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Priests break bread together.
WATERTOWN Its 2 oclock on a Monday afternoon. The group of priests already has gathered and begun praying in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.
Shortly after, they moved into a period of silent meditation, and then shared insights that came to them in prayer. This exchange easily rolled into a chance talk about anything they wanted to discuss with the group. They concluded the afternoon by sharing a meal before returning to their parishes.
Called the Fraternity of Priests, these priests have been meeting for years every Monday afternoon some for as long as 20 years.
While its not unusual for a group of priests to pray together, it is unusual that, given the busy if not frenetic schedules of most priests today, these men recognize the value of intentionally setting aside a time for prayer and fraternity.
"Its literally changed my priesthood," said Father Brian E. Jeffries, Pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Canaan and Immaculate Conception Parish in Norfolk, and one of the original members who brought the group to Connecticut in 1987.
"Its purpose is to give priests vision," he explained about the fraternity, "and its made all the difference in the world to me as a priest.
"Here I have brothers in the priesthood who care for me and support me and my spiritual growth," he said.
"Theres a real bond here that goes beyond friendship, to the higher purpose of the building up of the Church," he added. "It challenges me to be a good priest, and a committed priest."
The group rotates among the parishes they lead to accommodate schedules as well as driving distances. But the purposes remain the same, to pray together as a brotherhood of priests, to socialize and share their priesthood, and to freely bring issues, personal concerns, ideas or struggles about their ministry to talk out with members.
"I come because I believe in the brotherhood of the priesthood, in sharing and caring for one another and in experiencing our joys and sorrows with one another," said Father James George, parochial vicar of St. John the Evangelist in Watertown. "It gives me the opportunity to share my problems and to help me continue as a good priest."
The Fraternity of Priests was founded in 1983 at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, to give priests a regular opportunity to pray, socialize, receive ongoing formation and share life, as well as to pastor and encourage one another.
The Hartford fraternity is one of 34 groups in the United States and 22 internationally that combined have more than 400 members (www.fraternityofpriests.org).
Among U.S. bishops serving as advisors to the fraternity are Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark, N.J., Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and Bishop Sam G. Jacobs of Alexandria, La.
To reach out to priests who may be interested in learning more, the fraternity is hosting a conference April 6-9 at Montfort House, located at Lourdes in Litchfield shrine. Archbishop Henry J. Mansell is scheduled to address the gathering. It will include several conferences, adoration, liturgies and quiet meditation as well as meals and time for socializing.
"St. Augustine stressed the importance of friendship in the Lord," said Father Joseph E. Looney, Pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, who added that the priests also make a commitment to tithe, fast and do a daily Holy Hour.
"The fraternity offers us the opportunity to be with other priests, to encourage our prayer life and to support each other," he said.
"It supports us in our basic Catholicism, too," he continued, "by allowing us to get together in a critical mass to support and mentor each other. Priests are so busy today, but by keeping the commitments of the fraternity, it gives us the incentive to follow through."
Among groups the fraternity has financially supported are the Archbishops Annual Appeal, the Hospital of St. Raphael Foundation, Project AIDS and Notre Dame High School in West Haven.
Father Robert J. Rousseau, Pastor of St. Augustine Parish in North Branford, agreed. "We build each other up," he said.
"I started because I need to get together with other priests in a prayerful way thats positive and uplifting," he noted. "Its made a real difference in my life."
He explained that for the many priests today who are so busy and have so much to do, theres always a danger that prayer is one of the areas that slips.
"Its great to have a Monday afternoon when I can get away from the parish and have time to pray," he said. For priests who face struggles or are going through a difficult time, perhaps dealing with the demands of the parish, changes or transfers, "they can come here and be strengthened."
As for the benefits of the group, Father Rousseau said simply, "Weve been meeting for 20 years, so that tells you that it has to have done some good for us."
Added Father Francis Karvelis of Southington, "It helps me to be a better priest, to get closer to God and to serve him better."
The April retreat begins at 5 p.m. Sunday and concludes at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. Father Jeffries is taking calls for information at (860) 824-7078.