Judy Pottinger of Rice Lake listens during a moment of shared reflection at the March 30 Lay Ministry Enrichment Retreat on “Interior Freedom.” (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Two dozen people involved in parish lay ministry took part in a retreat on March 30 at the St. Anthony of Padua Parish Center in Tony. The retreat’s “Interior Freedom” theme was based on a book of the same name, written by a French priest, Fr. Jacques Phillippe.

Retreatants received personal copies of the book and printed questions to aid reflection.

Bluette Puchner, assistant director of the Lay Ministry Outreach Program, said participation in the Lenten retreat had doubled from the previous year. Puchner led the retreat with the program’s director, Chris Newkirk. Both had read Phillippe’s work multiple times and shared key concepts in an engaging format.

Representing Catholic parishes in River Falls, Centuria, Danbury, Balsam Lake, Cameron, Park Falls, Ashland, Dallas, Superior, Westboro and Sugar Camp, retreatants were predominantly women. They commented, nodded, laughed and shared personal stories; time for quiet journaling also took place.

Freedom and acceptance were primary topics for reflection and discussion, based on the author’s subject in the first of five chapters.

As Fr. Phillippe writes in his introduction, the book’s purpose is “simple.”

“Every Christian needs to discover that even in the most unfavorable outward circumstances we possess within ourselves a space of freedom that nobody can take away, because God is its source and guarantee,” he wrote. “Without this discovery we will always be restricted in some way, and will never taste true happiness. But it we have learned to let this inner space of freedom unfold, then, even though many things may well cause us to suffer, nothing will really be able to oppress or crush us.”

He then poses the theological virtues as the foundation of growth in this interior freedom.

There was discussion of self-acceptance, acceptance of God’s will and living in the present moment.

Newkirk addressed the need for balance, for “head and heart time.” Speaking to lay ministers, she shared how much she loves her ministry in and for the diocese, but acknowledged the need to say “no” at times and take a step back to maintain balance and be true to one’s identity and passion.

“If you really live out of your passion and you know who you are, you’ll be tired, you’ll be exhausted, but … you’re less likely to be burned out. Tired? Yes, burned out, no. because you’re placing your gifts in the right place,” Newkirk summed up.

Puchner added, “Passion is the key,” saying that her personal motto is, “If I’m not passionate about something, I’m not doing it.”

Both acknowledged the challenge of saying no, especially to priests. They also facilitated the group’s discussion on God’s will and living in the present moment.

One participant, alluding to Phillippe’s reflections on consent and suffering, spoke about the importance of living in the present moment, anchored in the experience of God’s love. Another said, “Worry is a waste of time, and energy and brain matter.”

It was shared that growth takes place in the times of suffering and that outcomes are entrusted “to God’s hands, in God’s time.”

Kristina Andahazy, River Falls, spoke about inner freedom being based on God’s will, not her own, to the point that “nothing threatens my freedom.”

She said, “If we really, truly want God’s will for our life, then we are okay with whatever comes our way, because we have an inner freedom that’s not based on whether I feel free or not or things are going my way, but based on the fact that I want God’s will and God is in charge.”

Andahazy continued that she didn’t believe this stance possible if not based on the faith that Jesus had risen, that the Father was who He said He was, and that it is not something grasped intellectually.

“If I want to say yes to God’s will, then nothing threatens my freedom.” After a pause, she repeated, “Nothing threatens my freedom.” After another silence, she concluded, “It doesn’t matter where I am, what happens to me, I want God’s will.”

Retreatants shared personal stories of acceptance and consent to God’s will in challenging ways. The unexpected death of loved ones, both young and old; difficult work or ministry scenarios and personal or family struggles.
Newkirk referred back to Fr. Phillippe’s reflections on the Scriptural truth that God can bring good out of everything.

She paraphrased, “It’s not that life is always good … The level of acceptance and interior freedom he’s talking about (is most applicable) when things don’t go our way, when there’s adversity, when we don’t know why, when we haven’t chosen it for ourselves.”

Retreatants affirmed that level of freedom – knowing that in all things God is doing what’s good and right – can only be experienced through trust in His love.

One attendee spoke of, “Opening ourselves to the reality of life and knowing God is with us in it.”

Newkirk said she hoped each one present would go back and read the book over and over. Many expressed their resolve to spend more dedicated quiet time in prayer and presence with the Lord.

Sharing concluding summaries of the retreat, participants described it as life-giving, profound, spirit-giving, challenging, enlightening and renewing.