Retreats offer students a break from their routines, often bringing them to new spaces where they can reflect on their lives from different perspectives. In this image, a small group of Donovan Catholic students works in a small group during one of the many retreat experiences offered by the school's campus ministry team. Courtesy photo
Retreats offer students a break from their routines, often bringing them to new spaces where they can reflect on their lives from different perspectives. In this image, a small group of Donovan Catholic students works in a small group during one of the many retreat experiences offered by the school's campus ministry team. Courtesy photo

A pillar of Catholic high school life, but one not talked about too often, is the retreat experience. Retreats, a break in daily school routines and structure, create space for a different kind of learning. Students, and often faculty volunteers, take a step back to reflect on the people who are walking with them in life, their own identity and where they see God acting in all of it.

Campus ministry teams, adept at building trust through creative and activities to facilitate genuine sharing and reflection, create diverse retreat offerings that relate to the students’ realities as they journey through their four years of high school. Retreats can be for freshmen or upperclassmen. They can be in silence or nature. They can focus on a specific theme or can meet participants where they are at that point in their life journey. Thousands of young people take part in the retreats offered in their schools each year in the Diocese of Trenton.

Retreatants often share that the experiences transform their lives, becoming a rite of passage for many in the Catholic high schools of the Diocese. The retreats can be vehicles to closer relationships with God, family members and schoolmates, and most importantly, to recognizing one’s own intrinsic value for who they are.

The Monitor is pleased to share reflections from some students from Catholic high schools of the Diocese of Trenton.

 

Ellen Gallagher, St. Rose High School, Class of ‘22

When I walked into San Alfonso Retreat House on Monday night, I had no expectations. I had heard about the Kairos Retreat from various students who went before me and I wanted to experience it. Little did I know that by Thursday afternoon, my life would be changed forever. 

St. Rose is a tight knit community.  Everyone knows one other and we all are like a family. Seventeen other students and I embarked on this retreat journey together. Seventeen students who I thought I knew everything about. What surprised me the most was how much of a deep connection I could form with these people who I thought I knew so well for four years.

This Kairos experience is one I will never forget. Getting to open up to my fellow classmates was so freeing. Hearing all of their stories and heartaches made me form such an emotional connection to each and every one of them. We laughed, we cried and we all prayed for each other. I also was surprised at how open everyone was to the retreat and to change.

Another thing that surprised me about this retreat was how close to God I could get in such little time. I found myself closer to God than ever before. Getting to detach myself from the everyday stressors of life and step back to be with God was a moving experience. I was surprised as to how freeing it was to get away from technology. I honestly did not think that we would be able to do it. At night, being able to reflect and pray was so relaxing instead of scrolling through social media. 

The last point is the impact that Kairos has had afterwards. I thought for sure that after the retreat we would all go our separate ways and go back to the way life was. We maintained that bond with each other, and I think that bond will continue with us through life. We did not want to leave the retreat house so much so that two days later we all gathered together again to reminisce. I was so surprised at how much Kairos changed my life. We were all different people when we entered Kairos, but something happened on that retreat that no one could explain but now because of it we have a connection to each other that will be with us forever.

(PHOTO: Students Luke Aldi, Ellen Gallagher, and Claire Cinquegrana enjoying their break while on their Kairos retreat at San Alfonso Retreat House. Courtesy photo)

 

Analise Piemonte, Donovan Catholic High School, Class of '20

Some of my favorite memories as a Donovan Catholic student have taken place during retreats. From group prayer, to mindfulness exercises, to sharing personal anecdotes, retreats have provided me with bonding experiences that I will remember for years. The Junior Women’s Retreat that I attended last year surpassed my expectations. I am sure that almost everyone in today’s society is able to recognize the difficulties of growing up as a young woman with social media. Females are constantly put up against one another, competing for likes, male validation, and their own self worth. Spending a day surrounded by women who all genuinely wanted to connect the Catholic faith with female empowerment was gratifying.

The day began with a discussion about women in the Bible, like Mary Magdalene and Ruth. As a group, we highlighted women in our lives who shared traits with these Biblical women. This allowed us to identify the inner beauty within our role models and ourselves. Searching for this beauty that exists naturally within each of us helped me connect with God. Next, female faculty members revisited the five points of the star, a symbol introduced to students during sophomore year. Each point represents an aspect of our being: social, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical. This reflection, and the panel of female educators that opened up a Question and Answer segment at the end of the day, allowed students and faculty of all ages to discuss friendships and love lives, appropriately of course. This experience helped me appreciate my female educators, and hearing them share both positive and negative aspects about their own relationships opened up a door of relatability.

