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Family Life

Riches for all at family retreat


It has been a tradition in the Catholic church for people to go “on retreat.” These retreats can be one day, a weekend, a week, or even as long as a month. They run the gamut from the total solitude of a hermitage to a busy schedule of lectures and group discussions. From time to time we need to get away from our busy day-to-day schedules and take time to reflect on our relationship with God. We are refreshed by these “mountain top” experiences and are strengthened for the task of living out our discipleship in our jobs and in our homes.

For the most part, these retreat experiences are individual experiences, though there are couples’ retreats. But what about a family retreat?

Perhaps we haven’t thought about taking our entire family on retreat. Sometimes it’s the everyday struggle as a father or mother that we need to retreat from. A family retreat, however, may be just what we need as a Catholic family struggling against the current of our present day culture.

In 1977, when our first child was not yet a year old, my wife, Rose, and I went on our first family retreat. It was a weeklong retreat at a former seminary in Cassadaga, N.Y. It was a wonderful time spent with other Christian families, most of whom we knew from a prayer group in our hometown. There were lectures, group discussions and time for recreation. It was an important time in our life as a family because we were discerning a call from God to give our lives more completely to God through service to his church. Later that year we would join a lay apostolate in upstate New York at Unity Acres, a home for homeless men. The retreat center in Cassadaga closed shortly after our first retreat. Since then, our family has continued to enjoy retreat vacations each year.

Just as there are many different types of individual retreats so, too, there are many different types of family retreat experiences. Although you wouldn’t want to go to a family retreat that required solitude, which would certainly be contradictory, a family retreat can range in time from one day, to a weekend or a weeklong experience. Some are located in cities while others are in rural, rustic areas.

Our family enjoys the more rustic experience. The format can be busy with multiple “sessions” each day to a more relaxed schedule. In Cassadaga the day included morning Mass, morning retreat sessions, and an afternoon group discussion. There were less formal activities in the evenings. On Wednesday morning we were free after Mass until the afternoon group session. Some husbands decided to play golf at a nearby course. We were only going to play nine holes in order to be sure to get back in time for our afternoon session. The front nine went so quickly, however, that we decided to go for the whole 18 holes. The back nine took longer than we expected, and we arrived back a little late for the afternoon session. The topic being discussed was forgiveness. I think they may have been discussing something else while we were still missing in action.

The sessions were for the parents while other activities were planned for the children. Meals were provided by the retreat staff and the lodging was hotel style.

Relaxed in primitive lodging

In 1979, after the Cassadaga retreat house closed, we began going each year to a rural area in Canada for our family retreat vacations. The schedule in these retreats was much more relaxed and the lodging a bit more primitive. Each family had its own cabin. Each year there usually were families tenting as well. The cabins were one room with no electricity or running water. A large “cook-shack” had running water and electricity and served as our kitchen and recreation center. Each family was responsible for its own meals. The cook-shack held several stoves, and there was a refrigerator for each family. There was a large natural sandbox and play area with the cabins in a circle around it. A short distance from the cabins was a beautiful lake for swimming, boating and fishing.

Each morning we celebrated Mass in a chapel at the camp. The families were then free to recreate as a family until the parents were called together at 3:00 for the afternoon sessions. Babysitters were provided for the children. Evenings were generally free with optional activities. After a few years attending this retreat vacation, we became a “host” family and part of the retreat team. A priest would conduct the sessions for the parents, and Rose and I would take care of the day-to-day running of the camp.

A reminder of our calling

Whether you go as a group where everyone knows each other, or you go to a retreat where you know no one, the real gift of the experience is the interaction with other Catholic families and the sharing of experiences. Family retreats are a great way to get away from it all as a family but they are much more. For Catholic parents trying to raise their children today, often we seem to be fighting a lonely battle against popular trends that look on Catholic family values as hopelessly outdated. Getting together with other Catholic families brings a sense of community, a feeling of support, and a realization that we are not alone. The retreat sessions often look into areas of effective parenting according to Catholic beliefs and teachings. There is time to be together as a family, something many of us find very difficult today. Generally there will be resources and literature to take home with you for further nourishment.

