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Young evangelists

29 October, 2009

Mary Maume looks at the Kairos Retreat experience and how this form of youth ministry can be a means for growth in personal faith.

As I watched thirty-five fifth-year students prepare to embark on a four-day retreat experience, I wondered what thoughts were foremost in their minds. As one former student said, ‘Having waived their right some weeks earlier, many were questioning their decision to forego a good weekend out at home.’ How true!

The thirty-five boarders had applied to do the Kairos Retreat, which is effectively a peer ministry retreat, designed in the US some years ago by both Jesuit and lay people working in collaboration with one another. The emphasis was on youth evangelizing youth.

True to form, this type of peer ministry was strongly recommended by Vatican II. The young fifth-year students were embarking on this faith journey because students from the previous year had talked to them about its merits and its relevance to their lives.
Why did these young men sign up to spend four days in conversation about life, about relationship with self, with others and ultimately with God? In an age when the material culture promises to solve all problems – promises to give instant satisfaction to the needs of all – a deep vacuum exists that cannot be filled by false promises, by designer labels or even by achieving 600 points in the Leaving Cert.

These young people are searching for something that is obviously not met by the gross materialism of our age or the quick fixes. They are not articulating what is the missing link in their lives, but their mere presence at the Kairos retreat suggests that they are searching for something more.

This ‘something more’ has to do with faith whether they know it or not, and in some strange way, this Kairos experience grips their imagination sufficiently to allow an openness to talk on issues of faith in a very human way.

The retreat is led by sixth-year students and adults who direct the process. A number of talks are given by this team, with such titles as Know Yourself, Ideals, God’s Friendship, and Piety, Obstacles to God’s Friendship, Sacraments and
Love in Actions.

Prayer and the sacraments are an essential part of the programme, as are the group discussions that follow the talks. These are facilitated by the student team leaders. When students talk about God’s love in their lives, or obstacles to God’s friendship, something special happens. They are revealing their own inner experiences to people of their own age who can immediately relate to these experiences. This peer ministry works because there is no generation gap to create a tension.

Students are gripped because the sixth-year leaders know the cultural experience of their audience; it is theirs, too. This period of building trust in one another is vital for the success of the retreat and for the faith development of the retreatant. When the groups become comfortable with one another, supporting and trusting one another, a deep sharing takes place and it is in this sacred space that true faith is experienced.One retreatant spoke to me about his experience in his small group: ‘I could talk about my inability to relate to a God I did not really know and about a lack of connection with the religious practices around me. At the end of a few sessions, I felt listened to, I felt that I was not alone, perhaps that is saying that God was there too.’

For the leaders who spent a few months preparing for Kairos, there was an obvious gain: they had to reflect on their own lives, their own faith experience before they could impart it to others. How could they talk about such things without prior reflection? How could they be authentic, if it did not come from the heart? That was the secret. Their talks were based on their understanding of the faith they had inherited from their own parents and what they received in school.

They reflected on their own lapses of faith, their own struggle to make sense of pain and turmoil and disappointment in their lives. Where did God fit into this picture?

One student leader struggled with the pain of his mother’s death from cancer: ‘I said goodbye to her in the hospital, but I never realized that I would not see her alive again. Now as I lead this retreat, I am face to face with that searing feeling of loss as if it were yesterday. Where was God when my mother was dying? Why did I have to lose her when I needed her most?’

As I sat and listened and empathized with his pain as he relived this, I knew I was in a sacred space. This eighteen-year-old student had to relive the pain he experienced as a first-year. He was challenged to face that dark chapter again, that landscape of Gethsemane, before he could deliver his talk to the retreatants who would look to him for clarity about their own lives.

After listening to his pain and his loneliness, we reflected on the people and the friendships that he encountered during the time of his mother’s death and in the aftermath. Who were the people who showed kindness and love? The God whom he thought abandoned the twelve year-old was now seen in the human faces of those who loved him and who carried him through that dark period of his life.

For a few seconds he felt the closeness of his mother again and his face lit up. This momentary epiphany would carry him through, and I hope that wherever he resides today, he is still able to tap into a storehouse of experiences that says, ‘There is a God who cares.’

The Kairos retreat is structured in part on the Principle and Foundation of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who stated clearly that we are created for God, or in the words of Joseph Tetlow, ‘we are being created momentarily by our God and Lord in all concrete particulars…’

The Kairos retreat is an experience that allows God to touch young people and draw them towards himself in this particular experience of community, where the life history and theology of the other is respected and in the words of Meister Eckhart, ‘For the person who has learned to let go and let be, nothing can ever get in the way again.’

This article first appeared in the Messenger




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