Elizabeth Meier, the president of Women of Christ, and her leadership prayed and brainstormed throughout the pandemic as the event’s typical November date came closer and closer.
They were able to find inspiration to hold the event in a safe way that still had the potential to reach thousands.
On Oct. 10, 14 parishes across the Archdiocese of Milwaukee hosted “A Morning of Grace,” a half-day Women of Christ retreat featuring three local priests in pre-recorded videos sharing Christ’s message of love and hope during a time when so many have felt the great lack of both.
Mary Lestina, a St. Dominic parishioner, has volunteered with Women of Christ for the past eight years and offered her time again this year at her parish.
“The creativity of the Women of Christ leadership team has been awe-inspiring to watch,” she said. “To bring the women together in a safe form even though they couldn’t have a large Mass gathering has been a blessing. It’s something we desperately need.”
In his welcome, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki said, “it’s women of faith who provide such important leadership in your family, among your friends and as a witness to the world when it comes to living our Catholic faith.”
Fr. Patrick Burns, pastor at St. Francis Borgia, began the three part series by telling the story of Chicken Little, when an acorn falls on his head and he believes that the sky is falling. He questioned whether the story was about the chicken overreacting or if there’s more to it, reminding listeners that the chicken’s next step was to run to the king but first encounters her friends, the hen, the turkey, the duck, the goose, and tells them that the sky is falling. As they all ran together, they passed the fox and were pulled from their mission to his den, where they never made it out.
Fr. Burns finished the story by saying sometimes we fear the wrong things and put too much emphasis on others; then get distracted from what really matters. We treat one another like enemies without thinking about who the real enemy is.
He read what St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephisians (6:12): “For our struggle is not with flesh and blood, but with the principalities, with the powers, with the rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.”
He reminded us that our real struggle is for salvation against evil and the battlefield of our hearts is what’s at stake. He challenged listeners to recognize the loss of sacramental grace that has come with the past seven months, and the importance of restoring that in our lives.
He estimated that in his own parish there would have been 16,000 communions during the 10 weeks churches were shut down and wondered how many were lost in the greater archdiocese, in the country, and across the world. He said that if we really believe that the Eucharist is the body and divinity of Christ, our hearts should ache for it, and we have to believe that the lack of it has a negative impact.
As he closed, he focused on how bad the virus is but said the core issue is bigger because we’re dealing with a spiritual crisis and we need to seek a spiritual solution. He recounted a story of his time in seminary with his cousin, Fr. Philip Schumaker.
“We’d get to dead ends in discussions feeling helpless in the face of some challenge and he would say, ‘The solution is easy: we have to grow in holiness, we have to become saints.’” Fr. Burns challenged listeners to get back to the basics of the faith, to grow in holiness and strive for sainthood.
Fr. Nick Baumgardner, the associate pastor at St. Charles, spoke first about his mother, an excellent cook and baker.
“Food has always been a way for my mom to show love,” he said, adding that it was painful for her during the rare times her children were away from her and she couldn’t care for them in the way she wanted to most. “I never really appreciated this pain of my mom until I was unable to feed my own children.”
When Masses were suspended in March, he began to feel that pain.
He walked the group through history, during times when Catholics were kept from Mass, when they were forced to worship in secret in homes with priests who had to walk the streets in disguise. He talked about a specific time in the year 304 during the Diocletian persecution in North Africa, when Roman soldiers found a group of Christians. The proconsul berated the presbyter, telling him that he’d acted against orders. Unconcerned, he said, “We have been celebrating what is the Lord’s.” When the proconsul told him that he had to forbid entry, the presbyter said, “I couldn’t, for without what is the Lord’s, we cannot exist.”
Fr. Baumgardner quoted Pope Benedict XVI’s thought about the event, “That is not arduous obedience toward a law of the Church felt to be external to oneself, but an expression of both interior necessity and desire.”
Fr. Baumgardner said that the story indicates something that is so important it has to be done even at the risk of death, and asked if we really believe that we need Christ in the Eucharist, if we know that we cannot exist apart from him there.
Fr. Jacob Strand, the pastor at Holy Trinity and St. Michael, closed out the morning discussing all the reasons he’s heard people give about why they go to Mass. Some say they go because they were born Catholic, or due to the holy obligation, for the music, or because they want to be inspired by the homily.
“Every time I hear any of these reasons for going to Mass,” he said, “I get a bit worried, because if these are the reasons anyone is going to Mass, I guarantee you sooner or later they will be disappointed.”
Fr. Strand said the risk of leaving and never coming back is great if we only gather for superficial reasons. He added that even going to Mass for the sole purpose of receiving the Eucharist, while it’s good and worthy, isn’t the only reason to attend. That even if we’re unable to receive him, we need to be at Mass to pray, that being there to offer up our prayers in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is the most powerful prayer any of us will ever pray.
“It is so advantageous for our spiritual lives to pray intensely during the Eucharistic prayer,” Fr. Strand said, and explained that the priest isn’t merely reenacting the last supper or speaking to parishioners, but offering the sacrifice of Christ and speaking to the Father. Our job, he said, if we want to pray the Mass well, is to unite ourselves to the sacrifice of Christ and assist the priest in making the offering to God.
After the three messages women participated in a time of quiet Adoration, followed by reconciliation offered by several priests in each parish. Women were then invited to Mass and a time of reflection and continued prayer afterwards.
As of the writing of this article, 1,500 local women have seen the video messages and almost every parish that held the retreat initially has asked to run it a second time, as the Women of Christ Team is fielding requests from outside the archdiocese.
If you are interested in hosting the retreat at your own parish, email Women of Christ at email@example.com.