners something they can use.”

Matt Talbot retreats welcome participants of all faiths or no faith, and rely heavily on the familiar 12-step program. But the Redemptorists manage to sprinkle a little theology in their talks, and Mass and confessions are offered for those who want to participate.

“It’s one of the best gigs you can get,” Father Chylko said. “For me, it forces me to work on my own personal program of recovery. I can’t give something to someone else that I can’t use myself. And the group is always new. We always have new people, or the same people who’re just transformed, and they all keep things new and fresh.”

“Part of the Matt Talbot retreat is there’s a certain amount of camaraderie with the people there that can be quite attractive,” said Rob, who’s attended Matt Talbot retreats regularly since 1994. “The Redemptorists, when you talk to them on retreat, they’re really approachable; you’re talking to another guy who happens to be a priest. And I think that’s attractive to people, especially people who aren’t Catholic.”

Rob also described the retreat as a time when participants often find themselves helping each other.

“I’ve had it happen to me during free time on the retreat where I’m taking a walk with someone and all of a sudden he’s telling me all this personal stuff,” he said. “It’s an environment where you can do that kind of spiritual housecleaning.”

Anne had wandered away from the Church and run into several dead ends in her life, including an addiction to alcohol. She had married young and been divorced, and was convinced she’d never be able to receive the sacraments. A friend encouraged her to attend a Matt Talbot retreat at San Alfonso, and she agreed.

The retreat was to end with Sunday Mass and lunch. Anne’s friend encouraged her to meet one-on-one with one of the priests, but Anne was reluctant. As they were heading to the chapel for Mass, the pair bumped into Father Joe.

“My friend greeted him, and while pushing me forward, said ‘Anne needs to talk to you,’ and she left me!” Anne said. “He put his arm around my shoulder and told me he had more than enough time.”

Anne shared her story, and her pain over not being able to go to Communion at Mass. Father Joe offered some advice, and encouraged her to talk to her parish priest about getting an annulment.

“He then gave me absolution and for the first time in 13 years I was able to receive the sacraments,” Anne said. “I have never known such relief, such happiness, and such resolve to go forward with courage than at that moment. That minute, in that day, started my life over.”

Stephanie K. Tracy is the communications manager for the Redemptorists of the Baltimore Province.

Read more retreat stories here.