Abigail Anne Rafael of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, was one of many young people to spend 10 weeks in Colorado doing service work, meeting men and women religious, and growing in faith.  Photos courtesy of Abigail Anne Rafael
Abigail Anne Rafael of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, was one of many young people to spend 10 weeks in Colorado doing service work, meeting men and women religious, and growing in faith. Photos courtesy of Abigail Anne Rafael

Editor’s Note: Abigail Anne Rafael of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, spent her summer in Colorado with FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. She was inspired to participate in the trip after attending this year’s SEEK, a five-day conference hosted by FOCUS that features prominent Catholic speakers and entertainers. FOCUS is a Catholic outreach whose mission is to share the Gospel with the world. Here, Rafael, a junior public relations major at Kean University, Union, shares a reflection of her time in Colorado.

If you had told me I would end up in Colorado at any point in my life, I’d be boggled trying to figure out what could have possibly brought me out there. As it so happens, the Lord would call me to the beautiful Rocky Mountains in Estes Park for the Fellowship of Catholic University’s (FOCUS) Summer Projects. The opportunity presented itself at SEEK19, when a promotional video for the faith formation program played. I fell absolutely in love with the idea of spending my summer learning all about God and the Catholic faith, but little did I know what I was getting myself into.

In the beginning, I knew only as much as an excerpt on the FOCUS website had to say: Summer Projects was a 10-week program that would consist of living in community with some 150 other Catholic college students and include weekly talks, discipleship, Bible study, fellowship, Mass, Adoration and more.

As part of the program, FOCUS partnered up with the YMCA of the Rockies, a mountain resort, so that our program could take place on their Estes Park campus. In return for room and board, we would work 40 hours a week for the YMCA of the Rockies in a variety of job positions.

What seemed exciting but vague on paper would soon be realized in extraordinary ways the moment I touched down May 26 in Estes Park. The beauty of the Rocky Mountains, and a lack of oxygen at the elevation of 7,522 feet, took my breath away.

At first, I was overwhelmed by the new environment, new people and new job. Working 40 hours a week in food service for a resort that catered to more than 1,000 guests per meal in one dining hall alone was no easy feat. I struggled to understand where the Lord was in the mundane and physically challenging job or why he would bring me out to Colorado only to have me wash dishes for eight hours a day. After a couple weeks, the Lord seemed to answer my frustration in some conversations I had with some of the missionaries at Summer Projects. One missionary pushed me to focus on the truth, goodness and beauty of the service we were providing to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Another missionary challenged me to consider our destiny to become like Jesus and to practice loving, speaking, serving and ultimately embodying the heart of Jesus in every moment. These were valuable lessons, as it helped me realize that every day, every challenge and every interaction posed an opportunity to live out the Gospel and to unite oneself further with Christ.

The combination of working for the YMCA of the Rockies and FOCUS programming was exactly what made Summer Projects so incredible. The Lord used our service to force us to grow, to unite our suffering with Christ, to bring our faith into the everyday and more.

FOCUS programming forced us to grow in different ways. Each week, awesome speakers would visit. Some of their topics included the Holy Trinity, music and liturgy, Church architecture, virtue, sexual orientation and the Catholic faith, Marian dogma and more. Each talk expanded our understanding of the Catholic faith and the magnitude of God. We would also have the opportunity to celebrate Mass, have spiritual direction, and just generally develop friendships with many different priests over the course of the summer. We also visited with many consecrated religious: both young and old priests, from diocesan to Dominican priests, and even some brothers and sisters – each one coming to be Christ to us and calling us to realize the beauty of religious life.

The diverse, God-centered community was another aspect that made Summer Projects so special. It is my belief that the Lord specifically called each and every one of us into community with one another. I had never before experienced such an incredibly God-centered, Catholic community of young people until Summer Projects. I was well-loved, inspired and called higher by each person I encountered and their influence will live on with me forever.

The program came to a bittersweet end Aug. 3. God had done so much in our time in Colorado, and I am confident he has even greater things in store for each one of us. I think one of the greatest blessings I received was the realization that the life we had in Colorado transcends past the constraints of the program.

With unique experiences like this, there is a temptation to remember it only as a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but that would be doing a disservice to the infinite wonder of God. I realized that we are called at all times and in all places to pursue God and strive for holiness. Although my friends and I are now separated by thousands of miles, I know we remain united always in the Eucharist.