“See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the desert, I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers.” Isaiah 43:19
All too often, ministry can be a grind. By its very nature, ministry, especially with teens, can be a sort of desert punctuated every so often with encounters and experiences that give us life. It’s in these moments, these conversations, these times of prayer, that we see the Lord penetrate the hearts of the teens we work with, and this is what gives us life. In these times we find the joy and ability to move forward. We find the strength to fall in love with what we do.
This past weekend I, as well as five other youth ministers and 15 adult volunteers, had one of those moments. It was on our winter retreat, named simply Encounter, that we saw Jesus work in new and breathtaking ways.
It started simply with four youth ministers from three parishes sitting in a coffee shop, and quickly expanded to include two other youth ministers and their youth groups. We set for ourselves the lofty goal of 75 teens between the 5 parishes and got to work recruiting. We resolved to pray for one another and for the empty spaces on our lists where the Lord would place teens. We just wanted to leave room for God to work.
We were not disappointed…
Told only that they were going to have a real encounter with the person of Jesus, and that this encounter could change their lives, nearly 90 teens signed up for retreat. They willingly left their cell phones and electronics behind, piled into cars and busses and drove off to Nowhere, West Virginia where we held retreat… and they came excited. They came open. They came not just hoping God would work, but expecting Him to.
Over the course of the weekend, our Lord rewarded this openness by touching their hearts in every talk and every time of prayer. Every single teen went into the confessional, and many wept at hearing that their sins were forgiven. One girl even told the story that when the priest absolved her, she blurted out “Are you serious?”
Teens who had never been to Eucharistic Adoration before and had run from the very notion of encountering Jesus now lined up to stand face to face, nose to nose, with Jesus in the monstrance and to be introduced to Him and prayed with. Sins were renounced. Hearts were healed. Teens that had turned their back on the faith now clutched the humeral veil and kissed the monstrance with tears in their eyes. A brother and sister who had lost their dad now felt the love of the Father. Young men in the clutches of sexual sin resolved to step up and out of their lust. Young women who had been hiding from love finally opened their hearts to perfect Love.
Jesus showed up at retreat and rocked these teens’ lives. He also taught us lessons as ministers that we will not forget.
1. Pray for the empty spaces
Our slots were filled by praying for the spaces that had not been filled, asking God to bless and inspire those who he meant to fill them. It’s not just praying for a general “they” who will come, but asking for blessings on “this teen who will come, and this teen who will come,” and thanking God for the openness of those who do.
2. Expect big things
Jesus tells us that if we pray for and expect things in His name, our prayers will not go unanswered. We need to approach all events expecting God to bless our teens, and thanking Him in advance for the good work that He will do.
3. Call the teens into the Deep
Teens are not adults, and thank God for that! They have a deep capacity for faith and for conversion that we must foster before they lose it. This is why we can’t be reluctant in challenging them or exposing them to the truth of the Gospel. They will go as deep as we challenge them and the truth will always bless them.
4. Be not afraid
What we believe is universal and has power no matter where we are. The Eucharist is the same at your home parish as it is as a Steubenville Conference or Life Teen camp. Jesus is the same God in all places at all times. We must believe in His power, and the power of His Name, and allow it to change us and our ministries.
As with any event, the fruit is what matters, but coming back from this retreat, we know that our God is doing a new thing in our parishes and in the Church at large. He is achieving His end. If we hope to lead our teens we must be humble as our Lord is humble. And we must have faith that we are His instruments and He will use us as He sees fit.