CANANDAIGUA — “All people will go to heaven.” “God created hell and some people will spend eternity there.” “Being a good Christian is boring.” “God loves us and has our best interests in mind.”
“God will hold us accountable for our actions.” “God answers all our prayers.” “God is not interested in the details of our lives.” “Anyone can have a relationship with God.”
The above is a true-false quiz that didn’t necessarily have right or wrong answers. It was issued during a session dubbed “Understanding Who God Really Is” at the diocesan “Impact” retreat, held Jan. 5-6 at Notre Dame Retreat House. The ensuing dialogue indicated that God isn’t always easy to understand, but that putting some deep thought into the subject certainly aids in the process.
Small groups of retreatants showed whether they strongly agreed or strongly disagreed with the statements, which were read aloud, by moving to parts of the floor marked 1 through 10. For instance, most people moved toward No. 1 for “God will hold us accountable for our actions,” reflecting their agreement with that remark. However, the field was much more split on “all people will go to heaven.” Several times the teens would start out on one number, then take out their figurative erasers and change their position upon further reflection.
The Sunday-afternoon session produced considerable discussion, as audience members asked those standing to explain why they chose the numbers they did. Among those who opposed the “God created hell and some people will spend eternity there” statement, one person believed that God is too kind to put people in hell, whereas another believed in the existence of hell but that God didn’t create it.
Teens then staged a skit that demonstrated various misconceptions of who God is — a God who refuses to listen; a God who will strike you down when you’ve sinned; a God who frowns upon people having fun. Barb Legere, a retreat staff member who led the session, explained that God may set certain rules, but also is compassionate and wants us to enjoy life. Legere urged teens to seek out the Bible in enhancing their understanding of God.
Other components of the Impact retreat included games, opportunities for prayer, and small- and large-group presentations and discussions on such themes as the need to forgive people in our lives; what constitutes a real friend; and the”chameleon syndrome” — changing to blend in with crowd.
“Impact” was the first retreat of its kind, drawing a healthy 85 participants in grades 9-12 as well as several adult and teen staff members. It replaces the Awakening Faith (grades 9-10) and Encountering Christ (grades 11-12) diocesan retreats that were held for many years. Sue Versluys, diocesan coordinator of youth ministry, said she decided to design a new format after several Awakening Faith and Encountering Christ offerings in 2006-07 were cancelled due to low attendance. She remarked that those retreats “didn’t meet the needs of 21st-century youths” based on her research.
“Youth today are hungering for a more concrete God in spiritual life. They want to know who God is more deeply,” Versluys said.
She explained that Awakening Faith and Encountering Christ focused more on experiencing God through community, whereas Impact’s emphasis is on developing personal relationships with God — or, as she put it, “more on ‘big God, little me’ and less on ‘big me, little God.'”
Impact began on early Saturday afternoon and concluded with a late-afternoon Sunday Mass celebrated by Father Joseph Marcoux. Versluys said the retreat length of slightly more than 24 hours is “more in line with time commitments of young people” than the former all-weekend format, and is more affordable since the shorter time frame involves less cost for lodging and meals. She said she was “very satisfied” with the initial reception to Impact, and that it is likely multiple offerings will be made available during the 2008-09 school year (there are no more Impact retreats scheduled for the 2007-08 school year.)
Impact got a thumbs-up from Matt Champlin, 17, who also has attended several Awakening Faith and Encountering Christ retreats in the past.
“It was great, by far the best one I’ve ever been to,” said Matt, a member of the Diocesan Youth Committee who served as a small-group leader at Impact.
Matt, who attends St. Mary Church in Rushville, added that he has enjoyed all his retreat experiences, describing them as “spiritually uplifting. You get the break you need from modern society, the real world.”