Shepherding Spiritual Shepherds
Omaha’s Institute for Priestly Formation helps priests fall in love with Jesus . . .
But through a 10-week summer program at The Institute for Priestly Formation (IPF), the distressed seminarian realized that “so much in him had sold out to sin and become hardened that he was leading a double life, conforming outwardly to seminary expectations but unconverted within,” said Monsignor Esseff, whose brother George is a member of Legatus’ Ventura/LA North Chapter and member of IPF’s Mission Advisory Council.
“The grace of the retreat experience made [the seminarian] become truly himself through conversion of heart,” Monsignor Esseff said. “That joy of experiencing union with Christ gave him the most marvelous sense of freedom. Then he could really explore what he was called to and knew that the priesthood was his true calling. He’s now ordained and is a wonderful, happy priest.”
Monsignor Esseff — an exorcist for the Diocese of Scranton, Pa. — revels in his work as an IPF spiritual director. The priest has served as a spiritual director to Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, and he himself was mentored by St. Padre Pio.
He has assisted IPF since fellow Scranton priest Fr. Richard Gabuzda and three others founded it in 1994. They were inspired by Blessed John Paul II’s 1992 call for a renewed vision for the priesthood and seminary formation in Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds).
The institute is located on the campus of Omaha’s Creighton University. IPF enjoys an affiliation with the Jesuit institution, which grants IPF students course credit. However, it’s a separate entity — a non-profit Public Association of the Faithful.
Six seminarians attended its first summer session in 1995. Some 2,000 have followed. More than 80% of U.S. dioceses have not only entrusted their seminarians to IPF’s summer school, but have sent their priests and seminary formation personnel to other IPF programs, including 30-day Ignatian retreats and a three-year course to train spiritual directors.
Indeed, Ignatian spirituality has breathed life into IPF since its inception. Father Gabuzda, Kathy Kanavy and Fr. John Horn, SJ, participated in a 30-day Ignatian retreat at Creighton in the early 1990s. The retreat so strengthened their relationship with Christ that “it became clear God had called us together – along with Fr. George Aschenbrenner, SJ – to do something more,” said Fr. Gabuzda, IPF’s executive director.
In response to John Paul’s call for spiritual formation to be at the heart of priestly ministry, said Fr. Gabuzda, “we founded a novitiate dedicated to the charism of diocesan priests in order to draw seminarians and priests into a deeper encounter with God, and to draw the people they serve into that encounter as well.” Unlike religious orders, he noted, diocesan formation does not include a novitiate or time set apart for spiritual preparedness.
Deeper love for Jesus
IPF’s summer school for seminarians, its keystone program, begins with an eight-day silent retreat, followed by daily classes and one-on-one meetings between each seminarian and an assigned spiritual director.
“In seminary so many things are going on that you can get distracted from your prayer life,” said Matthew Clarke of Illinois’ Springfield diocese, who is studying at Mundelein Seminary. He attended IPF’s summer school last year. “IPF strengthened my prayer life and relationship with God. It’s steeped in Ignatian spirituality: in a nutshell, to see God more clearly, to love him more dearly, and to follow him more nearly.”
Clarke, 43, credits IPF for giving him a model of prayer and spiritual life so necessary to “entering into that close relationship with Christ that’s the basis of priesthood.”
The bishops sending their seminarians and priests to IPF programs are in lock-step with Clarke’s sentiments.
“I remember when I first attended the Institute for Priestly Formation in 2004 for a 30-day silent, directed retreat,” said Denver’s Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, a member of IPF’s Bishops Advisory Council. “My spiritual life was forever changed and deepened in a way I never thought possible. I learned to pray like I never had before. Those weeks brought forth in me an even deeper love for Jesus, a new and lasting awareness of my sonship in the Father, and the possibilities of the life of grace in the Holy Spirit.”
The spiritual formation that priests and seminarians receive from IPF, he continued, “equips them to serve as diocesan priests, a calling that requires deep intimacy with the Trinity and Mary. That’s because a priest cannot invite others into true intimacy with God without having that kind of relationship himself. Once he experiences this true intimacy, it changes his preaching, teaching and celebration of the sacraments.”
The main goal of IPF’s formation is to help priests and seminarians “fall in love and stay in love with God,” said Denver’s spiritual shepherd, who sends his seminarians and priests to IPF programs each year.
Tom Pogge, a member of Legatus’ Omaha Chapter, is IPF’s director of mission advancement and executive director of its fundraising wing, The Institute for Priestly Formation Foundation.
Pogge, 65, enjoyed a long career as a corporate lawyer before joining IPF in 2006 and taking on these twin roles that were a natural given his background in executive decision-making, finance, and fundraising. A longtime member of the Serra Club, Pogge already had an abiding love and appreciation for the priesthood.
His evangelistic fervor for IPF has helped broaden its support base, undergirding its ongoing expansion. The program to train spiritual directors — a three-year program that meets three weeks per year at Mundelein Seminary — is doubling in size this spring to 154 priests. And Pogge envisions an expansion of IPF’s facilities at Creighton, including an international center for priestly renewal.
“Having lived through all the changes from Vatican II and the confusion that came out of it, I think we’re seeing a renewal of the Church and what the Council Fathers were really calling for starting to emerge,” he explained.
“To renew the Church, we need strong, spiritually healthy priests. And when people learn about what IPF is doing to serve this holy purpose, they’re excited — and rightly so.”
MATTHEW A. RAREY is Legatus Magazine’s editorial assistant.