A snapshot of a week of prayer, camaraderie and renewal in the desert with the Diocese of Orange’s Men in Black

By Monsignor Mike Heher     6/22/2015

The first part of June each year the priests of the Diocese of Orange go on retreat. Parishes that usually have daily Masses are forced to have communion services or find visiting priests to celebrate the Masses. Parishioners may wonder what their priests are doing. Here’s the answer:

For many years we have been going to the La Quinta resort in the desert. Yeah, it’s a pretty swanky place that we can only afford because it is the beginning of their “low” season. (Low? The higher the temperature, the lower the cost. This week, the prediction is a high of 116!) The place has been there since 1926, known as a desert hideaway for movie stars and the like. The trees are large and the grounds are beautifully kept, even in this drought. The expanse is so large that almost all of us fit into just one of the various campuses that surround the main buildings. Each priest has his own room and most rooms have a patio or garden so you can sit outside, read, pray or just enjoy the view.

As a presbyterate we have grown over the years and no retreat house is large enough to accommodate all of us at once, and from the beginning of our life as a diocese we have always preferred to make our retreats together. We still like each other.

Our retreats are made up of one half prayer and one half celebration.

We listen to talks given by an invited speaker (sometimes more than one.)

Over the years some speakers have been fantastic and some have been not so fantastic. We have come not to depend on the speaker to make the retreat productive. Most of us bring along our Bibles, spiritual reading or the occasional novel so that we can make up for what may be sometimes lacking in the presentations.

We also talk to one another, both informally and together during the day, explaining to each other the way we answer a few questions about our own way of life.

The most remarkable part of the Masses and liturgies is the music. We love to sing and most of us are pretty good at it. We sing most of the psalms and the Mass parts as well as the usual hymns. There is a good combination: some ancient chants and some contemporary songs. Singing may be in English, Spanish or Vietnamese. (I think once we had a hymn in Korean but, not knowing Korean or Vietnamese, I can’t quite be sure.) Each retreat we have a few new pieces to learn. We take our time.

We who distribute the sacraments need them just as much as anyone else. One morning priests are invited to seek the Sacrament of the Sick if they so desire. About a dozen did so this year and every other priest laid hands on each one; afterward the bishop anointed each. It took a while but we didn’t mind. We also have a penance service. Just like everyone else, we are weak and sinful and we attend to our weaknesses by receiving the sacrament. (One of the attractions to the priesthood for me in my youth was the belief that a priest could absolve his own sins; I had a vocation crisis when I discovered this was not the case.) I am moved every year seeing confessors and penitents attending so gently with each other.

Priests sign up for a certain period of time for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, which takes place throughout one night.

Another night we have a particularly splendid Mass and banquet of Jubilee when we pay tribute and pray for those priests who are celebrating their gold and silver anniversaries of ordination. We also remember all the priests who have died and attend to those who are new to our diocese and making their first retreat among us.

It is funny: most of us can’t wait to get away from the parish at the start of the week but all of us are quite ready to return to our parishes when the retreat ends on Friday morning. Our retreat restores our spirits.

Monsignor Mike Heher is the pastor of St. Anne Church in Seal Beach.