Be quiet and experience the mercy and miracles of a retreat
For the last four years, Fr. Karl Voelker, SJ has touched thousands of lives at Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House. As a retreat master and spiritual director, Fr. Voelker walks side-by-side with retreatants and his directees as they accept the invitation to encounter and experience a loving and merciful God.
“What can happen during the 48 hours of retreat is almost like a baby being born,” says Fr. Karl. “Something new comes alive in a person that wasn’t alive before.”
Retreat-goers come to Bellarmine from all walks of life: from novice and seasoned retreatants, frazzled executives, high school students on Kairos retreats and those seeking spiritual direction to special populations such as caregivers, those facing the challenges of addiction or relationship hardships, people from all faiths, and people on the margins, all who come to grow in their relationship with God and personal prayer.
“Many come because their past is haunting them, or they need more strength to handle difficult challenges in their lives,” says Fr. Karl. “All of them are human beings who need help. The retreats are a chance to look inside and ask the Lord to be with them. The good part for me is the Holy Spirit does all the work. I just pick up the pieces. My job is to be a listener, to listen closely to what the person feels if it’s either pain or joy. I help them ease the pain and find the energy to move forward.”
A Jesuit priest for almost 50 years, Fr. Karl has been a teacher, chaplain, and pastor in numerous communities throughout his native Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Canada and, until October, a spiritual guide and retreat leader here at Bellarmine. Many of those who have experienced his welcoming manner, humor, and grace say they’ve been especially touched by his gift for healing.
“Father Karl was very ‘there’ for me,” one retreatant said in a tribute booklet to Fr. Karl on his retirement from Bellarmine earlier this fall. “He was very encouraging and took the time to meet with me in the late afternoon. I really appreciated his words.”
Walking alongside thousands of spiritual and religious seekers who share with him their hunger to discern what God is calling them to do in their lives has been life-changing, says Fr. Karl.
“We are here to fill the hunger inside people and lift their spirit,” he says. “I am always amazed at the courage it takes to have the ability to say, ‘I am a sinner and a human being who needs help.’ I want them to know that Jesus came to give them new life. They may be crying here in this room, and I try to get them to not be so harsh on themselves. I might encourage them to go out on a walk and see how beautiful it is and maybe find a reason to be grateful for things just as they are. I want them all to become tree-huggers, to see God’s beauty that is there in their lives and to stop and say thanks. The experience of a retreat and spiritual direction is very transformative. People come to accept they are not perfect, but they are still beautiful people.”
Raised in the Milwaukee suburb of St. Francis, Voelker, 77, graduated from Marquette University High School and attended Jesuit College in St. Bonifacius, Minn. From there, he studied philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo. and pursued theological studies at Regis College in Ontario, Canada. In 1972, Voelker was ordained at Gesu Church at Marquette University.
Now onto his next chapter, Fr. Karl is caring for the spiritual needs of retired Jesuits at St. Camillus in Milwaukee.
“Everyone tells me I’m retiring, but I say, ‘I’m already tired, I don’t want to do tired more,” says Fr. Karl. "So, I say, 'I’m in unretirement.’ I’m now slowing down to end being tired and to serve from that place.”