Confirmation retreats sow the seeds of faith and discipleship
Her decision was risky. Ellen Ward, director of religious education at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Ann Arbor, wanted to change the established eighth grade confirmation retreat from one day, at the parish, to a full weekend at St. Francis Retreat Center in DeWitt. Though it took some selling to convince reluctant parents, the change proved fruitful. “Everything went beautifully. They loved it. From then on, word of mouth made registration easy,” she says. Fifteen years later, no one questions the rationale, and participation has doubled.
St. Francis Retreat Center, purchased by the diocese in 1988 and heavily supported by the DSA, is home to Bethany House, a spiritual life center built specifically for youth. Ellen says, “When we take kids out of a world consumed with activities to Bethany House, we can give them space to let go of their responsibilities, relax a little and open themselves to the Holy Spirit. An overnight does that.”
Confirmation classes at St. Francis of Assisi include both Catholic School students and those who attend religious education. Being relative strangers, they are reluctant to mingle. The retreat format is prepared for this, and begins Friday evening with pizza and ice-breakers, important functions to acquaint the youth and allow them to begin feeling comfortable with each other. The students also construct crosses, an activity initiated by Father David Rosenberg, director of the retreat center and a team leader for the retreats. The first evening concludes with adoration, where the newly made crosses are blessed and presented to the retreatants.
Saturday brings a full day of learning about the Holy Spirit and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit through songs, skits, activities, reconciliation and Mass. Kids are randomly mixed together and Ellen says, “As they relax and mix, you can see them coming together as a group. We must be doing our job correctly because when we are on retreat, we can’t tell who is religious ed and who is Catholic school.”
The apex of the retreat is adoration on Saturday night, an intimate experience held by the fireplace in the gathering space at Bethany House. Ellen says, “Father David will expose the Eucharist, we’ll have song and individual prayer. This is where we find genuine openness, and where kids will share about having a real encounter with the Lord.”
Sunday morning includes follow-up on Saturday’s experiences, one last presentation, lunch and then back on the bus to head for home, taking with them the seeds of faith, discipleship and new friendships sown on that powerful weekend.
This is not the end of their confirmation preparation, but only a midpoint. Ellen says: “We know retreats pump kids up and we want to harness that energy, so we moved our retreats away from the end of the process. Students begin weekly classes in January of their seventh-grade year, and are confirmed in the spring of their eighth-grade year. We hold our retreats in October and November of their eighth-grade year so they can pour the energy they come back with into their Church, their studies, service and other activities we have.”
The students are not the only ones affected by the retreat experience. While parent/sponsor chaperones do not directly participate in the retreat activities, they certainly see and reflect on what is happening. Ellen says: “I hear all the time how they are getting as much out of it as the kids. They have said how much the experience renewed their faith, or how they had their doubts, but a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit pulled them through. The time at the retreat seems to enliven their faith.”
The seeds of the retreat center experience continue to scatter. What an evangelical gift!