Priest Sabbaticals Story, Catholic Herald

Fr. Pat Heppe writes on his blog that he rode his bike along the same path that Jesus walked in Jerusalem. “For me, it puts new perspective and meaning to the Gospels. The human part of Jesus really comes alive like it never has before,” he wrote in a late June blog posting. (Submitted photo courtesy Fr. Pat Heppe)
Fr. Bob Stiefvater tours Paris on a Segway last fall during his sabbatical which took him to Poland, Italy, Germany and France. (Submitted photo courtesy Fr. Bob Stiefvater)

Fr. Pat Heppe and Fr. Bob Steifvater created blogs as reflections on their journeys.
Fr. Pat Heppe’s blog:
Fr. Bob Stiefvater’s blog:

Sabbaticals offer priests respite from daily life

Time away provides self-renewal, is beneficial to those they serve

By Karen Mahoney
Special to Your Catholic Herald

It is Sunday at 9 a.m. Do you know where your parish priest is?

For three months, Fr. Pat Heppe, team moderator of Holy Family Parish, Fond du Lac, was absent not just from the altar, but from the parish altogether.

With the blessing of his parish family, he enjoyed a sabbatical in Ireland, Nova Scotia, and Jerusalem, courtesy of a grant awarded to his church through the National Clergy Renewal Program.

The program, now in its eighth year, is funded by the Indianapolis-based Lily Endowment Inc. This year, 127 grants totaling nearly $5 million were made to congregations across the United States. Approved congregations are awarded between $20,000 and $45,000 under the pastoral renewal program for the sabbaticals.

‘Sabbath time’ allows for rest, study

According to Gretchen Wolfram, Lily Foundation communications director, the grants allow pastors to step away from their daily obligations and to create “Sabbath time” in their lives for travel, study, rest and prayer.

“We believe that by giving clergy some time off, they can be more effective in their role as a pastor and to more effectively build their congregation,” she said. “Their absence can also provide a time of renewal for the congregation and become a means to greater resourcefulness and for exploring the strengths of the lay members.”

Limited by their own imaginations, clergy are encouraged to submit well-planned, thorough, but creative ideas for a fulfilling sabbatical experience.

“We get a whole lot of pleasure out of this, and the pastors generally find that the sabbatical is a meaningful experience but even more meaningful later on,” she said. “Many will go to the Holy Land, Greece, Scotland, or Oxford; and many just go wandering through our country. The variety of things is amazing – some ministers in rural areas have gone to churches in other rural areas to see how they deal with specific challenges. Some use their sabbatical time for artistic discovery, and some will use the time as a pilgrimage and visit specific shrines. We really enjoy reviewing the applications.”

As pastor of Holy Family, Fr. Heppe felt drawn to preserve the rich ethnic spirit of the three shuttered Fond du Lac parishes, as well as to bring his ministry back to its core. He wrote the grant with those intentions.

“Holy Family has gone through many changes, collaborations and mergers,” he said during a phone call from Jerusalem. “I needed to take a break and shift directions for me personally to get back to the core of ministry and get back to what I was ordained to do.”

After attending a “Clergy Renewal Program” at All Hallows College in Dublin, Fr. Heppe traveled to Jerusalem for a Scripture study program operated through the University of Notre Dame. Part of his trip includes a tour covering the “Journeys of St. Paul,” concluding with a two-week stay in Nova Scotia.

“One of the great parts of this grant is that it continues when I get back, as the Lily Foundation will pay for a course in Celtic spirituality which leads to planning all sorts of activities for the parish,” he said. “This is a great time of renewal for me; it is Christ centered and scripturally oriented. We do a lot of high quality stuff at the parish, but we sometimes forget the simple things. After being here, I realize that one thing we haven’t done was to organize a social or parish life committee for fun events. That’s one thing we will do when I get back is to get a minister of fun.”

Priests allowed one sabbatical every 10 years

Although priests are allowed one sabbatical every 10 years in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Fr. Heppe admitted that some priests opt not to take any, and are missing out on a great opportunity.

