San Diego, Orange County and Monterey may evoke sunnier thoughts than St Helens, Old Swan or Maghull but according to Father Jim Clarke, a recent two-day visitor to Merseyside, the challenges facing the priests of Los Angeles and Liverpool are surprisingly similar. The clue was in the theme of the Californian cleric's retreat for Archdiocesan clergy on 11 June: 'Finding God while managing a busy parish or two!'
With priests increasingly required to multitask, Father Jim came to LACE to remind his transatlantic brethren of their own spiritual needs. "It's about caring not only for others but also for oneself, because we can only give away that which we've received," he said. "If they don't have a vibrant relationship with Jesus then it just becomes another job.
"The first purpose of these retreats is to offer the priests an opportunity to reflect upon the gift and challenge of being a priest in today's society and today's Church. Secondly it's an opportunity for them to get together, see each other and listen to each other in an environment that's not task-oriented."
For Father Jim, balance is everything if faith and life are to dovetail happily, as he tells students at St John's Seminary in Los Angeles where he is director of spiritual formation. "I say to the seminarians, there are three things we need to remember – first, we're human; second, we're Christian; and third, we're called to be priests. If we are humbly accepting of that order, we'll be fine. There's a time for work and a time for leisure, a time for prayer and a time for ministry. It's that wonderful challenge of how we do both."
If the message is universal, it comes from the heart of Los Angeles Archdiocese – where he has lived his 34-year priestly ministry – with its five million Catholics and "54 languages in which the Eucharist is celebrated". The Santa Monica native perceives within secular lives a questing for God. "The yearning to do well, be whole, be the best we can; that's a striving for God. I think spirituality courses through the details of people's activities, it's there but sometimes we're not clear about it. But once we figure things out and have the balance, everything plays out in its own time."
Catechesis – "helping people unpack that mystery to more readily apply it to their life" – was the focus of Father Jim's three-week English stay, comprising 15 events across four dioceses and attracting not only clergy and catechists but headmasters, hospital and school chaplains and lay leaders.
His first 24 hours in Liverpool brought a repeat of last year's LACE retreat for catechists as well as a mini-retreat for the Allerton Carmelites. The retreat experience certainly resonates deeply with the 61-year-old, who also serves as associate spiritual director at the Cardinal Manning House of Prayer for priests and part-time professor at Loyola Marymount University. "Ten to 15 per cent of my ministry is giving retreats, and that goes back to when I was 17 and I made my first retreat and it changed my life. From then on I really made a promise to God that, because it helped me so much, I wanted to be an instrument and help others via the retreat experience. I've been doing them for over 40 years."