Thanks to this retreat, I have been able to reflect on the stories I heard and advice I received to help me in my own life. I learned that it is important in difficult situations to turn to strong support systems, which, for me, is my mom. I have become much more confident in my inner beauty, and feel strong enough to help other women, an idea introduced in the retreat when we labeled and packaged 1000 bars of SOAP (Saving Our Adolescents from Prostitution) with the human trafficking hotline number. With my Catholic identity, I have the power to help others and strengthen relationships in my faith-based school and community.

(PHOTO: Small group activities are an important part of the retreat experience at Donovan Catholic. Courtesy photo)  

 

Kitty Vernon, Notre Dame High School, Class of '22

Kairos can do so much for people like mend broken relationships, start new friendships but most importantly bring you closer to God. Seeing my classmates open up and hearing their own stories, makes me realize that I see them in the hallway and classroom as my classmates, but now I see them as friends with a bond that will never be broken.

I see God in the face of every person on the retreat because I can see them all praying before meals, carrying each other’s bags, consoling each other when upset, and saying a Hail Mary as a class at the grotto. God was present in every person and by, becoming closer to them, we all grew closer to Him. God gave us the gift of being able to go to Malvern with these people, which is important because we all grew closer in his presence and glory.

(PHOTO: The facilitating team of Notre Dame’s Kairos CXV (from left to right): James Burrows III, Hope Aita, Matthew Zietek, Hannah Smith, Daniel Bensch, Kathleen Vernon)

 

Joseph DeBlasio, St. John Vianney High School, Class of '23

Gian Paul Gonzalez delivered a powerful message to my class during our Junior Retreat earlier this school year. He discussed his life story and how his journey turned him into the person he is today. Mr. Gonzalez shared what drives him to be the best version of himself: living for others. Mr. Gonzalez devotes his life to living for others which is why he has achieved many great things, such as opening a recreation center to give students a place to converse and exercise while keeping them off the streets. Most importantly, he discovered his joy and eagerness to help others through his strong faith in God.

Mr. Gonzalez’s accomplishments, along with his mentality, inspired me tremendously. After the retreat ended, I spoke with him personally, and he gave me fantastic advice. He explained that when I wake up in the morning, I should think of who I want to live for and always start my day with the mindset of putting others first and being the best version of myself. Despite all of the hardships Mr. Gonzalez faced in his life, he still found ways to pursue his dreams and achieve his goals through the strength he found in God. During his speech, he explained how he spends his time. Instead of scrolling through Facebook, watching television, or utilizing his time in other ways, he spends much of his day focusing on his family and friends and sharing his compelling message with the world.

This has inspired me to do the same. I have focused more on my family and friends and devoted more time to my faith. Volunteering to help others and praying have always been priorities of mine, but Mr. Gonzalez emphasized how important it is to commit my time to these priorities EVERY day.

At the end of his speech, he gave everyone a poker chip. The chip represented going “all in” in a poker game and reminded us to give our best in everything we do. Many things in our lives distract us, and we often want to give up, but with the presence and strength of God, I always try to remember how important it is to give my all in everything I do.

(PHOTO: Joe DeBlasio speaking with Gian Paul Gonzalez following his inspirational speech. Courtesy photo)

 

Seton Smith, Red Bank Catholic, Class of ‘22       

While being a member of Campus Ministry has always been a really meaningful part of my journey at Red Bank Catholic, I feel blessed to have stepped into a new role with our Campus Ministry team this year by being a leader in our retreat program. Being a Casey is all about maintaining our legacy of living in faith effectively.  As a senior, it is important for me to think not only about the work that I can do with Campus Ministry now, but also the mark that I will leave on the program for years to come.  

This year I have had the unique opportunity to be a presenter during our class retreats.  The retreat which has stood out to me the most has definitely been our retreat for the class of 2025.  Talking to the freshman class reminded me of how I felt when I was first starting high school, looking for a purposeful way to get involved at my school.  I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to share a look into my experience with them, and how joining Campus Ministry has been a way for me to make my faith a fulfilling part of my life, both inside and outside of school.  

The theme of the retreat was following God’s call, and our speakers each shed some light on the different vocations to which they have been called.  I reminded the group that it is never too early to start looking for the right vocation for them!  I explained that there are many different roles involved in Campus Ministry (reading as lectors, altar serving, serving as eucharistic ministers, planning religious events, managing social media, etc.), and that each individual can find the role that fits them perfectly.

I encouraged them to consider joining, and since then we have had several new members step up.  Campus Ministry at Red Bank Catholic is constantly evolving; we always try our best to come up with new and creative ways to get the student body excited about participating in their faith. Spending that day leading the freshman through some different activities showed me that they are a bright and talented group of kids.  It gives me a lot of hope to know that when I’m no longer around, Campus Ministry will be in great hands.

(PHOTO: RBC senior Seton Smith shares some of her story with the participants of the school’s 2021 freshmen retreat. Courtesy photo)



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