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Online Lenten Retreats, No Substitute for Real Thing, Still Give Spiritual Help

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WASHINGTON – Going on a retreat evokes images of praying in a monastery, reflecting in nature, or even having discussions on metal folding chairs in a parish cafeteria.

What doesn’t come to mind is looking at computer screens. 

But today, retreats can involve getting away to a remote location or joining one remotely by Zoom. And during Lent, especially, there are also several online retreats providing a few minutes of daily spiritual reflection. 

Retreats are not a one-size-fits-all, in other words, and some Church leaders feel that whatever helps people connect more deeply with their faith — even if just from one’s laptop — is something. 

“People are in different places spiritually” and respond differently to what’s available, said Paulist Father Eric Andrews, former president of the Paulist Fathers. With that in mind, he said parishes and dioceses should consider online retreats as a means of offering something else and shouldn’t write them off as taking away from the in-person experience.

“View it as a step,” he said, adding that once people attend a retreat online, they might even want to attend one in person because they are less intimidated by the process.

The Paulists, known for giving retreats, offered Lenten retreats online over the past two years when the pandemic required new ways of doing things. 

And now that many people are back to attending events in person, getting away for a retreat does have its appeal. Even in the small Twitter poll conducted by this reporter, 89% of respondents said they preferred an in-person retreat to an online version.

“Nothing can replace an in-person retreat, even if it is silent,” said Mary DeTurris Poust, a Catholic retreat leader who lives just outside Albany, New York. Just getting away, she said, “jolts you out of your routine to a place where you might find God.”

Poust, former communications director for the Diocese of Albany who writes a blog called “Not Strictly Spiritual,” has attended several retreats, including ones with the Trappist monks at the Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, New York.

But she also understands how online retreats work in people’s busy schedules or for those who have a hard time traveling or don’t want to be in a crowd.

She has also led all versions of retreats: online, in-person, and combinations or hybrids. In early February, she led a retreat for 25 people in person and three who attended virtually. She said the key is to give online participants materials in advance and to let them participate, to the extent they want to, in group discussions. She also said a camera was placed in the chapel so online retreatants could join in morning and night prayer.

Jesuit Father Mark Thibodeaux, pastor of the Holy Name of Jesus Parish in New Orleans, found out about the draw of an online retreat after his parishioners urged him to direct one at the start of the pandemic.

The priest — familiar with giving retreats but unfamiliar with presenting them online — said he had to watch YouTube videos just to learn how to make a YouTube video. But once he got the technical part down, he was on his way to lead a 30-day retreat he hoped would provide some spiritual sustenance for a few dozen parishioners.

What happened next continues to surprise him. His retreat, called “Ascending with Ignatius,” based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, spread far beyond the confines of his Louisiana parish and gained viewers around the country and worldwide. He said the retreat continues to sit on the parish website and has nearly 38,000 views since it launched two years ago. 

He also said this number is off because some watched in groups, including some cloistered nuns who watched the video together on the flat-screen TV in their convent.

He knows that part of the appeal of an online retreat, especially in Lent, is that people are searching for something spiritual to take part in. 

Or, as Father Andrews put it, “Catholics take Lent seriously,” noting that Mass attendance is up during Lent, and people avail themselves to the sacraments, talks, and retreats at this time more than during Advent, which is a busy time before Christmas. 

Poust agreed, saying, “Lent for most of us is a big season. Advent is big, but everyone rallies around Lent, and they know they need to be doing something extra, so they are looking for something.” 

That something could be a daily five-minute meditation and could be free or a paid subscription. Some of the Catholic online Lent retreats include: The Ignatian Workout for Lent by Loyola Press, an eight-week retreat by Creighton Online Ministries, and Pray More Retreat, a self-paced retreat with presentations and study guides.

Other online options might be available at retreat centers or through programs sponsored by parishes or dioceses.

The concept of an online retreat that began during the pandemic is something Father Andrews doesn’t think should go by the wayside now, but he also acknowledges that this format is not without challenges, especially in times of prayer when people are not in the same room but at their screens.

Another challenge is the time frame, he said, noting that an online retreat — not a hybrid one — really can only be 2 1/2 hours maximum because there is the risk people can get “Zoomed out” from being on the online platform.

But “as tired as we are” of Zoom, he also said it does provide “a moment of encounter” in the retreat setting, enabling people to gather from far and wide and connect more deeply to their faith with others. 

That has been Father Thibodeaux’s experience with his retreat. He said when he came to the end, he said goodbye and thanked everyone, but he also invited participants to join the parish’s livestreamed liturgies, which they did. 

“They never really left,” he said, noting that about 50 retreat participants tune in for daily Mass, doubling the size of the congregation each day. 

He said the online retreat models the work of St. Ignatius, who wrote more than 7,000 letters using the technology of the day — letter writing — to share the faith.

The online presence of the Church, he said, is “doing God’s work and helping others to be connected.” 

Poust has had the same experience. She said after retreats, she has formed Facebook groups with participants, which in turn creates a digital community of believers. 

But she points out that this is not meant to be just another group of friends. The purpose, as with any retreat, is to then take that experience “out into the world.”