Father Zack Swantek talks about the Holy Spirit's role in calling us to follow Jesus. EmmaLee Italia photo
Father Zack Swantek talks about the Holy Spirit's role in calling us to follow Jesus. EmmaLee Italia photo

“What is my calling?” Many Catholics have grappled with this question at various stages, perhaps none more than at that transitional time of young adulthood. Fittingly, the “Called to Be” diocesan Young Adult Retreat March 12 attempted to address just that.

“That call comes not from the things the world offers and not just from ourself, but from God,” said keynote speaker Father Zack Swantek, quoting from 2 Timothy, “‘He has saved us and called us to a holy life, not because of anything we have done, but because of his own purpose and grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus before time began.’”

Photo Galleries: Young Adult Retreat Sessions and Young Adult Retreat Mass

Father Swantek, chaplain of Princeton University, joined other representatives from the Trenton Diocese to present topics for the daylong retreat, which gathered some 50 young adults in the spiritual center of St. Paul Parish, Princeton.

Daniel Waddington, director of the diocesan Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministries, served as emcee for the day’s events, kicking off the retreat with icebreaker discussion questions and a rousing game of Family Feud. Father Jason Parzynski, diocesan vocations director and chaplain at Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, and Carolyn Norbut, associate director for the Offices of Worship and Vocations, along with Father Swantek, led breakout sessions on day-to-day life, relationship with God and romantic relationships.

The day included time for fellowship and lunch, Confession and Eucharistic Adoration in the parish’s Mercy Chapel. Mass rounded out the retreat, concelebrated by Father Christopher Colavito, chaplain of The College of New Jersey, Ewing, and Father Parzynski, with music provided by Kait Mayer of St. Paul’s young adult and music ministries.

Finding One’s Purpose

In his keynote address, Father Swantek delved deeply into the question of what it means to be called – which goes beyond “being saved.” Rather, Christians are called to something: a holy life. 

“What does it mean to live a holy life?” he asked. “[It means] to be a saint … Have you thought about what you will be known as when you’re a saint? … You might think that’s prideful – but this is your calling … a saint is someone who has lived this life in relationship with God, and if you are in Heaven, you must be a saint.”

It may be tempting, Father Swantek said, to leave sainthood to “the priests or the nuns… to think ‘that’s just for the professional Catholics’ … But it’s not about us – it’s about God … If God is calling us to something, he’s not calling us to something impossible; he will give us the grace.”

Father Swantek pointed to how the call to holiness was lived out in the Holy Family, beginning with the Blessed Mother.

“Mary received grace freely from God,” he explained. “She is the fulfillment of the promise in Isaiah, bearing the King who will bring peace… We are all a part of the kingdom of God … he can make us fruitful too.”

He admitted to at one time telling God, “If I had been created without sin, I could be as holy as Mary!” But the lesson he learned was that Mary still suffered the effects of sin in the world – her Son’s death on the Cross.

“Mary shows us how to suffer … so that suffering, too, can be a place of growing in holiness,” Father Swantek pointed out. “Much of our ‘bearing fruit’ will involve sacrifice … The point is to lift up that sacrifice.”

When St. Joseph was reassured by the angel messenger in a dream, “he reminds Joseph of his identity, that he is a Son of David, and has an important role to play in the birth of the Messiah,” Father Swantek said. “God wants to do the same to us – to remind us of our identity, that we are created out of love by God, that he has redeemed us and he has called us to be saints.

“God is dependent on Joseph to give his fiat – his ‘yes’ – to God’s plan,” he continued. “Though we never hear Joseph speaking, he is a man of action, of prayer … Joseph puts aside his fear and follows the will of God in silent obedience.”

Focusing on the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Lent, Father Colavito’s homily for the closing Mass zeroed in on the phrase St. Peter utters during the Transfiguration of Jesus: “Lord, it is good that we are here.”

“Throughout today I kept thinking the same thing: it is good that we are here – as a gathering of young adults, together as people of faith … in Adoration … at Mass, not only to venerate the Lord, but also to receive him in Word and in the Sacrament.

“But the ultimate good, of course, is salvation – the kingdom of heaven,” Father Colavito continued. “That is, seek the kingdom first. And how do we do that? Through following Christ. Through participating in these good things that Christ has offered us as a family and individually … and not just today, but every time we go to Mass, every time we hear the Scriptures, every time we receive the Eucharist, it’s about what’s next – going out into the world and being good for others. Bringing them and ourselves closer to Christ, and in doing so, seeking the kingdom.”

How to Live in Relationships

Breakout sessions centered on who God calls us to be in romantic relationships, in day-to-day life and in relationship with Him.

In relationships with other people, Father Swantek noted, we often carry wounds – from family, society other relationships and even ourselves – that affect our ability to build trust. But he emphasized the need to first develop confidence in our relationship with God before we can correctly orient our relationship to others.

“When we don’t view ourself as beloved sons and beloved daughters of God the Father, then we to seek to replace that love with someone else,” he said. “But if you make someone else into a god, then they become a false idol, because they can never give you the eternal love that you crave.”

Father Jason, speaking about day-to-day Catholic life, challenged the young Catholics to examine how they interact with those around them, including those in the pew. “Do we worship together, or are we just sitting in the pew? Are we engaging, actually participating?” he asked. “Active spiritual seeking goes beyond basic trust … without the faith community, we remain stuck in ourselves.”

Prayer serves as the vehicle for relationship with God, Norbut explained, but it’s not without challenge. “Praying in the mundane is very boring; everybody wants that mountaintop experience, to pray the Rosary and feel like the Lord is speaking to you,” she said. “But not everything has to be hands raised, praise and worship. While that’s beautiful, if you don’t have interior silence, all of this becomes Pharasitical. Because ultimately, prayer is communication between you and God.”

Retreat Takeaways

The young adults reflected on what brought them to the retreat, and what unique advantages and challenges young Catholics face these days.

The breakout sessions were a big initial attraction for many retreat participants. For Carla Rivera, member of St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral Parish, Trenton, learning about relationship with God was important. Amanda Kleinmann, member of St. Ann Parish, Browns Mills, wanted to understand more about God’s call within her current relationship, and reconnect with other young adults outside her parish.

“We live in a very secular world, so trying to discern what is of God – and how to live your life despite what everyone else around you is doing – is challenging,” Rivera offered.

“In the past it was a lot harder to get [young adults’] words and testimonies out there, and allow the youth to lead more,” acknowledged Kleinmann, who works as a youth coordinator. An advantage of her energetic age, however, is “showing through your testimony what Christ is able to give you… in sharing your spiritual gifts, to teach them they’re able to do the same thing.”

Linette Encarnación, youth ministry group coordinator in St. Mary’s Cathedral, planned to take some of the ideas from Father Swantek’s keynote back to her parish.

“I liked when he quoted Jesus’ saying ‘Apart from me you can do nothing.’ I feel like that will be a good topic in discussions with young people,” she said. “I think one of the challenges that young adult face is resources – when trying to bring up the young Church, [it’s hard to find resources for] dealing with certain situations,” particularly during the pandemic, such as depression in teens. “Also finding our age group is difficult” in the parish, she noted, with most members being the very young or older.

A member of St. Joseph Parish, Trenton, José Estevez was drawn to the breakout session topic of relationships, as well as the ability to go to Confession during the day. He sees the internet and cell phone usage among young Catholics as “both a blessing and a curse.” While being useful, “they are such a distraction – I can easily go on my phone and be distracted for hours.”

The retreat, however, was a break from the real world and its distractions, he said, “and it allowed me to have some time with God, to hone in on what I need to do to improve my relationship with him.”