Stepping into the presence of God

Stepping into the presence of God Knock Shrine, Knock, Co. Mayo.
Retreats offer a chance to spend time with God away from the pressures of the world, Greg Daly is told


“The beauty of a retreat is that it is time for you to step away from the everyday and to reconnect with God and your Faith,” according to Noirín Mulhern of Knock Shrine. “I think retreats are important for all of us, because our lives are so busy and we are bombarded with news and technology – the world that we live in is very, very busy compared to say, our parents’ generation.”

It’s an important observation, and one that goes a long way to explaining the bewildering diversity of retreat centres in Ireland. The Drumalis Retreat Centre, just outside Larne, Co. Antrim, has been running since 1930, and now has a large and loyal attendance of retreatants, according to Sr Anna Hainey and Sr Margaret Rose McSparran.

“We have a very large footfall,” says Sr Anna. “We have parish retreats, and there would be at least 300, maybe 350 of those in the year.” With a host of directed retreats and adult faith-formation programmes taking place at the centre throughout the year it’s hardly surprising the centre is busy.

“It’s a large house, and we could have four groups in the house at any one time,” she says. “Many of the people who have been participants in these courses here with us are now leading retreats and courses. We feel that a huge movement has taken place, that huge changes have taken place: it’s a very active laity we have on our team, and the laity have taken our place in the Church.”


Sr Margaret Rose says retreats at the centre have changed over the decades.

“It has developed from a traditional, straightforward silent retreat sort of activity into a much wider and more comprehensive and all-embracing catchment and provision,” she says. “We feel we are working with people of all faiths and none connected into the wider community of Northern Ireland where there are very serious political and religious divisions.”

While the Passionist sisters and the centre community have a strong ecological strand to their activities, concerned as they are by disconnections between human beings and the planet itself, she stresses that “above all it’s a centre for spiritual activity, for the provision of retreats, the experience of prayer, and the development of the understanding of what it is to be a layperson in the Catholic Church today”.

While people can at times feel dissatisfied with their experiences of the Church, they still have a hunger for spirituality she says, expressing the hope that the centre can help feed that craving.

“In our programmes we offer great variety, and we hope that what we’re offering is offering what’s needed,” she says. “Everyone’s looking for something slightly different.”


A welcoming attitude is key to a successful retreat centre, says Sr Elizabeth Gilmartin of the Ardfert Retreat Centre in Skrillagh, Co. Kerry.

“The retreat centre is here since the 1970s-80s; it was a convent and then it turned into a retreat centre,” she says. “The mission of it is that it’s a very welcoming place, where people can come for time off for Faith, to refresh themselves and revitalise, and to have the opportunity to spend time in prayer and contemplation and rekindle their relationship with God.”

Describing the centre as “very much a place apart where people can come and have time to themselves and have quiet time”, Sr Elizabeth says that an especially welcoming atmosphere really helps the Ardfert centre stand out.

“We would try to make it a welcoming place where people feel they’re away from everything else and they can actually have time apart to reflect on their own lives, and the lives of those near and dear to them,” she says.

The centre runs its own retreats – Sr Elizabeth is herself a spiritual director – and also hosts retreats run by others, with the bulk of those attending retreats at the centre being locals.

“We’re in the diocese of Kerry, our bishop is Bishop Ray Browne, and it’s the diocese that owns the place,” she says, explaining that “the people who come to retreats here would be parishes in the diocese. It’s been a tradition here that the parishes come and take a night during the year from 7pm to 11pm, where they come and have a talk with myself or another retreat giver, or others, people who are trained in retreat work, and we then have a priest come and say Mass and have Confession and reflection.”

The numbers attending retreats at the centre seem to run into the thousands each year, she says. “Certainly we’d have between 500 and 1,000 a month, and in summer we’d have a lot more – we’d have full six-day retreats, and three-day retreats,” she says. “The main thing is prayer, allowing us to commune with God, but there’s an element of training and learning too. It’s one thing to know about God but the other thing is to know God, and to know God in prayer is very much part of our thinking here.”


“The family that prays together stays together,” said the famous ‘Rosary priest’ Fr Patrick Peyton, so it seems fitting that an emphasis on helping children and families pray has been at the heart of the Fr Patrick Peyton Centre in Attymass, Co. Mayo, which is now starting to spread its wings a bit.

“Our new residence retreat facility is a facility where we’re just starting to do adult retreats,” says Padraic Walsh, the centre’s manager. “We already do secondary and primary school retreats – we’ve been doing them about 10 years. The centre has been here about 20 years – we celebrated our 20th anniversary just in October.”

The new facility will be open to all sorts of adult retreats, whether guided, self-guided, run by the centre itself, and for families or religious communities, says Padraic.

“We’re aiming our facility at adult retreats. Some of those are aimed at religious communities that would come in – it might be self-guided or they might have their own speaker that would come in as well. We have Fr Steve Gibson here as well, our spiritual director, and he would be available if a group wanted spiritual guidance or wanted a talk,” he says.

