An important element of the spiritual formation program for the men in pre-theology and theology at Mount Angel Seminary is regular participation in Jesus Caritas prayer groups. Inspired by Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916), Jesus Caritas is a worldwide fraternity made up of small groups of diocesan priests who share prayer and developments in their lives. A steady witness to the importance of these groups is Fr. Richard Keolker, director of the Jesus Caritas groups and a spiritual director at Mount Angel.
Fr. Keolker has been a part of the spiritual formation program at the seminary for 27 years. But his personal Jesus Caritas group of fellow priests has met regularly for 45 years for mutual prayer and support. He is, as one seminarian recently described him, “The manifestation of Caritas. He lives it out in his life.”
“There were Jesus Caritas groups already active at Mount Angel when I got here in 1991,” noted Fr. Keolker. “I worked with them, and in 2004 they became a part of the program for theology and pre-theology students.” The groups meet once a month to share dinner, Scripture reflection, a review of life, and evening prayer.
Luke Stager, currently in his second year of theology, studying for the Archdiocese of Portland, admitted that he initially thought the regular prayer meetings were “one more thing to add to the list of the million things we have to do.” This changed, however, during his first and second summer parish assignments when he learned that the pastors in both parishes participated regularly in Jesus Caritas groups. They do so, as Stager explained, “to fortify and encourage each other, and to pray together.” Seeing their commitment to Jesus Caritas changed his whole attitude, he admitted. “All of a sudden,” he said, “this wasn’t just one more thing we have to do in seminary. This [sense of spiritual fraternity] is something important that we build here.”
Third-year theology student studying for the Diocese of Salt Lake City, Dominic Sternhagen attests that participation in Jesus Caritas is “essential to my vocational journey.” He had arrived at Mount Angel in the middle of a year and with some experience living in a religious community. He was humbled by the way the students in one group reached out and invited him to join them. “Even with someone they didn’t really know yet,” he said, it was a time of “authentic sharing.”
That sharing of joys, struggles and graces providing mutual support is a critical component of Jesus Caritas, said Peter Laughlin, also in his third year of theology, studying for the Archdiocese of Portland. He points to the importance of camaraderie and fellowship formed in the group. “While many people can have windows into our world as seminarians, no one quite fully understands another seminarian or another priest the same way as other seminarians and other priests can,” he said. “There’s a similar direction, and areas of growth we share as we aim for the priesthood in the service of God and discernment of his will together.” One realization Laughlin says he has had through the prayer group is that, “While God interacts with us individually, he is not isolated to my personal experiences. Rather,” he added, “God’s grace is revealed communally, to be shared amongst one another.”
Picking up on the theme of brotherhood, Deacon John Mosier, in his fourth year of theology, studying for the Diocese of Boise, said he sees a comparison between the strength he receives from his Jesus Caritas group to the “armament of God,” referenced in the Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 6. The sacred text, said Deacon Mosier, “suggests that we put on the shield of faith.”
Referencing first century Roman soldiers, Deacon Mosier explained, “It wasn’t the individual soldier himself; it was the man to the left and the man to the right, with shields interlocked, that provided the true defense.”
“As others have mentioned,” he continued, “it is this interlocking dependence that is important not only for our life of faith as seminarians, but for the lives of those we want to one day serve. It’s that interlocking faith, not of the shield, but of our faith lived out here at Mount Angel that makes the Caritas groups work.”
– William Gerard