Statewide college retreat challenges students to advocate, act, pray

By Fran Lavelle
CANTON – Tall and impressive among cabins, a dining hall, a chapel and the rec room stands a bell tower at Camp Bratton Green at the Grey Center in Canton. The large cast iron bell has undoubtedly summoned hundreds if not thousands of young people over the years to come in for meals, prayer and rest. The bell tolled in a similar way for the students from colleges and universities around the State who gathered the first weekend of Lent for a retreat at the Camp.
Like the ringing of the bell, Lent calls us to stop what we are doing and redirect our activity. Like the ringing of the bell, Lent also calls us to invite others to come join us. This year’s theme of the retreat was Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” the Joy of the Gospel.
At first glance, it might seem contradictory to talk about the joy of Gospel during Lent, after all Lent is a season of almsgiving, fasting and prayer. However, during the first session the students contemplated the following quote from Pope Francis, “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.  I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty.  Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.”  That’s it, friends, joy adapts and changes, but it always endures. This definition of joy gave us the foundation to feel and understand joy even in the most arid days of our own spiritual journey, the most difficult of personal times and the most austere of liturgical seasons.
Mary Louise Jones, a member of our diocesan faith formation faculty, talked to us about the common good and peace in society. She focused on reconciliation and self-emptying as the means to achieve peace. She invited the students to enter into dialogue with one another about how they can, as St. Francis would say, be made a channel of God’s peace. In our small groups students talked about what it means to let go of our need to be right. They were challenged to think about the inherent dignity of the “other” regardless of who the “other” is.
This discussion prepared us beautifully for our next talk on the inclusion of the poor in society, presented by Father Gregory Plata, OFM. As a Franciscan it is part of Father Plata’s charism to be an advocate for the poor.  His passion for the poor among us and outside of our geo-political borders inspired the students to be more thoughtful about their choices and how those choices become their voice.
He touched on topics that affect the poor through the inequitable distribution of wealth and resources. There was a discussion after Father’s talk on what they can to do to help create a more just world. They came up with things they can do in their own community to challenge the status quo. Advocacy, as we discovered, comes in many forms. Some ideas included helping out at soup kitchens and food pantries, joining efforts like Habitat for Humanity, and things as simple as knowing where consumer items are being made and if a just wage is being paid to those workers.
Bishop Joseph Kopacz gave the third presentation on social dialogue as it contributes to peace. What are conversations in the public arena that open dialogue towards peace? The pope in his apostolic exhortation lists a few:  faith and reason v. science, ecumenical discussions with other Christians, as well as dialogue with other non-Christian faith traditions. We looked at how we can use these opportunities to promote peace. The Bishop also asked the students if they saw social media as a tool to contribute to peace. This perhaps was one of the most engaging discussions because they have grown up with social media. They see the benefits of social media in terms of creating a positive conversation, but they also are well aware of the pitfalls. Awareness is the first step to change. Maybe by being more aware of bullying and other negative aspects of social media we can begin to use it to create a more just and peaceful society.
After everyone had left on Sunday morning to return to their schools and homes, I walked around the camp.  I took in the sounds of nature and felt the slight drizzle of rain and the chilly breeze on my face. I had a moment to reflect with gratitude on the young people who came to the retreat. Looking about before I got in the car to leave, I looked at the impressive bell tower. Metaphorically, we rang a bell loud and clear and young people came together to mark the beginning of Lent.
They shared faith, had an authentic experience with Jesus, met new and lasting friends, and were challenged to claim the joy of the gospel in all seasons of life. I am left in anticipation of the next time we ring the bell and gather.
(Fran Lavelle is co-director of the Department of Evangelization and Faith Formation)