SPECIAL TO THE CATHOLIC HERALD
Throughout the year, Fr. Dominic Roscioli, retired priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, travels to parishes, convents and other venues offering hope and encouragement through his many retreats. When he was asked in January to do a week-long retreat in July at a convent for Wheaton Franciscan Sisters in Illinois, no one thought about COVID-19. Rather than canceling the event, technology and some help from a friend allowed the priest to host his first Zoom retreat.
“I knew zilch about Zooming and even less about computers,” said Fr. Roscioli. “Never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect to do a retreat by Zoom.”
Knowing nothing about setting up a Zoom meeting, Fr. Roscioli asked Mary Olszewski, the leasing agent for the apartment complex he and his mother Angie reside in, for help.
“He came in with a computer and a phone and told me he had a Zoom meeting to do and didn’t have an understanding on how to connect to the Internet and set up the camera so they could see and hear him,” Olszewski said. “I brought him on my Zoom at first and explained to him how to use it and helped him set up his profiles.”
After about 90 minutes of explaining and setting up the computer and phone, she had Fr. Roscioli connected to Zoom with his own account.
“He is my favorite and I feel I would do anything for him,” said Olszewski. “He was ready to go and can now confidently set up his Zoom anytime he wants. I work here full-time so he is always welcome to call me, and I will drop whatever I am doing to help him.”
The themed retreat on “God’s Grand Design and How Your Life Fits In,” was held in a similar manner as Fr. Roscioli’s parish missions as he incorporated lessons with many of the stories he’d collected over the years from volunteering at Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang and Next Step Camps for children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.
“I told my stories from the 30 years at Paul Newman’s camps as well as my days of doing social justice ministry in Kenosha and going after scum landlords. And because the retreat was for the sisters, I told them funny jokes about pastors that I had worked with and told them they might be able to relate some of them to their superiors,” said Fr. Roscioli. “One of my stories surrounded an assignment where I was an associate and the pastor would critique what he said was my ‘bad theology’ through a speaker in the kitchen when I was doing dishes. One day, I pulled the speaker off the wall and told him he’d have to yell at me in person.”
Fr. Roscioli said there were about 50 who attended, which included about 15 sisters at the convent, others in the building and about 15-20 listening from around the country. He enjoyed doing the retreat via Zoom and would be open to it again, despite a couple of drawbacks. Most difficult for him was the lack of feedback as he told his stories, since the director thought it would be easier for the sisters. To help out, his 96-year-old mother sat in front of him throughout all of the sessions to make it more personal.
“Her reactions to the stories made it all seem more real,” he said. “Sometimes it was awkward when suddenly the group picture disappeared and I was suddenly at someone’s kitchen table, watching them go to the refrigerator. When that happened and I found it too distracting, I covered up my phone screen with a holy card of St. Francis of Assisi. Otherwise, it went well, and I would like to do more Zooming and believe it can be a creative way of reaching people who are in Covid twilight zone.”
According to Melanie Teska, director of liturgy for the Wheaton Franciscan Sisters, the retreat went very well, and she said Fr. Roscioli is a great storyteller.
“He has a gift for helping people connect the experiences in their lives with God’s love and care for them. He has an incredible zest for life and the people of God,” she said. “The Sisters loved Fr. Dom. They found him inspirational, real, funny and faith filled. One sister said, ‘I was refreshed spiritually, psychologically and mentally.’”
Some of the older sisters had difficulty with the retreat as it wasn’t set up for interaction and Teska said they would have related better had it been in person. For them it was challenging to feel as if it was a true retreat. Though Teska and Fr. Roscioli both prefer directed retreats, the Zoom experienced was a welcome way to be able to carry on in a world of cancelations.
“This virus is forcing us to connect with each other differently, as well as imagining new ways of praying and offering spiritual experiences,” she said. “I believe this experience can be improved and expanded upon. Having gone through the week, if I did this again, I would spend more time helping the retreatants to prepare themselves for the experience, creating sacred space in their homes, having discussion questions built in to the sessions, music, etc.”
Teska appreciated Fr. Roscioli’s real-life stories and his very relatable life lessons that she said he shared well.
“Under the circumstances, (the Zoom retreat) was the best way we could do it at this time. It is nice that we could share it with people outside the Motherhouse,” said Teska. “I like his spirit of always ‘looking for the positive in everything that happens’ and to ‘focus on your blessings.’”