Amid major organizational changes, several Catholic parishes in Elmira recently held a retreat to catch their collective breath while uniting on an unusually broad scale.
“It is a first, I’ll tell you that,” said Ann Irwin, who served as the retreat’s publicity chair.
“Embracing God in Life Today” took place May 21-24 and involved six churches affected by major pastoral-planning issues: the cluster of St. Casimir, St. Charles Borromeo and Our Lady of Lourdes, along with the newly formed parish of Blessed Sacrament, which had previously been the cluster of St. Anthony, St. Patrick and Ss. Peter and Paul.
Retreat sessions were held May 21 and 23 at Our Lady of Lourdes and May 22 at Ss. Peter and Paul. Two gatherings per day took place: a brown-bag lunch format was employed at noontime, and supper and child care were provided in the evenings. Serving as facilitator was Sister Mary Louise Heffernan, SSJ, a well-known retreat leader in the Southern Tier who specializes in spiritual direction.
The opening session, “Embracing God during Times of Change,” pointed out that life changes constantly, most often in small ways. Therefore, we should embrace conversion — being open to new ways and looking at things differently. Sister Heffernan noted that participants were examples of this concept simply by praying and sharing together despite being from different churches. She challenged people to reflect on whether they see anything in their life that they’re stuck on, and the need to let go of these issues in order to change.
“Embracing God in Family and Everyday Life” was the retreat’s second-day theme. Sister Heffernan told her audiences that parents must live their commitment to God in family life through prayer and religious practices; to say “no” to our consumerist society by seeking a simple lifestyle; and to make the beatitudes our rule of life.
“Embracing God in Community,” held the third day, focused on the community that existed at the Last Supper. Sister Heffernan emphasized that present-day church communities should use the Eucharist as a reminder of the need to practice evangelization and reconciliation, while also carrying out a sense of mission as decreed by the Mass’ closing words: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
Finally, a Thursday-evening healing service took place at St. Patrick Church, during which participants were encouraged to let go of memories affecting them spiritually and psychologically. The service also offered laying of the hands and anointing of the sick.
The retreat’s six participating churches had been designated in 2006 as two clusters: A cluster is defined as two or more parishes being served by one full-time priest. This leaves St. Mary Southside in Elmira and St. Mary Our Mother in Horseheads as the only unclustered parishes in Chemung County. Blessed Sacrament has now gone a step further, this year becoming a single parish with merged staffs, finances and parish pastoral councils from its three churches as well as a new parish name.
Irwin noted that the retreat elicited large turnouts, including an opening-day flock that saw 65 people at the noon program and more than 100 in the evening. She said this is a good sign for future sharing between the churches.
“I think that people are finally aware that this is how it’s going to be,” said Irwin, who attends Our Lady of Lourdes and is a former parish pastoral council president. “If you want to have Mass and various sacraments, we have to collaborate.”