A time of renewal, a chance to dive deeper into the faith, a mountaintop experience.
That’s what retreats provide for a group of young people at Our Lady of Peace Parish in Williamstown, under the direction of Kari Janisse, the coordinator of youth and young adult ministry.
Janisse leads several retreats throughout the year: one for confirmation candidates, an eighth grade overnight retreat, a high school weekend retreat and two bi-annual retreats — one for young adults and another for Core Team youth leaders.
Janisse’s personal favorite retreat is the high school weekend one, because it reminds her of her first retreat in her own high school youth group, she said.
“It’s really a submersion in the faith, and it’s just one of those huge mountaintop experiences for a lot of kids,” she said. “To experience something like that for the very first time, it really connects them, it really touches their heart and kind of connects their soul a little bit deeper [to be] more rooted in the faith. They leave there, like any retreat, on a high to really go out and live it out at least for a little while.”
Eight to 10 student leaders — usually juniors or seniors in high school — help direct the retreat, held at the Pope John Paul II Retreat Center in Vineland. They train for eight weeks beforehand to plan the talks and a skit, work with a prayer partner and even go through a “mini Lent” where they either give up something or take on an additional practice to nourish their spiritual lives.
Each retreat is centered around a theme, often inspired by a song. The most recent high school retreat was called He Holds Tomorrow: A Retreat With God Our Father, based off the song “Sparrows” by Christian artist Jason Gray.
Retreatants experience an icebreaker activity called Cross the Line that helps them connect through shared experiences, small group discussion time, all-night adoration, the opportunity for confession and a chance to open letters from home — often an emotional moment, Janisse said.
The mountaintop moment of each retreat depends on the teen, Janisse shared. For one young man, it happened in the confessional.
“[He] had a great conversation with a priest who was present a lot during that retreat and … had made the decision to enter the seminary,” she said. “That was a great fruit of the retreat.”
For others, retreats help them to make the personal decision to commit to the faith for the first time.
“There have been kids who … weren’t Catholic, but now have come around to the faith and become Catholic. Or realized they were Catholic, but their parents never took them — and now are more devout in their faith life because of these retreats,” Janisse said.
Retreats are often a good jumping-off point for young people to become involved in the youth ministry program, Janisse said.
“It makes them hungry for it, more and more inclined to come back,” Janisse said. “We always see an influx in numbers at our meetings and events. We run these spiritual guidance nights every week as well, so it would just be a huge increase in numbers after the retreat. So I think that kind of keeps them coming back. It’s kind of a recharge for them and a reminder.”
Janisse said a retreat’s success usually comes down to the fruits it produces in a young person’s life — which “you have to wait a little bit to see sometimes.” But she has seen some other signs too.
“It’s sometimes exciting when kids are still talking about retreats weeks, months and years later,” she said. “I have to turn away a lot of young adults from helping on our retreats because it impacted them so much that they want to go back and help.”
Janisse has a packed retreat schedule this winter. The Core Team leaders headed off on retreat Dec. 27 and 28, a retreat for “ACTS” — the young adult group — was held from Jan. 5 through 7, and the confirmation retreat is scheduled for Jan. 28. The high school youth will go on retreat from Feb. 23 to 25.