VALPARAISO – Middle school students gathered at St. Paul church’s EDGE retreat, where religious and lay adult leaders sought to draw them closer to Jesus’ love and the accompanying call to share that hopefulness and compassion with others.
The eighth annual retreat, hosted in the parish social center in Valparaiso on Feb. 26, was designed to expound upon its theme, “Love is...”
A full schedule of Eucharistic adoration, fellowship, apologetics and catechesis and Reconciliation, punctuated by brief breaks and games kept the pre-teens and teens engaged. However, some had initial reservations about their attendance.
“The retreat was a lot of fun,” said Connor Burns, 12. “It was more fun than I actually thought it would be.”
Burns, a member of St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Student Center, said he was initially nervous about attending the retreat. He noticed other people sitting independently, but “became more comfortable” seeing a couple familiar faces. He joined right into the discussions.
Seeing youth make connections, to gradually move from a reserved posture, then to the edge of their seats, is a major return on investment for 11-year St. Paul Edge Youth Ministry for Middle School Coordinator Cathie Dull.
Success in outreach to boys and girls who are awash with changes in their lives is critical. That’s why Dull named the group “EDGE.”
She said it’s not an acronym, but more a description of a station in life.
“The name comes from the reality that middle school years are when our kids decide if they will continue in the faith – they are on edge,” Dull explained.
She said the flow of this year’s retreat “was incredible.”
“We started out learning with Dr. Dianna Brogan, (an adolescent medicine specialist), what love is and how to recognize it,” Dull explained.
Vicky Hathaway, diocesan ministry consultant for Youth and Young Adult Ministry, reprised her 2020 visit to the EDGE group, seeking to apply the most effective way to reach adolescents concerning the Catholic faith.
“Middle schoolers are always a fun group to present to,” Hathaway said. “They are often silly and squirrely, but, in my experience, always open to what you have to say if you are ready to engage them and meet them where they are at.”
Hathaway began with a team-building exercise, where each group was responsible for assisting a blindfolded peer through a safety course. The youth heard a lot of directions; they tried to focus on the most trustworthy of the voices.
In her discussion session, "Getting to know Jesus,” she retold the accounts of the Messiah’s friendships with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, as found in St. Luke’s and St. John's Gospels.
“We were able to show how Jesus is a good friend to us and how He will always be there," Hathaway said.
Moving to the chapel, St. Paul Pastor Father Douglas Mayer offered a reflection before he and associate pastor Father Leonardo Gajardo heard participants’ confessions.
Dominican Sister Charbel Joseph spoke about “Jesus’ love through thick and thin.” From man’s fall in the Garden of Eden to his redemption through Christ, the nun emphasized Jesus’ words in John chapter 6 promising his accompaniment in the Real Presence of the Eucharist.
“Sometimes we spend too much time on the computer because we think that will fulfill us,” Sister Charbel said. “That won't fill the God-sized hole in our heart.
She continued, “Sometimes when we receive Him in comm, and you go back to your pew, and you’ve forgotten what has happened – just remember Jesus is coming to you in your heart.”
Sister Charbel, who is vocations director for the Immaculate Conception Province headquartered in Justice, Ill., was accompanied by two young women who are aspirants to the order. The discerning individuals helped lead the girls' discussion groups.
Then St. Paul Deacon James Caristi stitched together the themes of the day, challenging the adolescent audience not to keep the flame of faith under a bushel basket.
“You cannot just say ‘It’s me and you, Jesus.’ It never is,” said Deacon Caristi. “It’s always shared with other people. So, you receive this gift, and you turn around and give it away as a gift.”
The frank discussions made an impression on Burns during his first retreat.
“I was surprised about how they talked about Jesus as a friend; I had never heard that before,” Burns explained. “People always talk about Jesus as someone like your father. But he’s on your level and with you.”
Emma Sularski, 12, who was attending her second such retreat said the structure of the event – with breaks between discussions – “Allowed you to really reset your mind and be ready for the next thing.”
She and her friend Julia Lund, 12, compared their group photos, which event coordinators had framed and encouraged the youth to have their friends personalize.
Sularski said she plans to attend the next EDGE event, perhaps one of their monthly meetings.
Lund said she deepened her devotion to the Eucharistic Lord. “I think (the retreat) made me realize that He is more in the Eucharist and he’s waiting for you.
She recommended other youths, “Start paying attention to the Mass more and it will help you understand it more.”
Margaux Fortney, a Calumet College of St. Joseph junior, said she was happy to return as an event assistant being an alumna of the EDGE program. She enjoyed seeing the girls and boys arrive at “lightbulb moments” of understanding concepts.
She joined other “graduates” such as Valparaiso High School freshman Mark Dietz, 15, who assisted behind the scenes.
Happy that the retreat “was really pointed towards the love of Jesus through the Eucharist,” Dull said she hopes the youths carry those lessons in their hearts. “The whole purpose of this ministry is to help our kids to apply what they’re learning to their everyday lives.”