In Jesuit Father James Conroy, the White House Jesuit Retreat in south St. Louis County has perhaps the perfect leader for its annual veterans retreat — Friday, June 30, to Sunday, July 2, just before Independence Day.
Being a Jesuit priest at a Jesuit retreat center certainly qualifies in the spiritual aspect, but Father Conroy also fulfills the temporal nature of the retreat, connecting him quickly with men and women who have served their country.
He's a veteran himself, of the Vietnam War.
"I have great empathy for men and women who have been in the military, in some cases having experienced horrible things," said Father Conroy, who led the inaugural veterans retreat last year. "It's a complicated life."
Yet, veterans can find God in their service, and the nondenominational retreat will guide them on that path. God's sliver of light even in the darkest hour gives them something on which to hold.
"Even when it's a painful experience of personal loss or suffering, or to see that happen to a friend, or dread and fear you've experienced, you've got to press into it and you can't run from it," said Father Conroy, superior of the Jesuit Community at Wheeling (W.Va.) Jesuit University. "That's where you're going to experience God."
The God experience combines their interior lives with the reality of their situation.
"If you can get those two things working together, that's going to cause you to search for meaning and, ultimately, for a person of faith, ... that search for meaning ends up in God," he said. "God is one in presence with human experience even in dreadful situations.
"Military service can be a time that is pretty dreadful but it also can be a time that's pretty beautiful. You've got to be able to find God in places that are real hard but in places that are also real beautiful. ... The beautiful side is you get to meet and engage in a new culture. You meet extraordinary people who can be filled with insight, goodness, kindness and love, yet some people are your enemy. That's just part of the human experience: good with bad, light with dark, friend with foe."
After ROTC at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Father Conroy spent a year stateside, served in Vietnam from September 1969 to September 1970, then did reserve duty. He entered the Society of Jesus in September 1971 and was ordained in 1978.
During service in Vietnam, he experienced the universal Church. Stationed in Qui Nhón, a port city in the central part of the country, he found it to be a "pretty Catholic city," evangelized by French missionaries. He attended Sunday Masses at Assumption Cathedral.
"I felt welcomed even though I was a soldier in fatigues with an M-16 over my shoulder," he said, with a laugh. "You think, 'What am I doing here?' But the Vietnamese people welcomed me into church. Good guys, bad guys, we're all the same faith. Some of these people could have been (Viet Cong), but in that church, we were one, and I felt at home."
Though he was able to attend Masses with the locals, Father Conroy knows veterans of recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq don't have that option. They live under enormous stress, on high alert 24/7, with the proliferation of roadside bombs and suicide-bombers posing as friends.
Still, members of the military can find the good in people, regardless of where they serve.
"The Vietnamese are beautiful people," he said, adding that recent veterans also praise citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan. "There are extraordinary people even in midst of this great violence."
>> Veterans Retreat at a glance
What: non-denominational, co-ed spiritual retreat for veterans
When: Friday, June 30, to Sunday, July 2
Where: White House Jesuit Retreat, 7400 Christopher Drive in south St. Louis County
Cost: $25 for registration. White House conducts fundraisers to support this event. Lodging and meals are provided.
Registration: Taken on a first-come first-served basis; to register or make a donation to support the continuation of this retreat, call (314) 416-6400
For information: about the White House, visit www.whretreat.org RELATED ARTICLE(S):Priests express gratitude to veterans for their service