Mike May Catholic News Service

OMAHA, Neb. (CNS) — As a young priest, Father Jeffrey Lorig was struggling.

Ordained two years earlier, in 2004, he began to question his vocation. He took a leave of absence, but his soul was filled with darkness. He was depressed, and the priesthood no longer seemed attractive. He dreaded returning to parish ministry.

then, while at Broom Tree Retreat Center near Yankton, South Dakota, he met Father Jim Mason of the Sioux Falls Diocese.

Father James Rafferty, director of mission and communication with the Institute
for Priestly Formation, discusses the temptation of Jesus in the desert during a
class for seminarians June 11, 2019, at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.
CNS photo/Mike May, Catholic Voice

There, Father Mason, now rector of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, taught Father Lorig principles of spiritual discernment and prayer that helped him place his doubts and fears before the Lord, and he found peace and a new resolve.

Father Mason learned those principles through the Institute for Priestly Formation.

For the past 25 years, the institute's spiritual formation programs have helped thousands of priests and seminarians from around the United States to experience God's love and pass it on to their flocks.

"IPF's focus is the spiritual lives of diocesan seminarians and priests, to help them encounter the love of God in a deeper way and be transformed in their priestly lives," said Father Richard Gabuzda, the institute's executive director and co-founder.

"Our goal is always to help the participants focus on what God is doing in their lives," he said. "When a priest's heart is more focused on God, he's able to be a better instrument of God. The people benefit from that because he has the mind of Christ more present to him."

And the fruits those priests and future priests receive from the institute and take back to their flocks are great.

"It saved my priesthood," said Father Lorig, who is now director of pastoral services for the Omaha Archdiocese.

"It helped me listen deeply to the affective movements of my heart ... the good, the bad, the ugly, the hopes, the desires, the fears ... and to just show all that to Jesus," he told the Catholic Voice, Omaha's archdiocesan newspaper.

He now serves as a spiritual director for its summer seminarian program.

Father Lorig said the primary expectation of parishioners for their priests is whether they themselves know God. "All the other things are secondary," he said.

"You need to be able to tell them what it's like to be in a relationship with God," he said. "They don't want a textbook answer, they want to know what it's like for you in the real experience of being with him," he said. "Our hearts are created for that.

If you have that in your priesthood, it influences how you give homilies, how you enter into meetings, how you counsel people through funeral preparation and marriage preparation."

Beginning in 1994 with six seminarians in attendance, the Institute for Priestly Formation's reach has grown every year since, said Father James Rafferty, its director of mission and communication. Father Nicholas Rouch, vicar for Education for the Diocese of Erie, has taught and/or directed retreats at the institute since 2002.

Father Nicholas Rouch, vicar for Education of the 
Diocese of Erie, has taught and led retreats at
the Institute for Priestly Formation since 2002.

“Spending a summer at the Institute for Priestly Formation gives seminarians a sustained opportunity to come to know the Lord in the real depths of their humanity,” Father Rouch said. He noted that the nine-week program allows seminarians to get beyond the excitement they might encounter during a shorter retreat, and grapple with real challenges.

Clergy and lay faculty from around the country offer expertise in a wide range of disciplines over the course of a summer, exploring topics ranging from priestly identity and spirituality to chastity/sexuality, prayer and liturgy.

“It’s transformative,” Father Rouch said. “And the guys that are there are eager for it. They’ve heard about it and they want it. Even though it’s hard work as they plow through their own fears and limitations, they find a real freedom in the Lord as they continue to discern what he wants them to do.”

This summer, 177 seminarians from more than 60 U.S. dioceses are on the Creighton University campus in Omaha, Nebraska. Nearly 60 priests will attend the institute's spiritual direction training later this year.

Father Rafferty, who also teaches classes for the institute, said the organization is relatively unique in its exclusive focus on the formation and prayer lives of diocesan priests.

"It's a great privilege to accompany my brother priests in this way and to witness the goodness in their hearts," he said. "And it's marvelous to see the generosity of God and how he desires to communicate that."

May is assistant editor of the Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Omaha. Anne-Marie Welsh of the DioceseofEriE-news contributed to this story.