“Let’s say somebody was in for a week or whatever, we’d start off in the mornings with Fr Steve probably giving a talk, then self-reflection for an hour or two, then probably lunch – we have a 60-seater restaurant so we can provide food as well,” he says. “In the afternoon then there would probably be Mass or Benediction. We have a beautiful chapel here which is very inducive to prayer and reflection.”

Despite being self-contained, with chapel, auditorium, restaurant and even a museum, the centre’s size and setting make it especially conducive for small group retreats, Padraic says.

“We’re very intimate – our retreat centre has seven bedrooms, so it’s good for small groups. We’re nestled in a beautiful area in Attymass, we’ve beautiful lakes and mountains with exceptional scenery,” he says. “Fr Peyton was known worldwide and has just been made venerable over a year ago – he always talked about the importance of prayer and family prayer, and our motto is ‘we help families to pray’.”


Rather than being a destination for retreats, NET Ministries offer a different model of retreats where retreats are taken on the road and can be brought to parishes and schools all over the country.

“We do roughly three retreats a week,” says Connor Duncan. “We start our ministry at the start of October and go through to the last week of May. That would be our own team – our other teams are based in parishes mainly, with one team working with Vocations Ireland. They do a series of retreats but work directly for vocations Ireland.”

Australian Millie O’Connor says that since October the NET road team has run around 17 retreats.

“We mostly go into secondary schools and it really depends at what year level the teachers feel is best fit for a retreat. But we also do quite a few retreats for confirmation students as well. The retreats can be for anywhere from 20 to just over 100,” she says. “There’s 10 of us, from six different nations. I’m from Australia, then we have two from Ireland, three from America, two from Canada, one from Uganda and one from Hungary.”


Connor explains that the themes of retreats are generally chosen by schools, typically on such topics as God’s love, peer pressure or leadership, and would involve talks and small group sessions, as well as songs, dramas, and testimonies.

“The final part is what we call prayer ministry where we do one-on-one prayer with each person, just for a couple of minutes, just asking them if they’d like to pray for anything in particular, maybe something from the day, maybe they want to know Jesus more, maybe they want a deeper love for him,” he says. “Sometimes these are run on gym floors, sometimes it’s before the Blessed Sacrament, sometimes we do it when there’s also Confession available – it just depends on the school. They change depending on the school environment or the retreat place we’re at.”

Such retreats typically are run over a full school day, he says, though sometimes they’re just half-day retreats, with a real advantage coming from how the NET team are young people themselves engaging in a type of peer-to-peer ministry.

“We’re not about the hard contents of the Bible,” says Millie. “It’s simply about our experiences and the way Jesus works in our day-to-day lives, and through that we encourage the students that they too can have the same kind of relationships with Jesus.”


There’s an impressive range of retreat options even at Knock itself, according to Noirín Mulhern.

“Through our Faith Renewal programme we have a series retreats and workshops that run usually either end of the season, so we have a spring programme and an autumn/winter programme,” she says. “They are organised here by our own faith renewal theme and we would bring in speakers.”

The ‘Quiet Days for Busy People’ retreats are always hugely popular, she says, with there being a range of speakers at these.

“One of our speakers is Jim Deeds, who is the author of Meeting God in the Mess. He’ll come and give a one-day retreat – he spoke at the Novena last year as well and was hugely popular,” she says. “As well as all of that over the last number of years we would have done other workshops like ‘Art as a Doorway to the Divine’. Here in the shrine we have a lot of very striking and beautiful pieces of artwork, from glass to sculpture and of course our mosaic.”

The styles and sizes of retreats can vary enormously, she says.

“During our Jesuit week, which is our week of Ignatian spirituality, that’s a wonderful seven-day programme where there’s a retreat in the morning and you have your own free time in the afternoon to work on pieces of Scripture that would be recommended to you, so we would normally have between 50 and 60 people at an event like that,” she says. “And likewise we have just finished our workshop for choirs – we had choirs from all over the area, and we had 70 people at that.”

On the other hand, she says, other retreats can be far smaller. “And then you might have others that are more intimate that have between 10 and 15 people. As part of our faith renewal programme through the prayer centre we do have prayer guides, who guide people on a one-to-one basis through their prayer lives.”


Whatever people are looking for, one thing that Knock really offers is a special place for peaceful contemplation, she says.

“When people come to Knock, once you step across the threshold you know that you’re in a special sacred place, and people regularly comment on the sense of peace they feel when they come here,” she says.

“When you look at the apparations that occured here in Knock, the message was unspoken, and one thing that is unique about the apparitions is the appearance of the lamb on the altar representing the Eucharist. So that whole contemplative aspect of the apparition is part of what draws people here. It’s for the peace and the quietness, and that’s what’s unique about coming to Knock.”