Fr. Patrick Behm, then of Annunciation Church in Coon Rapids, Iowa, stands with Portland seminarian James Ladd last summer. Ladd is holding a chalice dedicated to his great uncle Father Willard Christy, a World War II Army chaplain who died at age 37 in an accident stateside after serving in the Pacific, including Japan. (Courtesy James Ladd)
Fr. Patrick Behm, then of Annunciation Church in Coon Rapids, Iowa, stands with Portland seminarian James Ladd last summer. Ladd is holding a chalice dedicated to his great uncle Father Willard Christy, a World War II Army chaplain who died at age 37 in an accident stateside after serving in the Pacific, including Japan. (Courtesy James Ladd)
A vocational institute in Nebraska has become a spiritual bastion forming the hearts and ministry of priests and seminarians across the country, including several from the Archdiocese of Portland.

The Institute for Priestly Formation (IPF), based in Omaha, Nebraska, was founded in 1994 to assist bishops in the spiritual formation of diocesan seminarians and priests. Its programs include a summer seminarian session, spiritual director training and pre-ordination retreats, among others. Since 2018, the archdiocese’s vocation office has sent a few seminarians to the summer program each year and some archdiocesan priests have also gone through the institute’s spiritual direction program. As they’re quick to testify, the fruits of these experiences have immensely benefited these priests and seminarians and the faithful they serve.

“What comes (from IPF) is a deep abiding relationship with God,” said Father Jeff Eirvin, vocations director for the archdiocese. “Coming to know how madly in love God is with me impacts my ministry, and from that my ministry will flow and be a blessing to others.”

Father Eirvin, who has served as vocations director since 2014, first learned about the institute and its offerings after being elected vice president of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors. IPF provided an eight-day silent retreat for vocation directors focusing on their unique ministry and Father Eirvin’s first experience at the retreat was so fruitful that he continued to attend it in the following years.

“All of (IPF’s) programs have a retreat component along with teaching,” Father Eirvin said. “You learn about priestly identity (and) the richness of the priesthood, but you’ve also experienced God’s personal care and love for you.”

In 2017, both Father Eirvin and Father Matt Libra, pastor of St. Rose of Lima in Northeast Portland, began IPF’s spiritual direction training program, a three-year cohort program that aims to deepen a priest’s communion with God and enable them to nurture the same communion in the lives of their spiritual directees. The cohort gathers three times each year for prayer, educational sessions and fraternity with about 70 like-minded priests around the country.

“If priests aren’t putting ourselves in a place to receive from the Lord, we can’t give what we don’t have,” said Father Libra. “(Priests) can become great administrators and solid professionals but never really be good priests. IPF helps us to not just go out and teach people academically, but to truly accompany people as other beloved sons and daughters of the Father. We’re speaking from what we know rather than just kind of an intellectual exercise.”

By 2018, Father Eirvin decided that future priests also would benefit from the institute’s offerings. Every year since, a few archdiocesan seminarians are sent to a nine-week summer program, which, according to one attendee, spiritually reinvigorates seminarians while preparing them for the pastoral leadership that awaits them after ordination.

“After a long academic semester, this was a breath of fresh air,” said James Ladd, who attended the summer program in 2021 and is currently serving his pastoral year at Our Lady of the Mountain Parish in Ashland. “It allowed me to relax and just enter into a prayer routine like I’ve never been able to.”

Most of the institute’s programs focus on Ignatian spirituality, which places a heavy emphasis on encountering and discerning God’s presence in all things, and recognizing one’s sonship in the Father. Establishing this union with God has dramatic effects on forming the heart of a priest, said Ladd.

“Now being able to better understand how to combat the peaks and valleys that we all go through in life, I’m better able to identify how I’m feeling and I have tools that can walk me through that,” Ladd said. “Remembering that one is a beloved son (of God) is the base of interpersonal relationships and how one views themselves and how they view their role in life.”

For priests already in full-time ministry, the emphasis on discernment has significantly impacted how they offer the sacraments and spiritual direction. Father Libra said he believes he’s a better homilist and confessor because of the formation he received, and Father Eirvin said the principles of discernment have been key as he helps men interested in the priesthood discern their vocation.

“My personal prayer life was really affected and prepared me then to be a spiritual director, where I’m able to see God at work in other people’s lives and help them to remain in relationship with him,” said Father Eirvin, who remains involved with IPF as a faculty member for the spiritual direction and seminarian summer programs.

“IPF has been highly impactful on me to become a better pastor,” said Father Libra. “That’s really what’s at the heart of the priesthood — not just learning skills but becoming the priests that Christ called us to be.”

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A priest in the past

Archdiocese of Portland seminarian James Ladd, when in the Midwest to attend the Institute for Priestly Formation, visited family in Iowa and learned more about a priest relative from the past.

The discoveries have added depth to Ladd’s own discernment.

His great uncle, Father Willard Christy, was an Iowa farm boy turned priest who served as a U.S. Army chaplain the Pacific during World War II. After the dropping of the atomic bombs, Father Christy was a chaplain in Japan for about two years.

He survived all that only to be killed after coming home and staying at a base in California to await a train ride to Iowa.

On the way back to base from an excursion to the local county fair in summer 1947, Father Christy was in a taxi cab that was hit by a drunk driver. The priest was 37, still a captain in the army.

Ladd visited the church in Coon Rapids where Father Christy had been posted before answering the call to serve in the military. There is a chalice in the church dedicated to Father Christy’s memory, donated by his siblings. Ladd was able to hold the meaningful object, which remains in frequent use at the parish.