Whether the retreat is conducted by a priest, a married couple or someone else, some of the best ideas and reflections come from the families themselves. At mealtimes and during free times, parents will share with each other their fears and how they overcome them. Ideas about family prayer and devotions are shared, and younger parents are strengthened by the wisdom and experiences of older couples. The children, too, get into the act. When the families sit down to eat, the young people will add their thoughts to the conversation, perhaps sharing their faith experience in a way they never felt comfortable doing before. Praying “grace” before meals seems natural in these settings. There are usually groups that gather to pray the rosary as a conclusion to the day for their young ones. Even those teens that feel dragged to this crazy experience will bond with other teens and learn that you can have a great time without all the electronic trappings of modern society.

On one retreat we attended, the group was made up of veterans of the family retreat experience. All the families had been host families at this camp at least five or six times, some many more times than that. My 18-year-old daughter remarked that this was more fun because usually it would take the other teens until about Tuesday to loosen up enough to have fun. This time because they had all been there before, they were less inhibited and began enjoying themselves the first day. My children have developed friendships with children from other parts of the United States as well as Canada. They still write to many of their Catholic pen pals. Sometimes, after traveling a couple hundred miles, we are surprised to find neighbors on the same retreat with us.

In our hectic culture today, when even the family meal seems at times almost impossible to pull off, a family retreat can be a reminder of our calling as Christian families. Family members become reacquainted with each other. Important issues can be discussed between parent and child and parent-to-parent. We learn to enjoy each other’s company in simple activities like throwing a ball or playing a card game. Many families learn to pray together as a family for the first time. The Masses on family retreats are often celebrated in such a way that the children feel connected and get involved. If a priest is part of the team and interacts with the families during free times and meals, this often is the first time young people experience a priest in an unguarded moment.

They learn that being “religious” is not synonymous with being boring or dull. The truly dull priests tend to stay away from family retreats. Christian families learn to pray together, some for the first time, and to rededicate themselves to being strong Catholic parents and committed, loving spouses. Bolstered by the knowledge that we are not alone in our struggles, we take home with us new ideas and a new appreciation for the sacred vocation of married life and parenthood.

Often the most difficult aspect of a family retreat week is the time of parting. We are saying good-byes to new friends who have become part of our lives. Addresses are exchanged, and we vow to keep in touch. For many families, these new friends become part of our family evening prayer and we are comforted by the realization that there are families, perhaps hundreds of miles away, that will remain special to us over the years because of the experience of our family retreat vacation.

If you have been on a family retreat, perhaps you have experienced some of what I have written about. I hope your experiences have been as fruitful for you as they have for our family. If you have never been on a family retreat vacation, perhaps it is time to consider one.

How does one find a family retreat that is right for your family? Unfortunately there is no national clearinghouse for family retreats. There are sources you can look to, however. Check with your diocesan family life office for family retreats near you. A simple search of the Internet using the search words “Catholic Family Retreat” will produce a list of sites. See the accompanying Web box for more contacts.

The best source, of course, is a family you know that has been on a family retreat. You might ask around in your parish to see if anyone can recommend a place. The effort of finding the right retreat experience is well worth the effort. The costs of this type of experience vary as much as the styles do. You can find family retreats that will take a free will donation and others that, while charging a set fee, will allow for discounts for those families who cannot afford the full cost.

The time spent on a family retreat will become a valuable source of learning and growth for your whole family. Check around your diocese for families that have been to family retreats and find one that meets your needs.

Ed Blaine is a permanent deacon who is pastoral associate at St. Ambrose Parish in Endicott, N.Y.

Family retreats on the Web

The Marianist Family Retreat Center

Retreats International, University of Notre Dame

Christian Family Living Center

Lists of retreats

Total Catholic Link Directory

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 2002