Men taking part in the Exodus 90 challenge kneel during Mass celebrated by Fr. Samuel Schneider as part of their fraternal gathering at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Dobie, in February. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Exodus 90 is a program seeking renewal in the Church through groups of men committing to a challenging program of prayer and asceticism and supporting each other in that pursuit for 90 days.

Started as a formation program for seminarians, it was adapted and then launched for bishops, priests and laymen in 2015. Of the 15,000 participants since then, 10 percent have been priests, 30 percent single and the rest married. Ninety percent have been between the ages of 20 and 59.

Fr. Samuel Schneider recently led a varied group of men in the Rice Lake area through the program. Ash Wednesday was their 90th day.

“There’s something exciting about doing something difficult that’s meaningful,” Fr. Schneider said. “I think Exodus 90 gives a little more of an impetus, a little bit more of a reason to go deeper into your faith. And the same thing with Lent.”

Drawing from the book of Exodus and the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom and building on the Church’s ancient practice of self-mastery or asceticism, men commit to various practices of discipline and prayer for 90 days.

Among the list of ascetical practices, abstinence looms large – with food- and technology-related commitments to do without – and the addition of 20 to 60 minutes of daily prayer.

Making the exodus as part of a fraternal group is a pillar of the program.

“Exodus would simply not work without the structure of brotherhood,” the organization’s website claims. It calls fraternity the key to success, a structure that brings the men together for prayer, accountability and mutual encouragement.

The 90-day period was scientifically determined. According to studies citied by Exodus 90, 90 days is the amount of time it takes for an addicted brain to begin resetting its natural functions of analysis and decision making. The struggles of sexual and substance addictions are a focal point for some, but the program clearly presents itself as a valuable tool for any man’s pursuit of saying “no” to the world to better say “yes” to God. Radical spiritual growth is the invitation made to all.

The Catholic Herald was invited by Fr. Schneider to attend their gathering for Mass, formation and fraternity in early February, midway through their 90-day program. The young priest’s hope was to get the word out about the program and motivate others to answer the challenge and experience the benefits.

After Mass, the men were led by Fr. Schneider in a time of teaching.

The themes for each of the three months were reviewed. First, asceticism. Not merely self-denial, but willpower in a Christian sense, for the sake of more perfectly following Christ. Second, prayer. And the final month’s session would seek to be a launching pad to day 91 and what the men could carry forward.

Speaking on the importance of prayer, especially during Exodus 90, Fr. Schneider said, “Everything else becomes disordered without prayer and the focus on Jesus.” Otherwise we focus on ourselves, it’s either success or failure. Failures can lead to beating yourself up, but God’s mercy is there for the asking.

“How important daily prayer is to continue to go back to Christ. As soon as we fail, go back to God in prayer. Acknowledge his mercy, acknowledge his grace and that that triumphs in the midst of a fall,” he emphasized.

He added, “Prayer is the one practice after the 90 days you cannot let go.” The priest was real about the challenges and difficulties of finding the time, the motivation and the perseverance.

One of the men present said the important thing is to be consistent; to start small and work up but to pray every single day. Another participant shared the importance of finding a personal path of prayer.

Fr. Schneider agreed, “It’s going to look different for everybody, but it has to happen.

“Prayer doesn’t just accidentally happen like watching Netflix does,” he said. “Hopefully Exodus 90 is getting you a more tolerant to suffering in some ways to be able to step away from things that are good for a greater good.”

An increase in prayer life was Ben Derousseau’s main motivation for accepting Fr. Schneider’s invitation to Exodus 90, along with his wife’s encouragement. Halfway through the program, he was looking forward to Lent as a chance to continue developing that practice.

“I’m still struggling to find that time (for prayer) where you’re not exhausted with the kids,” Derousseau admitted. He and his wife, a teacher, have three children – 7, 2 and 4 months old. A strong motivator for his commitment was setting an example of prayer for his children, having them see him on his knees and encouraging them in their own relationship with God.

The 32-year-old Derousseau credited his own father for influencing and encouraging – “maybe at times with scare tactics” – his own desire to have and live a strong faith. He has gone to weekly adoration since he was 16, his dad’s rule for getting his driver’s license and having car insurance paid.