“It is a great time of renewal and because of the grant, I really went with a purpose and a program that gave me personal renewal and yet positively affected the parish,” he said. “It makes me want to do more in small groups and again, getting to the basics of parish ministry. As a priest, everything is about my relationship with Christ and I want to do a better job of getting his message to people and touch their hearts to get the message across.”

When Fr. Bob Stiefvater, moderator of the in solidum team serving St. Hyacinth, St. Vincent de Paul and Prince of Peace Parishes traveled to Poland, Italy, Germany and France last fall; it was to refresh his life as a priest.

Lily Endowment grant funds costs

With parishes stressed to their financial limits, Fr. Stiefvater knew that the trip would have been impossible without a grant from the Lily Endowment fund, which includes costs to cover replacement priests in the absence of the pastor.

“I knew that the parish couldn’t cover its part of handling a substitute priest and I was so happy that this grant covered everything. This group is so wonderful because it is their belief that the parishes get a new life when the pastors go on sabbatical,” he said. “Because of this, I was able to take continuing education classes at The North American College in Rome and say Mass at the tomb of St. Hyacinth in Krakow, Poland.”

Traveling by Segway through streets of Paris, Fr. Stiefvater saw much more of the country, and for those who are wondering … riding the two-wheeled scooter is relatively easy.

“You just stand on the platform, turn it on and the Segway does the rest,” he said.

Though he has been back since November, the Lily Foundation’s grant includes another aspect that will take place in Mexico this fall. When the foundation asked what would make his “heart sing,” Fr. Stiefvater admitted that he was curious as to what Mexican cities and towns provided the majority of Hispanic Catholics in the Milwaukee Archdiocese. The Lily Foundation approved the funds that will allow him to travel to Mexico by motorcycle.

“I will be driving down for two weeks to visit eight to 10 of those towns and have Mass there,” he said. “It’s hard for people to cross the border for funerals and weddings and that separation is hard on the families. I thought that it would be a wonderful thing if I could go down there in the name of the families here in the U.S.”

When a man feels called to become a priest, most are probably unaware that much of their time is spent in middle management. At least that is how Fr. Kenneth Mich of Good Shepherd Parish, Menomonee Falls, describes much of his ministry.

“A lot of time is spent on analyzing, planning, organizing, promoting many instructions and policies to be implemented,” he said. “A lot of right brain activity, a lot of organizing for ‘organized’ religion – sometimes to the detriment (of) healthy attention to the less technical, more imaginative, experiential, spiritual side.”

Priest begins immersion experience

For those reasons, Fr. Mich is preparing for a four-month sabbatical divided into four excursions. Beginning with 12 days in mid August, he will travel to Australia to experience the life and spirituality of the Aboriginal people; the second portion will be an opportunity to participate in a program called the ‘Abode of God-kings’ in Tibet.

“It will be an immersion into the Buddhist life and culture, but right now this portion of my trip is in jeopardy because of the troubles there and Tibet is now closed to tourists,” he said.

The third excursion will be to Africa where Fr. Mich will travel to Ethiopia and Tanzania. The last excursion will be to Peru where he will visit the Inca holy city Machu, Picchu, the sacred valley Urubamba and Lake Titicaca’s sacred landscape.

“I desire to take a sabbatical in which I can simply stand before and experience the mystery without having to do something with the experience except to be amazed and moved and inspired,” he said. “I want to go where people of other cultures and times have stood before God. I want to just stand there and cry or sing or dance. I want to resonate with the instincts and intuitive wisdom of the many generations that have declared this and that place to be sacred.”

With help from the Lily Foundation, Fr. Mich will experience a variety of cultures and use the experience for self-revelation and for waiting upon the Lord.

“Elizabeth Barrett Browning says, ‘Earth is crammed full of heaven and every common bush is aflame with the fire of God. But only those who have eyes to see take off their shoes. The rest just pick the berries,'” he said, adding, “I’ve been picking a lot of berries, I’ve got enough for awhile; it’s time to take off my shoes again.”

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