Fr. John Bartunek says his online retreat is no substitute for a face-to-face retreat.
For people with an appetite for God who lack time in their day-to-day lives, Father John Bartunek's digital retreats might be the fast food of formation they need.
"It is not exactly the same as a face-to-face retreat, but it can still create some space and some time for God's grace to work," he said.
"We have recorded the retreat and you can either watch it online if you want or you can download it and then do whatever you want with it. This kind of meets (parishioners) where they are at."
Through Bartunek's website, www.rcspirituality.org, retreatants from around the world can access material which seeks to deepen one's faith. The retreat can be completed in either one sitting, which takes as little as 15 minutes, or can be broken down over the course of several days.
"You can do it whenever you are able to, wherever you want to, for however long of a time you have available," Bartunek said. "Before the Internet we couldn't do that. That's really the biggest advantage."
Not only do these retreats offer flexibility in terms of time and location, they can also be completed individually or in a group setting.
"When we talk about a group setting, what we've seen so far is some people have made it into a family thing," said Bartunek, who is currently stationed in Rome. "Every month they bring the kids together and the whole family will watch it and after each piece they'll talk about it."
To aid discussion, Bartunek, who writes all of the material, included discussion questions in each video. In addition to families, Bartunek said he's heard of the retreats being used in parishes and even as an evangelization tool, although he stressed that these retreats were not intended to win someone over to the Catholic faith.
"These are geared towards people who already have a relationship with God and who are feeling moved to go deeper," he said. "It isn't meant to be something for someone who has never prayed before or doesn't really have a relationship with God."
For Bartunek, a member of the Legionaries of Christ, the main drawback to digital retreats is the lack of interaction with others, specifically the spiritual director.
"The advantage of a traditional retreat with a retreat director in a real place is there is something about our human nature that makes those experiences extra powerful," said Bartunek.
"During a weekend retreat you have a chance to speak one-on-one with the retreat director to get some personalized guidance to talk about the things that are steering your heart. You can't do that with this kind of retreat."
Valeria French, an administrative assistant with the Toronto Archdiocese, recently completed Bartunek's Fire and Thorns, A Retreat on the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She also sees the lack of a director as the major drawback.
Although she sees value in digital retreats, for her they don't replace the kind of traditional retreats she's been attending since she was 13.
"It was a very short retreat to attend and I could do it on my own time, which was a definite plus, although the lack of interacting with other retreat-goers was very evident," said French, 26.
"The benefits are convenience and simplicity. If one doesn't have a weekend to get away for a retreat and wanted something quick and simple in order to give their faith some more thought, these would be ideal.
"On the other hand, without facilitators or perhaps guest speakers, any questions we have that come up during the session may go unanswered."
"If I had a choice between a digital retreat and perhaps a day-long retreat, I'd probably go for the day-long one."
That's the attitude Bartunek hopes the 1,500 people who participate in his digital retreats each month leave with. That's because when he launched his website in December 2012 he intended the digital retreats to supplement traditional retreats rather than replace them.
"I really encourage people to do a live retreat once a year if they can," he said. "It's like your yearly spiritual check-up."