He smirked and admitted there were times he lied when his dad asked if he’d been to church on Sunday. But after pushing back on faith as a kid, Derousseau said as a young adult, he realized he needed something, and not having a good reason for why he wasn’t always practicing the faith, really chose it for himself.

Now with his own children, he sees the reality behind the statistics that the No. 1 determining factor of whether children practice their faith as adults is if they witnessed their father practicing and living it.

Another factor for Derousseau’s commitment to Exodus 90 was spending more quality time with his family.

“Media consumes your life if you let it. It was a big distraction for me from my family,” he shared candidly. The young father said they still let the kids watch cartoons, but not as much, and often as something earned after helping out or doing something for someone else.

Detachment from media was also a primary factor for 29-year-old David Dickey, married and father of one. He said not having sweets or alcohol were tough, but not as tough as the cold showers.

Derousseau chimed in that the practice had been one of the best opportunities to offer a sacrifice to God for someone, especially during the stretch of sub-zero temperatures.

Both men expressed gratitude for their wives’ support and encouragement. Dickey said his wife participates in some of the sacrifices that affect them both, like not watching TV.

“If your wife isn’t in on it, it makes it a lot more difficult,” he said.

Dickey also noted the importance of the fraternity, “having that accountability and building those strong faith-based friendships.” He explained that they were grouped together to be with other men in the program in a similar state in life – the 20-somethings who were single, those married with young families, and the retired men.

Derousseau and Dickey expressed nervousness about their day 91, although they were looking forward to some sweets and a hot shower. They did hope the fraternity would carry forward as a way to stay in touch and connected with like-minded men.

Both admitted the hardest part was actually making the commitment to start Exodus 90; they recognized that further personal growth would still be needed afterwards, and said they would consider doing the program again.

“It is a struggle … but I would want to take some parts further in depth,” Derousseau said. Understanding “bearing the cross, offering up to the wounds of Jesus, is simple but huge in everyday life.

“Without having God, life would be miserable. What would I be working for if it wasn’t for my family and God … I can look beyond (the struggles) to that greater good” of serving God, family and community.

John Kinnick, a single retiree, stumbled upon the program by accident but felt called to participate. The day after making his commitment, he felt God confirmed his decision with a strong motivation. One of Kinnick’s cousins was in the process of discerning the permanent diaconate in Texas and called him asking for prayers.

Kinnick’s understanding of the need for vocations helped him solidify his Exodus 90 commitments, and was edifying and helping his cousin.

The effects of the program go beyond day 91, even beyond day-91-plus-one-year.

Aaron Halberg, Hayward, went through Exodus 90 with a group of men from his parish in early 2018. He shared that the challenge has had a “lasting positive impact.”

“Exodus 90 pushed me out of my comfort zone both physically and spiritually, and helped me realize I didn’t need many ‘creature comforts’ that the world offered and expected me to take part in,” he said. It also helped him realize that he could make room for an “improved life of prayer and Scriptural study in a busy world and lifestyle.”

Halberg expressed feeling resistance to the positive changes in his habits and described it as spiritual warfare. He said it was actually most intense while he was discerning starting Exodus 90.

“As the 90-day challenge began, there was internal resistance, trying to justify my current habits by comparing myself to others or doubting the general benefit of pursuing any drastic plan for spiritual and physical improvement,” he shared.

“Then, as new habits took hold and started to become noticeable to others, there was external resistance, discomfort on the part of others in my interactions with them as they realized I was doing something ‘different,’ even if I didn’t talk about it.” He hopes this tension of sorts was able to stir up an internal conflict that led to their own challenging of the status quo.

His biggest takeaway was a paradox. While “much individual effort and daily renewal of the commitment were required to complete the challenge,” in the end he realized how much he needed God’s help and needed to allow God to work through him.

“As Moses and the Israelites enslaved by the Egyptians. The Israelites were physically strong enough to rise up and bring about their own freedom, but they could not or would not without God’s intervening on their behalf.”

Halberg concluded what is needed is an effort to accept God’s invitation.

“Maybe with my greatest and utmost effort, all I can do is lift one finger slightly towards God, as Adam does in Michelangelo’s painting. But I think what we find is that if we can do something as small as that, we find what Adam sees … that God is responding to our single finger raise by reaching out boldly toward us with a mighty effort, to bridge the gap between us despite the ‘smallness’ of our own abilities and actions.”