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Jesus Caritas Fraternity helps priests support one another in ministry, prayer
by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff
(From the Aug. 2, 2001 edition of the Inland Register
An international gathering of priests, all members of the Fraternity of Jesus Caritas, held a retreat last month at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center in Spokane.
This was the first international gathering of the priest fraternity ever held in the Pacific Northwest. Some 39 priests from throughout the United States and overseas, as well as several from the Spokane Diocese itself, came together for the retreat.
One of the priests in Spokane was Msgr. Howard Calkins from the Archdiocese of New York, who served as “National Responsible,” a post similar to a facilitator, of the Fraternity in 1979. Msgr. Calkins was gratified by the turn-out, saying the number of priests attending “was a bumper crop.
Most laity are not familiar with the organization, known formally as the Fraternity of Jesus Caritas. It is a world-wide priests’ organization based on the spirituality of the Venerable Charles de Foucauld, a French priest who lived in the late 1800s.
The priests’ fraternity began in France in 1951, after a retreat given by French priest Rene Voillaume. The priest had become interested in de Foucauld’s life and founded a Religious order called the Little Brothers of Jesus, based on a rule Venerable Charles had written.
After Father Voillaume’s retreat, explained Msgr. Calkins, the diocesan priests asked, “Why can’t we live this spirit (of Charles’ life) in our own lives?”
“It’s such a grace to get the guys together,” he said. “It’s infectious and energizing.”
Father Voillaume came to the United States in 1959, traveling the country to give a series of talks and retreats about the Fraternity. One of the persons hearing that message and the most responsible for its growth in the U.S. was Father Dan Danielson of New York, who Msgr. Calkins called a “very gifted man, the Johnny Appleseed” of the movement.
Father Danielson, a popular retreat master who became the first Jesus Caritas National Responsible about 1968, traveled the country giving retreats on the fraternity. This was a time of turmoil for the church and for priests.
Msgr. Calkins said that at each closing conference, Father Danielson would challenge the retreatants by saying: “Let’s take responsibility for each other. I suggest here is a model (we can look at).”
“This model” brought diocesan priests into small groups called fraternities, and gave them a spirituality and identity. Groups number from four to eight people — most usually six — which meet monthly. While each group is a little different, the meeting’s structure is pretty much the same: Scripture sharing, prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, silent time, a sharing of life experiences, and fellowship.
Different aspects of the monthly prayer day appeal to priests in different ways. Some like the time of solitude. Others like the regular schedule for prayer. For some, it’s an aid to get refocused on the many aspects of their ministry. Others appreciate the mutual support and encouragement in their relationships with each other.
Still others appreciate the wisdom of their group in the sharing of their life experiences, especially those who have been together a long time.
Catholics in parishes have benefited, too. Priests’ experience with fraternity facilitated the formation of the faith-sharing groups that came out of RENEW and other such programs.
Jesus Caritas is strong in the Spokane Diocese. At least 40 diocesan priests belong to eight Jesus Caritas fraternities. Many have been members for 20 or more years.
One reason for the high percentage of membership is Bishop William Skylstad, himself a member for about 30 years. He strongly encourages priests to join the fraternity, believing the benefits of “sharing our mutual faith journey and discerning the wisdom of God in our lives” to be beneficial to priestly ministry.
When he became bishop of Yakima in 1977, Bishop Skylstad was instrumental in encouraging Jesus Caritas in the Yakima Diocese. He continued to drive to Spokane each month to meet with his Jesus Caritas fraternity. Now, however, he and the dozen or so other bishops in Region XII form a Jesus Caritas fraternity and schedule meetings four times a year. The bishops also join together for an annual retreat.
The Venerable Charles de Foucauld was born in Strasbourg, France in 1858. He became a priest in 1901 and lived in the Sahara Desert for 16 years, ministering to nomadic peoples, who were nearly all Muslims, offering them hospitality and assistance. In 1916, he was murdered by rebels.
Venerable Charles’s spirituality is simple, based on the love of Jesus Christ as shown in the Gospels: to be present to all people, especially the poor, offering them hospitality and assistance, and to accept all that comes into one’s life.
He gained no followers during his lifetime but, like his contemporary, St. Therese of Lisieux, Venerable Charles’s influence has spread far beyond what he might have imagined. In addition to the Little Brothers of Jesus, there are several other Religious orders, including the Little Sisters of Jesus. Besides priests’ fraternities, there are also lay fraternities. World-wide the fraternity has 4,000 members, about 1,200 of which are in the United States.
Charles was named Venerable by Pope John Paul II last April.
Fourteen priests made the 30-day retreat, called in Jesus Caritas the Month of Nazareth, and 25 others came for the week-long preached retreat that is included in the Month. Three priests came from overseas: Felicién-Bernard Endjimoyo, from the Central African Republic, Peter Njau from Kenya and Miguel Cabrera Jr. from the Philippines.
Eight of the 39 priests gathered round the center’s dining room table to talk about their organization. Two of the eight were from the Spokane Diocese: Father Joe Hiên of St. Charles Parish and Father Al Grasher of St. Mary of the Rosary Parish in Chewelah.
Other Diocesan Responsibles at the retreat who joined the group around the table: Father John Renggli of Tacoma, for the Archdiocese of Seattle; Msgr. Desmond Dillon, for the Diocese of Yakima; and Father Dick Rossman, for the Archdiocese of Portland. Father Grasher is the Diocesan Responsible for the Spokane Diocese. Father Ron Belisle of Camas, Wash., in the Archdiocese of Seattle, who represents Region XII (the Pacific Northwest) on the fraternity’s national council, was also present.
Father Grasher and the other Diocesan Responsibles see their role as being a link, not only between the groups, but between members and non-members, to assist priests in joining a fraternity. Father Belisle said they had “a responsibility to issue personal invitations” to others about Jesus Caritas.
The priests also agreed that how they live their lives is the best witness. Said Father Rossman, “We show them by our lived example.”
Belonging to Jesus Caritas helps priests support and encourage each other. Sharing time in small groups with a common bond builds community and enriches lives. But it’s much more than that. Said Msgr. Calkins, “It gives us a spirit and sense of connectedness.”
To learn more about Jesus Caritas, visit the web site.
All that, and geography lessons, too
One of the remarkable occurrences at the 30-day retreat was the presence of Father Felicién.
Msgr. Calkins said that the Month of Nazareth in Spokane was promoted at their international gathering last year and Father Felicién, who lives in the Central African Republic, had signed up. But attempts to reach him to make arrangements for his trip were unsuccessful since civil unrest in his country disrupted communications.
After Msgr. Calkins arrived in Spokane, on the Saturday before the retreat, the phone rang in the retreat center office. Since no one else was there, the monsignor answered it and who should it be but Father Felicién, who was in Washington — at Dulles International Airport, in Washington, D.C. Eventually he arrived in Spokane.
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