More than 100 teens, adults and young adults from Auburn and Fairport came together Jan. 26-28 for a weekend of faith, fellowship and fun at Salvation Army Camp near Penn Yan.
The weekend marked the third time that teens from Auburn’s Sacred Heart, St. Ann and St. Mary parishes have met with teens from Fairport’s St. John of Rochester Parish for the annual winter retreat, said Michelle Hunzek, the Fairport parish’s youth minster. Hunzek and Anna Comitz, youth minister for the Auburn parishes, first met each other in 2003 at the National Catholic Youth Conference in Houston, Texas.
Since then, the two youth ministers have formed a partnership between their youth groups. The Auburn and Fairport teens have participated in a number of retreats together and even traveled together and formed small prayer groups during their pilgrimage to Atlanta, Ga., for the 2005 NCYC.
“My goal is to connect them to one another and ‚Ä¶ connect them to the whole church at large,” Hunzek said. “You can’t just have a relationship of yourself and God. We’re all part of the body of Christ. We can’t just do it by ourselves.”
“It’s nice to be together with the other kids from the other group, just because there’s a lot of diversity there,” Comitz added.
The January retreat helped 82 teens, 22 adults and 10 college students forge connections and bond with each other as they played games, prayed together and listened to moving spiritual reflections given by teens, Hunzek said. In their reflections, the teens talked about obstacles that had sprung up in their lives and challenged their faith, and the way they overcame those obstacles.
Sixteen-year-old Lauren Flynn gave one such reflection about the way she felt when her best friend moved away last summer. At first Lauren was angry that God took her friend away, but eventually when she missed her friend she prayed instead of becoming angry.
The ordeal actually helped Lauren grow closer to both God and her friend, and to realize everything happens for a reason, Lauren, a St. John of Rochester parishioner, said during her reflection.
Lauren hoped some of the retreatants would be able to learn from her experience and relate it to similar situations in their own lives, she told the Catholic Courier. She thinks reflections given by peers are more meaningful to teens than talks given by adults.
“They don’t understand you as well because they grew up in a different time. It’s different now than when they grew up, with different pressures,” she said.
Lauren and the other teens who gave talks were part of the 20-member retreat-planning team, which began meeting in October, she said. Lauren said she joined the team because she wanted to make the retreat special for other participants. The teens on the retreat team met once a week and worked hard to plan the reflections, community-building activities and games, as well as the logistics of feeding, transporting and accommodating the dozens of participants, Hunzek said.
The teens on the planning team usually form strong bonds with each other and actually receive their retreat experience during the planning stages for the weekend rather than at the actual weekend. Their experience of the weekend is usually different than that of the retreatants because their role is one of service, Hunzek said.
“You’re really focused more on running it than actually being a part of it, not to say that there was any less enjoyment,” agreed Matt Valente, a 17-year-old member of the retreat team.
Matt, a St. John of Rochester parishioner, decided to staff this year’s retreat after attending it as a participant last year. He’d arrived at the retreat last year expecting a somewhat boring weekend filled with serious activities, but he was pleasantly surprised by the laid-back environment and the flexibility of activities, he said.
“It kind of allows you to express yourself, express your faith in the way you want to,” Matt said.
Sixteen-year-old Robby Magee, another St. John of Rochester parishioner, had a similar experience when he attended his first retreat in 2006.
“I was really nervous. I didn’t know what to expect, but by the end of the weekend I couldn’t get enough of it,” he said.
At the retreat, Robby said he felt he could open up and share his true thoughts and feelings without fear of being judged or ridiculed. Not only could he totally be himself, but he had a great time doing it, he said.
The teens felt comfortable enough during the retreat to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation with four priests from the Auburn area, Comitz noted.
“The kids don’t hesitate going to reconciliation. They feel comfortable and the trust is there,” she said.
St. John of Rochester parishioner Ashley Brennan, 16, said her first retreat with the Fairport and Auburn teens made her a better person. It gives teens an opportunity to look past superficial stereotypes and really see each other for who they are, she said.
“It’s a ‚Ä¶ life-changing experience,” said Ashley, who was a member of this year’s planning team.
When teens are allowed to express their faith in ways that are fun and natural, they begin to feel comfortable with themselves, their faith and their role in the church, Hunzek said. It’s important for older Catholics to realize that teens are active in the church and yearn to be accepted.
“The teens’ faith is alive, and we need to nurture it, not discourage it. The best way we can do that is by just getting to know them,” she said.