During Holy Week, we traveled down to the Gulf coast in Biloxi Mississippi to host a group of high school juniors for a day retreat. This was the longest road trip we have taken the youth team since I began working here. The furthest we had driven beforehand was 7 hours to Boalsburg, PA, which we have now done twice. For this trip to Biloxi, we drove a tiring 12 hours to reach our destination.
The whole way down, I kept thinking about how we had gotten to this point. The story of how we got in contact with the high school down there is a classic serendipitous God moment. At a national conference in Chicago, Eric and Stephen were staffing a JSC information table. A lovely woman, campus minister to a Catholic high school in Mississippi, stopped by the table to look for something in her purse. A conversation struck up, ending after some 45 minutes, and the connection was made. Contact information was swapped, and the promise of a fruitful conversation emerged.
We spoke with her a couple of times, brainstorming and talking about a dream retreat experience. Music, games, adoration, confessions, Mass, small groups, witness talks, you name it – we talked about it! She was especially excited to share live music with her class. She told us that they loved adoration and joyfully participated in praise and worship music. In November of 2019, over a year since our initial contact, all things were greenlit, and we scheduled a retreat. The retreat was to take place during Holy Week of the following Spring: March, 2020.
As we planned the retreat, we got excited for the possibility of taking our ministry to yet another new community. We had just bought a white van to aid in transporting our ministry equipment. (On a side note, there is some debate about this, but I like to think the van has been dubbed “The Ministry Machine,” and I will continue to call it that until it is otherwise christened!) We were excited to get some miles into it, and take the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and charism to new people and places. As we got into January and February of 2020, we reached out to the campus minister and fine-tuned what the retreat was going to look like and we prepared ourselves to gear up the Ministry Machine and take it to the Gulf coast.
Then March began and, unsurprisingly but devastatingly, the retreat was cancelled. Everyone was heartbroken, and our focus turned to the immediate needs and concerns of the Center and our Ministry Partners.
Time passed, and in December of 2020, we reached out again to Biloxi. Cautious optimism and strengthened enthusiasm dominated our conversation, and we set tentative dates for Holy Week in 2021. The embers had survived the pandemic’s forces, and from that meeting a spark began to grow. By mid-February, after careful consideration and forecasting, we solidified the dates and put it on the calendar. A couple of weeks later, the ministry team received their first dose of the vaccine, further protecting our endeavors and giving more certainty to the upcoming trip. Last week, we loaded up the Ministry Machine and headed on the 780 mile journey to our new destination.
Nearly three years after our initial contact, we finally found ourselves at the beautiful Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Biloxi. The day was a blur. The joy of Christ, present in the love and community that this junior class shared with each other and us, drove the day forward. They had so much energy and enthusiasm; it was contagious! We shared just 8 short hours with them, but it was such a good day.
I often say to retreatants that many of us struggle with discernment because we are waiting for our St. Paul moment. We long to have signs that are undeniable: a splitting sky, with a thunderous voice that shakes the earth with clarity and direction, saying, “QUIT YOUR JOB AND JOIN THE FRANCISCANS”, or “YOU SHOULD GO TO LOYOLA UNIVERSITY AND THEN LAW SCHOOL AT UCLA”, or “YOU’RE DOING GREAT, JUST PRAY MORE ROSARIES, OK?” We are so fixated on finding these signs that we often dismiss or ignore all the little ones that God sends our way. I love that passage in Isiah where he is tasked with finding God on a mountain. A storm, an earthquake, and an eruption happen in succession, overwhelming Isaiah, but he did not find God in the storm or the earthquake, or in the eruption. Then a whisper of a breeze hits Isaiah and he immediately falls down in worship because he knew that God was in the breeze. God very often whispers to us. Little tugs on our hearts, consolations in prayer, affirmations from loved ones, good advice, a friendly invitation, maybe even in a small encounter with a stranger.
I remembered this once again at the end of the retreat with the juniors last week. The powerful sharing in small groups, their overwhelmingly powerful participation during adoration, and their love of each other were the biggest highlights for me. My heart was moved, as it so often is, with the love that God has for us, and how beautiful it is to be part of the body of Christ. It is not a retreat that I will ever forget. We went on a cross-country trip, had a beautiful encounter with Christ, and were gifted one of the most powerful retreats of 2020-2021, all because a campus minister needed a chap stick.
This Easter season, I hope that we can continue to open our hearts, minds, eyes, and ears to the whispers that God is placing in our lives. Who knows? Maybe they will lead you somewhere new, even if you need to wait a little bit to get there. God bless you, and Happy Easter!