By Jerry Duggan
Father Mark Thibodeaux, SJ, never imagined a single text from a parishioner would set so much in motion.
New Orleans was caught in the throes of COVID-19 in early April, with stay-at-home orders in place and the churches closed for in-person Masses. The Holy Name of Jesus Parish community needed a spiritual boost.
On one of the city’s darkest days, a parishioner texted Fr. Thibodeaux, Holy Name pastor, to ask him to consider leading an online retreat. Father Thibodeaux liked the idea but was hesitant to pursue it because he lacked technical expertise.
After much prayer, Fr. Thibodeaux decided his parishioners’ needs outweighed his apprehension about the technical aspects of the retreat.
“I knew our parish community was suffering – spiritually, emotionally and physically,” Fr. Thibodeaux said. “I wanted to lift their spirits.”
Although Fr. Thibodeaux is an experienced retreat leader, he had never conducted one online. He watched YouTube videos on how to create content and, through trial and error, made steady progress.
Meanwhile, he looked at the liturgical calendar and realized there was just over a month until the Feast of the Ascension. He decided on a 30-day retreat based in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. It began April 24 and ended May 24, the Feast of the Ascension. Thus, Fr. Thibodeaux named the retreat “Ascending with Ignatius.”
“The goal was to walk participants through the Spiritual Exercises and build up gradually, as if ascending the Mount of Olives, like Christ did on the days leading to His Ascension,” he explained.
He guided participants through each week of Exercises: sin and mercy, followed by the Life, Passion and Resurrection of Christ.
Father Thibodeaux knew there was a need for spiritual nourishment during such a dark time, but the response floored him.
“I thought maybe 50 parishioners would participate, and I would have been thrilled with that,” he said.
At the time of this writing, day one of the retreat has more than 31,000 views. Nearly 8,000 people have completed all 30 days, each consisting of a short, self-paced YouTube video. (The retreat is still available in its entirety on the parish YouTube channel.)
Father Thibodeaux credits two referrals for the surprising reach of the retreat. First, Manresa House of Retreats in Convent, La., was closed to in-person retreatants and directed would-be participants to Fr. Thibodeaux’s retreat as an alternative. Many other participants came from Fr. Thibodeaux’s friendship with Fr. James Martin, SJ, a well-known Jesuit author.
“I spoke with Jim, and he thought what I was doing was great, so he shared it on his social media channels, which have many thousands of followers,” Fr. Thibodeaux explained. “Then, those who joined spread the word to friends, family and members of their parish communities, and it took off from there.”
Participants joined from every corner of the U.S., as well as Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe. What touched Fr. Thibodeaux the most, though, were the personal connections and growth in faith the retreat helped facilitate.“
A mother and daughter tuned in – one in Ohio, the other in California,” he explained. “They were in different time zones, with busy schedules but were able to watch the retreat and then meet on Zoom to pray and share their takeaways from the retreat.”
According to Fr. Thibodeaux, many participants had never experienced the Spiritual Exercises before, believing they did not have time for an in-person retreat. Others had let their prayer life slide due to stresses of the pandemic but welcomed this chance to reconnect with Christ.
“Doing the retreat online made it available to many who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to participate,” he said. “Ultimately, the retreat spread a little bit of Christ to a lot of people, and that’s what matters most.”
The retreat also expanded Fr. Thibodeaux’s parish community. At the retreat’s conclusion, he invited participants to join his parish’s daily Mass livestream. The online congregation has tripled, from 50 to around 150.
In his final video, Fr. Thibodeaux announced his parish was getting a new sound system. Grateful retreat participants donated more than $20,000.
The retreat remains available on the Holy Name of Jesus YouTube channel, but people who prefer a publication are in luck. The Word Among Us publishing house is publishing it as Ascending with St. Ignatius. It is Fr. Thibodeaux’s sixth book.
“I’m glad the retreat was helpful to so many,” Fr. Thibodeaux said. “It’s all in service of the Lord.”