FALMOUTH, Mass. – About 90 priests from the diocese gathered on Cape Cod last week for a three day-long retreat. The retreat is an biennial event for priests to connect with each other and talk about current issues within the diocese.
Father Marcel L. Taillon, the director of ongoing formation of priests for the diocese, organized the retreat, “The Transformation of the Priesthood Through the Power of the Cross.” This year, the speaker was Benedictine Father Thomas P. Acklin, a monk from Pennsylvania. He spoke about the practical things priests need to do to work on their holiness — the real power of priesthood that comes from service and humility. Bishop Thomas J. Tobin also spoke about the priest as a prophet in a talk during an afternoon presentation.
In addition to listening to lectures, the priests gathered at the retreat had time to pray together and privately, attend Masses and receive the sacrament of reconciliation from a priest from the Diocese of Fall River, Mass.
There was also free time to spend in Falmouth and social time. Many of the priests gathered on Wednesday night to watch the Red Sox win the first game of the World Series. This event is an opportunity to “build spiritual fraternity and ... priestly fraternity,” said Father Taillon. He added that many of the priests found the retreat “refreshing.
“It’s a sad thing that not all priests can come,” he added. The retreat is held in Cape Cod to create a little distance from Rhode Island. “We try to get outside the diocese just to give people a break ... (so priests will) not be tempted to run back to their parish,” Father Taillon said.
This retreat is just one component of the ongoing education for priests. There are four areas — academic, spiritual, pastoral, and human — that priests continue to
study and work on throughout their priesthood. The Office of Ongoing Formation holds lectures and other gatherings throughout the year for diocesan priests, “It’s a big part of a priest’s life,” said Father Taillon.
Father Acklin was chosen as this year’s retreat speaker by Bishop Tobin. “He’s a great theologian ... he’s just tremendous,” Father Taillon said of Father Acklin.
On Wednesday morning, Father Acklin spoke to the gathered priests about sexuality and intimacy. The topic, Father Acklin said, might seem an unlikely choice for a room filled with celibate priests. But, for several reasons, it is a topic very important in their ministries.
“We need every bit of our sexuality and we need every bit of our ability to love,” he said. Sexuality is often confused with the physical act of sex, he explained, but in reality human sexuality is often expressed, even by celibate priests, through intimacy and vulnerability. Today’s society, Father Acklin said, “tells us that our sexuality is about body parts.” The priest views sexuality as a much broader concept, encompassing all types of human relationships. “Every time we enter into a relationship there is a vulnerability required,” he said.
“What we really need to be working on is being vulnerable in selfless ways,” he told the retreatants.
Vulnerability and intimacy are necessary for priests to carry out many of their duties, from hearing confessions to counseling parishioners. “I tell my directees you should spend as much time listening as you do speaking,” he said.
Celibacy, he said, is a concept misunderstood by many outside the priesthood. “We as priests have a vocation to self-gift ... our sexuality is a self-gift in a ... chaste way,” he said. Expressing sexuality in a chaste way, through celibacy, is a gift priest’s give both to God and to themselves, he impressed upon the priests.
For many people the concepts of sexuality, sex, and love are so intertwined that the celibate life of a priest is unfathomable. Father Acklin hopes priests can work to change this notion. “Anybody who thinks that becoming a priest means you will never fall in love is barking up the wrong tree,” he said. “Certainly (being ordained a priest) doesn’t mean that your sexuality is lobotomized,” he added.
As priests who are required to give themselves to God and to their parishioners everyday “we need every bit of our sexuality and we need every bit of our ability to love,” Father Acklin reminded the priests.
Of course, Father Acklin acknowledged, talking about sexuality and intimacy in the context of the priesthood is bound to bring up questions about sexual abuse. While sexual abuse of minors is a problem, he said, it is important to remember that it is not a problem unique to the Catholic Church. He said he wants to change “the implication that this is a Catholic problem or that this is a Catholic priest problem.”
Any level of sexual abuse is, of course, unacceptable, but it is important to remember that the levels found within the Catholic Church are not any higher than those found in similar groups who have contact with children, Father Acklin said. “I think the media has succeeded in convincing people... that we (Catholic priests) have a bigger problem,” he added.
In his eyes, the Catholic Church has gone above and beyond the call of duty to deal with past abuses and prevent future abuses from clergy.
“I’d like someone to show me any other group than the Catholic Church that has done more to create a safe environment,” he said. He cited sharing personnel files and being forthright about the existence of abuses as examples of things being done by the church to deal with sexual abuse.
In addition to taking vows as a priest and as a Benedictine monk, Father Acklin has a degree in psychoanalysis.
“I’m talking as a psychoanalyst, a spiritual director, a priest, a human being and a friend,” he told the gathered priests.
Father Acklin spends time counseling seminarians and young priests in addition to giving talks at conferences. He said his counseling on vulnerability and intimacy always draws from the spiritual. “I take my model for vulnerability from the wounds of Christ,” he said, “I?don’t start with the human to try and figure out the human. I?look at God and try to figure out how we’re in the image and likeness of God.”
Another point he stressed to the assembled priests was the importance of having friendships with each other. Brother priests, he said, can truly understand each other’s struggles and the demands of their work. Relationships like these help priests to stay balanced in their ministry,
“You know what you’re doing and who you are because you’ve been with your kind,” he said.
Allowing yourself to become vulnerable enough to have a lasting relationship is an important skill for priests, and everyone, he said.
As people, we have a “profound longing in ourselves to give,” Father Acklin said. “The people in the world who are the most miserable are the ones that aren’t sharing themselves,” he added.
The priests who attended the retreat enjoyed themselves, Father Taillon said. The response was “very, very positive,” he added.