Milwaukee Catholic Herald

Guided Online Retreat brings
spiritual exercises to the masses
April 11, 2002
BY Joan King  
Special to the Catholic Herald

Milwaukee- A woman visiting London from her home in Baltimore heard about it form a priest from Singapore. It can be designated “handicapped accessible.” It brings a 475-year-old idea to the modern age of technology. What is it? It is a Web- based online retreat – 34 weeks of reflections, prayer suggestions and even direct help by e-mail.

The idea resulted from teamwork by Jesuit Fr. Andy Alexander, vice president for the University Ministry and Director of the Collaborative Ministry office, and Associate Director of Collaborative Ministry Maureen McCann Waldron at Creighton University in Omaha.

In 1998, as they planned a Lenten retreat for the faculty and staff at Creighton, they put it on the Internet rather than photocopy it and also enlisted contributions from participants. When they began getting e-mail at the site from Australia, the Philippines, Africa, and other areas of the world, they realized it could be a worldwide ministry that reflects the changing face of the church.

“It was a collaborative effort born of prayer and reflection together. It took us 34 weeks to create the retreat. We put it together, one week at a time,” said Alexander. “Each week we would spend several hours refracting upon the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius… We would ask ourselves how we would present this material online to very busy people today, whose only chance for a powerful experience of intimacy with God would be in the midst of their everyday lives…It has brought the movements of the Exercises alive in a new way.”

The user-friendly site offers instructions for getting started with the retreat with the retreat with answers to frequently asked questions. The weekly guide can be printed for use in any setting. Weekly photos by Jesuit Fr. Don Doll serve as visual reflections.
There are only three requirements – to read the weekly guide page each week, to spend some period of time in prayer everyday and to review the graces of the week each week. An option is to share the graces with a director of others making the retreat.

The retreat draws on the almost 500-year-old spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order. As originally written, it was meant to be a 30- day individual retreat, but has been adapted in person, the Web-site is a boon, available 24/7. It also brings the spiritual world to the handicapped who find it difficult to move about outside the home, but have computer access, such as a person with muscular dystrophy and a voice-activated computer.

Waldron told of one woman who printed each week’s guide and mailed it to her sister-in-law suffering with terminal cancer. She would then call and they would go over it together. Both found it very inspirational. The cancer victim died in the 34th week of the retreat, fully prepared for her life’s close, a wonderful gift from her sister-in-law.
Both associates advise participants to look at the retreat as a gift, a wonderful experience, just as we find time to do the things we like.

Here’s how it works.
Go to
Click on the “retreat” line or explore “helps for making this retreat on your own” or “helps for a group making this retreat.” Read what others say about it at “sharing the retreat” and “our guest book.” It is really simpler then it looks.

At the retreat setup, the weekly guides can be accessed in various ways according to individual preference – begin at the beginning or go with the liturgical year. (The liturgical year begins in September at the Web site to coincide with the 34-week school year.)
The web site also lists daily reflections (written by 50 faculty and staff at Creighton) as a link to the daily liturgy, preparing for the Sunday readings, seasonal prayer preparation, on-line Stations of the Cross, spirituality and justice links. In March, 1,107 logged on the week 1 to begin the retreat.

Adding the various link contacts, the site receives several thousand “hits” a day. The weeks change with the liturgical year and expand or retract to fit Lent, Easter, Advent, Christmas and seasons of the secular calendar.

A new twist to the site is the recent expansion to many who program the daily reflections to their palm pilot-type devices for immediate availability when time permits.
Many online retreatants make an in-person retreat at a later time. The Jesuit retreat houses also give out a card with the online retreat site for those who wish to keep in spiritual contact after an in-person retreat.

Alexander, who served as pastor of Gesu Parish in Milwaukee from 1988 to 1996, credited the wonderful technology department at Creighton that gives them as much space as they want.

Both Waldron and Alexander work at the Web site in their spare time. They receive the best “pay” when people reply by e-mail to their daily reflections. Once the received a $500 donation from a group of nuns who work with the poor in New York City to express their gratitude for the convenient spiritual access of the Web site. They tried to return the money but were refused.

“I like to think the Ignatius is proud of what we have done. I like to think that he is especially proud that we did it as a Jesuit and a lay married woman. (The Sharing Page) is a powerful testimony of how hungry people are to find intimacy with God,” said Alexander. “Many of these people would never make their way to a retreat house or approach a spiritual director. Many of them would never go to a religious bookstore and find a good inspiring book to read and reflect upon. But they are going online week after week wrestling with real stuff, falling in love with Jesus, learning to pray in a whole new way, and experiencing a new freedom to be with and like Jesus in giving their lives away more courageously.