Retreat leader gives priests tips on using art to pray, evangelize


The quest for a fresh encounter with God through classical avenues of truth, beauty and goodness can be enhanced by an unexpected detour.

So said Benedictine Father Pachomius Meade of Conception Abbey to a group of priests of this diocese who were on a retreat he led for them at the abbey this spring.

“I’m not just talking about religious literature or art,” Fr. Pachomius noted. “A good novel on the human condition, art like in my conferences, or a movie may touch something in us seemingly unconsciously.”

Sometimes, the effect of exposure to a good and unexpected artwork is to “let the Holy Spirit reach me when I am not prepared for it,” he said.

Fr. Pachomius, a Palmyra native who ministered for several years at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Columbia while studying at the University of Missouri, is dean of students at Conception Seminary College.

“Our own Fr. Pachomius is an outstanding teacher,” stated Father Matthew Flatley, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Jefferson City, who attended the retreat.

Fr. Pachomius brought forth for the retreatants several insights from his study and work of creating Catholic artwork and his interest in using religious art to draw people closer to God.

He is convinced that the current stewards of Western Civilization have a narrow sense of experiencing the sacred in contemporary Catholicism.

“It may be that the highest mystics appreciate a wordless, imageless kind of union with God,” Fr. Pachomius surmised.

“However, in the early Church there appears to be no such demand to transcend the senses completely; we move from external senses to corresponding spiritual senses,” he said.

With that in mind, Fr. Pachomius structured his retreat conferences around St. Peter and artistic depictions of him throughout his life and ministry.

“I have always identified with the prince of the Apostles personally,” the priest stated. “Not because I long to be pope or anything — but because in him we see ourselves: impulsive, weak and dense.”

Yet, through grace and perseverance that very same simple man becomes the Rock upon which Jesus builds his Church.

Each conference was structured around an event in St. Peter’s life as revealed the gospel books and the Acts of the Apostles and even from the non-biblical text known as the Acts of Peter.

Fr. Pachomius offered a word or phrase that summed up each conference and made his points around that.

Each retreat participant received a printed reproduction of each of the paintings, the related Scripture texts, and reflection questions for each lecture.

Ordinary things

Fr. Pachomius reminded his fellow priests that prayer always requires sacrifice.

“Parish priests want to be good pastors and they stay busy, and there is always more work to be done,” Fr. Pachomius noted.

Doing something that’s seeming more productive might give the feeling of accomplishing something important.

“But, it’s possible for us to run around all day long and never actually fulfill God’s will for us,” said Fr. Pachomius. “So, it’s very important for us to make the necessary sacrifice for prayer.”

One of his talks was about consistency — a topic he has found to be most beneficial to cultivate in his own Priesthood.

“We live in a culture that praises the spontaneous and the zealous,” he noted. “However, as many holy people have pointed out: a saint is not one who necessarily did extraordinary things, but did ordinary things with extraordinary love.”

So, how do ordinary people develop the courage it would require to be a martyr for the faith?

“By being faithful every day in little things, we become ready for big things,” said Fr. Pachomius.

He cited a passage from The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, in which a character is asked how he went bankrupt.

“In two ways,” the man replies. “Little by little, and then all at once.”

Likewise, a house falls apart after years of letting tiny water droplets buffet the roof.

“Being consistent, even to a smaller degree than one thinks he is capable, is better than periodic bursts of heroism,” said Fr. Pachomius.

He urged his fellow priests to allow new forms of art to preach the Gospel to them.

He shared with them an observation from Bob Schuchts Ph.D., founder of the Pope St. John Paul II Center of Healing, that “sometimes, movies proclaim the Gospel to us better than the Scripture themselves.”

“Living and ever-new”

Fr. Pachomius lauded the priests who attended for their attention and engagement.

Several of them thanked him for the reflections, asked for the titles of some of the books he mentioned, and inquired further about aspects of the paintings he used to illustrate his points. 

But it wasn’t just about individual learning.

“It appeared to me that the priests who attended take their brotherhood in the presbyterate seriously,” said Fr. Pachomius.

He saw priests who had been classmates at the seminary catching up with one another at check-in, and several missionary priests from other countries enjoying lively banter with one another.

Most said they enjoyed his format and especially the opportunity to reflect on the art.

“I gave them a new way to engage with familiar texts and concepts,” Fr. Pachomius stated. “If the Word is living and ever-new, then it must be so!”

He hopes the priests encourage their parishioners to stop and reflect on the spiritual works of art they might otherwise take for granted in their own churches.

“You have many beautiful churches in the Jefferson City diocese that your ancestors built and are worthy of contemplation,” he noted.

He tied this in with each Catholic’s calling to be a missionary disciple.

“We may think we have to have a masters in theology to speak to others about the faith,” he said.

“However, how many of us have reviewed and recommended movies to others without having a PhD in film studies? The same can be said of religious art,” he said.

While it’s helpful to know the meaning of certain religious symbols and to develop an appreciation for artistic composition, “beyond that, we are much like kindergartners just trying to say what we see in pictures!” he said.

 Something that simple can open up avenues of reflection.

“Like the Bible, in which the text is not meant to be absorbed all at once, great art demands that we come back to it and see new things,” aid Fr. Pachomius. “We make sense of it over time, and it surprises us upon new inspection, looking at it slowly.”

He asserted that anyone who is not familiar with that approach also doesn’t know how to pray well.

“But it is easy enough to learn if one is willing to slow down,” he said.

Spirit of adoption

One of the major takeaways for Father Robert Fields — pastor of St. Michael Parish in Kahoka; St. John Parish in Memphis; and Shrine of St. Patrick Parish in St. Patrick — was the many contrasts surrounding events of St. Peter’s last few days of life upon earth.

“How are we living this reality?” Fr. Fields continues to ask himself.

Father Thomas Alber, associate pastor of St. Peter Parish in Jefferson City, returned to his post refreshed.

“The atmosphere at Conception Abbey is peaceful,” he said. “The birds singing evoke the promise of spring. The monks chanting the Liturgy of the Hours marks the various hours of the day.”

One of Fr. Pachomius’s points that resonated with him was that under Roman law, the father of a household to accept or reject a natural born son as member of his household, usually at the age of 4 or 5.

But that option did not apply to an adopted son, because in agreeing to the adoption, the father had previously made the decision to accept the son.

“So, we are adopted sons and daughters of God,” Fr. Alber repeated. “We are already accepted as members of God family, even though our status is one of adoption.”

Prayers and support

Fr. Pachomius encourages laypeople not just to pray for priests but also to engage in serious reflection about how to help them.

While married people have a spouse and child who likely can help mitigate loneliness and help set boundaries for work-life balance, “a priest has to go in an unmediated relationship to God for support and comfort,” said Fr. Pachomius.

This, said Fr. Pachomius, sometimes includes laypeople taking them for granted, treating them unfairly or with immaturity, and assuming the worst about his intentions when he does what he thinks is good for the parish.

“We love our priests, just like we love our parents,” he said. “But for many priests who are overworked and underappreciated, especially when the prayer life is in low ebb, this weighs heavily upon them.”

So, Fr. Pachomius recommended praying not only for priests but also for one’s one conversion.

“Shepherds are ready to take hits from wolves, but most of the time they’re getting nipped by the flock!” he said.

“Pray that you can be supportive to your priest who is pouring himself out for you.”

This can include laypeople providing a place of occasional refuge for priests among their families and in their homes.

“This is something our priests need very much now,” said Fr. Pachomius. “If they have people who support them, give them the benefit of the doubt, and offer genuine appreciation, then these men will be better able to sacrifice in prayer and service.”