July 11, 2015 — During Independence Day weekend, while most of us were watching fireworks, a group of U.S. veterans gathered at the White House Jesuit Retreat in St. Louis to reflect on God’s presence in their military experience.
From July 1-3, White House held its first-ever veterans retreat, welcoming men and women of any faith background to the retreat house, which sits on 80 acres along the Mississippi River, for a weekend of reflection. The program followed the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits.
"St. Ignatius himself was a veteran," said Bill Schmitt, lay director of White House and a Vietnam veteran. "He was injured in battle and wanted books of heroism and chivalry, and they brought him books on the saints. He got interested and received a spiritual awakening while he was recovering."
This unique retreat was prompted by Pope Francis’ call in October 2015 to nourish the ethical and spiritual dimensions of military personnel and their families. The pope said that we as a community must teach them prayer as a way of dealing with their new reality.
In response to these words, the retreat was aimed to help veterans focus on their military experience and how God was with them and continues to be with them. It required participants to engage in quiet reflection on their own experiences, while also listening to the experiences of others.
"That whole military experience has changed anyone who was served," Schmitt said. "God is a very powerful source of strength, especially to people who are recovering either from illness or other types of trauma in their lives."
The weekend consisted of a series of talks by Jesuit Father Jim Conroy, co-founder of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps and rector at Wheeling Jesuit University, followed by small breakout sessions and prayer. The lectures and discussions dug into the trauma created by PTSD and the guilt and shame that often accompanies the military experience. It sought to aid veterans through prayer and solidarity.
The veteran’s retreat is set to become an annual event, Schmitt said.