University campus ministry retreat gathers college students from throughout the diocese
RENDON — Escape from distractions of the outside world and encountering an opportunity to seek God's voice is how University of Texas at Arlington student Megan Colega summed up the Diocese of Fort Worth's Oct. 6-8 campus ministry retreat at Holy Family Religious and Retreat Center in Rendon.
“To keep some silence in my life so that I can listen to what God has in store for me specifically and what I need to do,” Colega said.
An event as well long in coming.
“This is the first retreat where all the campuses came together in over 20 years,” UTA Catholic Campus Ministry leader Jeff Hedglen said. “Most of the campuses were doing their own retreats. Then, of course, COVID knocked things out.”
But three days together is exactly what 45 students from UTA, University of North Texas, Texas Christian University, Tarleton State, and Midwestern University experienced in early October.
One hope, Hedglen said, being that the students bond with their Catholic peers from other campuses in an effort toward stronger community.
Midwestern campus minister Debbie Veitenheimer agreed.
“That they see they are part of a much larger community of other college students,” Veitenheimer said. “That they're not isolated and have other area college students they can reach out and connect to.”
John 15:16 — “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain” — provided the retreat's theme.
“So the retreat brought religious consecrated men and women and others in to speak to that Scripture passage, how God calls each of us, and how He is calling each of the participating students to live as a baptized Christian in today's world,” Tarleton State campus minister Nathan Mena said.
One first-day talk, “Encounter in the Vineyard,” employed a garden metaphor, UTA student Kate Thompson said.
“In relation to your soul,” Thompson said. “Are you a lush, beautiful garden with these flowers of Christ? Are you an overgrown, chaotic garden that's a work in progress, or are you a dead garden just hanging on for dear life?”
Sister Teresa Christi, OP, extended the garden metaphor the following day in her talk, “Pruning Our Hearts.” A talk that, among other points, urged students to move past the secular world's baggage and competing narratives to seek out the truth of Christ.
“Knowledge of God as He revealed Himself to us opens us to prayer,” Sr. Christi said. “And this prayer opens us up to knowledge of ourselves and invites us into His heart.”
Hard work at times, but also worthwhile, said Fred Shellabarger of Draw Near Me Ministry.
“If you're struggling it's okay,” Shellabarger said. “You're not alone. God loves you and His love for you is the reason you exist.”
Sr. Christi and Shellabarger both warned against feelings of unworthiness, a so-called debilitating perfection standard as Sr. Christi termed it that often leads to self-harm and addiction.
Retreats, campus ministry in general, are especially important to those college aged, several associated with the retreat said, given that research studies indicate that 70 percent to 80 percent of those who leave their faith will do so by the age of 23.
“It's important then to minister to those who feel like they might be on their way out or feel forgotten or misunderstood,” Mena said. “In a ‘meet them where they are and be there to answer their questions’ way.”
Victoria Ramon, diocese director of youth, young adult, and campus ministries, spoke of the transitional nature of young adulthood and its accompanying confusion.
“There's so much change happening in them,” Ramon said. “This retreat provides an opportunity for them to breakaway and listen to God. Because that often gets lost during all this transition time.”
Sister Alexia Zaldivar of Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary spoke of current culture's cacophony of conflicting voices and ideas confusing to all, but especially for younger people.
“I believe one of the greatest challenges younger people face is not fully understanding who they are yet,” Sr. Zaldivar said. “So opportunities like this retreat allow them a time of silence, listening to the truth and having time to ask themselves fundamental questions.”
In between Mass, talks, fellowship, and other activities over the three days, the students traversed the center's spacious grounds enjoying the silence, participating in Rosary walks, and/or conversing with the various religious present.
UTA campus ministry student Will-Anne Bakwa said she derived comfort from the talks on gardens and vineyards and pruning of unnecessary distractions.
“What I took from those is that God will meet you where you are,” Bakwa said. “That, like [the garden metaphors], we can all be different or some mix. We can be a little hopeful but also overgrown. But, wherever we are, we're always welcomed and called by God.”