Ice Breaker -- Holy Cross eighth graders participating in the Signature Search ice breaker.   Courtesy photo

Ice Breaker -- Holy Cross eighth graders participating in the Signature Search ice breaker.   Courtesy photo

By Christina Leslie|Correspondent

Two youth-driven, pre-Confirmation retreats held in Holy Cross Parish, Rumson, this spring enriched the faith lives of students and teachers alike. The “You’ve got a friend… the Holy Spirit” retreats, led in part by the area Catholic teens, led to the strengthening of peer bonds and understanding of the gifts bestowed by the third person of the Trinity.

Last year’s successful pairing of teens and eighth graders, first suggested by Holy Cross School principal William Belluzzi, was such a success that parish director of religious education Sallie Kabash decided to repeat the experience this spring. Assistant youth minister Matt Butler, a teacher in Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft, invited seven boys from the Lincroft school to join a group of six Holy Cross Parish teens as teachers and mentors in the program.

“I couldn’t ask for anything better. The teens were wonderful,” enthused Kabash about the youthful instructors who shepherded 114 retreatants April 21 and 28 in the school gymnasium. “It was unbelievable all the way around. The eighth graders were enthralled, awestruck.” Retreat leaders including Emily Velcamp, Emma Sullivan, Mia DeLauro, Mark Steinbrick, Matt Gaeta, Chris D’Alessio, Jack Wilson, Nick Ciccone, Michael Finan, Maggi McCann, Ceara Gagliano, Julia Sullivan and Jerry Polito were responsible for guiding the nine groups of eighth graders.

Teen leaders examined the gifts of the Holy Spirit through personal faith stories and exercises. Each student received a t-shirt proclaiming “You’ve got a friend” after the old James Taylor/Carol King song; activities such as Holy Spirit bingo, tentacle tag and a signature search contest were counterbalanced by discussions about the importance of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Msgr. Michael Manning, pastor of Holy Cross, led a penance service and heard the confessions of the students in preparation of their Confirmation on May 3.

High school retreat leaders were moved by the strong faith of their young counterparts. Examining his reasons for participating, teen Michael Finan said, “In this society, faith is often seen as outlandish. I think it's important that this new generation of Catholics who are now becoming full members of the Church realizes that faith is a gift that's meant to aid us throughout life. I hope the eighth graders were inspired to continue to value the importance of faith in their lives and to continue to develop it as well.”

Emma Sullivan echoed, “I thought it was important to reach out to this age group to let them know it is ok to say no and to stand up for what they believe in. Peer pressure can be hard but if you stand up for what you believe in it will give you inner strength and confidence later on in your life.”

Emily Velcamp noted the retreat leader experience gave her new confidence and saw it as a way to give back to her church. “In the past ten years, Holy Cross Church has given me so much, not only a religious education and spiritual appreciation, but also life lessons that I will use in the future,” she said. “Helping the 8th grade students was so important because I believe that kids listen to other kids … about their own experiences and life lessons. I feel as though young people are able to connect better to other young people.”

Mia DeLauro admitted she received many of the gifts of the Holy Spirit which she had shared with her young charges. The junior at Red Bank Catholic High School had missed several weeks of schooling due to an injury, but found leading the retreat a welcome relief for the stress she felt.  “This retreat was somewhat of a blessing because it centered me, kept me focused on allowing God to help me through the year, and reminded me that God has his plan for me and I would be fine,” the teen said.

“The retreat showed me again how strong faith and the Holy Spirit has been in my life after having to write my own story for the retreat that related back to the gifts of appreciation. Even some of the other speeches made by my peers resonated with me and helped me realize that faith is something none of us will fully understand, we learn more and more about how God works in our lives in our own ways every single day,”  she added.