Teens, Young Adults Gather to Share Faith Experiences
The event was a chance to unplug from the distractions of the outside world and focus on faith. Instead of iPods, cell phones or MySpace, those attending the retreat opted to spend time in the presence of the Eucharist and in the company of other young people. All those who gathered were searching for one thing: a closer relationship with Jesus.
Distractions were left outside the front door of the Youth Retreat Center, but inside there was plenty of "noise." Along with booming worship music provided by The John Flynn Band, the gym at the center was full of the sound of prayer, inspirational talks and group discussions.
The Rejoice retreats, which have been organized by the Archdiocesan Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry since 1998, have become a key source of information about the joy of living the Catholic faith, as well as providing encouragement to those who are familiar with navigating the ups and downs of Catholic life in a secular world.
That world was very much at the forefront of the retreat as young people paused and recalled the April 16 massacre at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. The participants of Rejoice 2007, in the wake of this violent incident, joined their prayers with prayers said around the world for the Virginia Tech victims.
Retreat emcee Michael Manhardt told those attending the retreat that their lives represent God's love and grace-made for selflessness not selfishness. "There is never a time in the Bible where you read that Jesus was selfish," said Manhardt, who has emceed the Rejoice retreats since 2001.
Father Joe Mancini, executive director of the center, who celebrated the retreat's welcoming Mass, echoed Manhardt's message of unity. "We've come to be in the presence of Him who brings us together," Father Mancini, a parochial vicar at Saint Stephen's Parish, said. "Nothing else matters except that we are here with Jesus. We will be transformed by Him just as He is transformed into the Eucharist."
Sister Loretta DeDomenicis (left), a guiding light for the Rejoice 2007 retreat, serves as the associate director of parish outreach and training at the Kearny Youth Retreat Center. Nearly 200 teens and young adults attended the annual event, which was launched nine years ago. Seated next to Sister Loretta is a young woman who obviously was enjoying the various retreat festivities.
Enthusiastic presenters from across the Catholic spectrum-priests, religious sisters and young adults-reiterated the theme of selflessness during the retreat. David O'Brien, a former youth minister for the archdiocese who now works for the Archdiocese of Mobile, AL, addressed the crowd on Saturday afternoon, asking the participants to "love thy neighbor" and embrace Catholic social teaching.
"Being Catholic means helping each other. Helping those in need directly-at a food pantry or homeless shelter-is great," O'Brien said. "But we should also commit ourselves to social action, which is getting to the root of the problem and doing what we can to prevent the pain in the world."
Michael and Faith Rose, a young married couple who also participated in last year's Rejoice program, explained how selflessness and charity helps their marriage stay strong.
"Until I put Jesus first, I didn't know what it was like to live," Michael Rose confessed. Faith agreed, adding that "love doesn't destroy; it brings life. We wanted to experience the kingdom of Heaven on Earth. God gave us power to relate to one another, according to His will, not ours."
As the retreat weekend progressed, the participants had the opportunity to examine their hearts and discover what God might be saying to them. In particular, this reflection came during an intense time of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament on the evening of April 21.
Father Bernard Murphy, C.F.R., of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, led the young people in a time of meditation, focusing on the mercy and the goodness of God. The Blessed Sacrament was slowly processed through the crowd, giving each participant a chance to encounter Jesus in a physical way-something that many found to be an exhilarating, emotional experience. Many in the crowd began to cry; others were inspired to move silently among the participants and gently lay their hands on them in prayer.
On April 22 the young people were invited to share their thoughts in small groups, pondering the next steps they might take to "keep the fire burning" and focus on God. Increasing daily prayer, especially the recitation of the rosary, was a common suggestion. Other ideas included making a commitment to avoid criticizing or making negative comments about others at school or at work.
"It's not enough to talk the talk," said Father Mancini declared in his homily during the retreat's closing Mass. "We have to be willing to back up our words with our actions. Jesus asks us if we love Him each and every day; hopefully, this weekend, you've realized if you are indeed ready to follow Him."
Just before the close of the retreat, participants listened as Msgr. Thomas Nydegger, vice rector and director of formation at Immac-ulate Conception Seminary on the campus of Seton Hall University, South Orange, described the joy of following Jesus and giving your life fully to Him by living as a priest or consecrated religious brother or sister.
"We are all called to serve God in a concrete way," Msgr. Nydegger said. "He calls us deeper into His life so you may find the joy of following God."
(Christy Guerra is a public relations assistant in the archdiocesan Communications Office.)