By Jay Nies
The prevailing culture of this world is wrong when it tells people that the Church is all about “no.”
“What the Church says is ‘yes’ to the way we’ve been created by God, to the wholeness that you can fully express if you give of yourself entirely to God through your spouse or through the Church in religious life,” Father Geoffrey Brooke Jr. told a group of Hispanic Catholic teens from all over the Jefferson City diocese.
“We say YES to that and NO to being stuck in a superficial reality that will always fail to satisfy us,” he said.
Fr. Brooke was part of the team that organized and facilitated a Catholic weekend retreat based on Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body for Hispanic teens.
A group from the Chicago-based Catholic EVAE Catholic Youth Movement brought the retreat to this diocese, sponsored by the diocesan offices of Hispanic and Cross-Cultural Ministries and Youth Ministry, with funding from the Catholic Stewardship Appeal (CSA) and a grant from the Catholic Home Mission Appeal.
EVAE stands for “El Verdadero Amor Espera,” which is Spanish for “True Love Waits.”
About 102 teens and 25 adult volunteers attended the bilingual retreat June 9-11 at Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City.
The theme was: “Against the Flow con Jesús” — “con” meaning “with” in Spanish.
Many of the teens were startled to realize how deeply God loves them.
“Of course, they’ve heard it many times before. But for some of them, it’s never sunk in as it does during this weekend,” said Rosalinda Villaseñor of Chicago, EVEA director and co-founder.
The gift of self
In one of the talks, Fr. Brooke asked the teens who has greater intimacy: a husband and wife who know each other so well that they instinctively anticipate each other’s needs and care enough to put those first … or two people looking to “hook up” for the night?
The answer may seem obvious, but people’s deepest desire for authentic, enduring intimacy can get drowned out in the quest for immediate gratification that doesn’t last.
“The culture tells us that a ‘hook-up’ is enough, but we know it isn’t,” said Fr. Brooke. “The world is telling you to do whatever you want as long as it feels good. But if you do that, you become a slave to your desires.”
He offered the teens four questions to discern whether a relationship is grounded in true love: Does it involve a mutual, total, sacrificial gift of self? Is that gift complete and freely given? Are both the man and the woman faithfully committed to each other? Is that relationship fruitful?
He pointed out that all people are created in the image and likeness of God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
“God is relationship,” he said. “God is a total gift, totally free, in that He gives us His Son.”
God wants to have that same kind of relationship with all people, and for them to have meaningful relationships that imitate His own.
Fr. Brooke noted that there’s nothing selfish about the cross.
“We’re meant to be sacrificed in relationship to others,” he said. “If I’m thinking about what I’m going to get out of it, then it’s not a gift.”
And just as the love between the Father and the Son bears the fruit of the Holy Spirit, genuine love between two people must also be fruitful.
“In the case of physical love, what is the fruit?” he asked. “For a husband and wife, it means that in totally giving themselves to one another, they are open to the gift of children.”
He acknowledged that some of the teens might be hearing this message for the first time and wishing they had heard it sooner.
“At the end of the day, I know you only have one question: ‘Can I have a do-over?’” he said.
The answer is “yes,” in the sacrament of reconciliation.
“If no one has ever told you this before, if you’ve messed up, know that God is merciful,” he said. “What we want is for you to encounter God’s mercy, which is so much unimaginably bigger than any of your sins.”
“This is a retreat about real love,” said Ms. Villaseñor. “When we speak of chastity, we speak of love — of true love, not the kind of love that they teach in in this time and day, but real love.”
The message comes across clearly through talks, stories, activities and the way the team members and teen participants become actively present to each other in their small-group discussions.
She and the other speakers moved seamlessly between English and Spanish, reflecting the reality of many first- and second-generation immigrants to this part of the United States. Many speak Spanish with their parents at home but speak English at school and with friends.
A highlight of the retreat is a ritual that helps young people, especially those who feel broken or like they have lost their way, to remember when they were young and innocent and to experience Christ’s healing.
Throughout that experience, the teens are repeatedly reminded, “You are not alone. You are being held by God at this every moment. Whatever may be causing you pain right now, give it up to God.”
Not everyone recognizes a big change in their lives after making an EVAE retreat, but many do. And for those who do not, the seeds have been planted for a conversion experience that might not happen for a long time.
“We’re here to plant the seeds and trust in God,” said Ms. Villaseñor. “For some of these teens, something might happen in their lives years from now and they’ll think back and remember what we’re talking about today.”
It’s God’s grace that will help them make sense of it all, in His way and on His timeline.
If enough people are interested, EVAE facilitators can help set up a group to help the teens promote these Christian ideals among their friends and hold each other mutually accountable.
“We have a holistic outreach,” she said. “The ideal is for them to continue receiving this formation and in different ways, with the Bible and the Catechism in one hand and information about physical, social and emotional health in the other.”
Against the flow
Ashley and Jamie Sandoval, sisters who are active in the Hispanic youth group at St. Peter parish in Marshall, helped facilitate the retreat.
“Everything out there — the media, the TV, the movies — everything is manipulating young people at an early age into doing things they’re not supposed to do,” said Jamie. “I feel this retreat is going a really awesome message not to go with the flow — to go against the flow, with Christ.”
Having attended a diocesan Hispanic youth retreat last year, they became eager to help lead people their age to Christ.
Both will proudly wear the chastity rings they received at the retreat as a reminder of their commitment to imitate Christ in their relationships and to stand in solidarity with other teens who are trying to do the same thing.
“We want them to be able to see that they’re not in this alone; we’re in this together,” said Jamie.
Ms. Villaseñor noted that the same time the EVEA retreat was taking place at Helias Catholic, another one was happening according to the same model in Guadalajara, Mexico.
“So we’re not at all alone in this,” she said. “Sometimes we may feel alone, but we remind these young people that they’re not alone. We’re a big family.”
She believes it’s harder for many Hispanic immigrant parents to share the message that love is worth waiting for with their children than it was for their parents to share it with them.
“I believe most of the parents were raised to believe in waiting until marriage and still believe that’s what’s best for their children,” she said. “But they don’t feel as encouraged to speak about these things — things that are not widely applauded today — even though they believe in them.”
Parents are often afraid of having their children seem old-fashioned or not as intelligent or street-savvy as their peers, she said.
She encourages parents to be courageous in sharing their beliefs with their children and empowering them to stand against the tide.
“We need to be encouraging parents to reinforce what the Church teaches, reinforce what they learned as kids, reinforce what the culture taught them where they came from,” said Ms. Villaseñor.
A time to mend
Many of the retreatants’ families joined them in the chapel for the Closing Mass.
Father César Anicama, associate pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Jefferson City, presided at the Mass. Father Gregory Oligschlaeger, diocesan vocation director, preached the homily. He and Fr. Brooke concelebrated.
Fr. Oligschlaeger emphasized that God’s love is compassionate, merciful and sacrificial.
“God gave us His Son so that we might follow Him to the Father,” he said. “Jesus shows us the way. He washed His disciples’ feet. And at times, He even had to chastise people for making religion too much about things and not about a relationship with God.”
Fr. Oligschlaeger touched on Paul’s admonition to the new Christians at Corinth to “mend your ways.”
“I like the word mend because it means ‘bringing it together and healing,’” he said. “Heal that relationship so that you and God can be reunited once again.”
Such mending can only take place place in the context of self-sacrificial love and service.
“We care called to love as God does,” he said, “to give ourselves in ways that continues to build up the Kingdom of God.
“As we go out today, hopefully energized by how much god loves us, united in our Catholic faith, having received the Word of God and the Holy Eucharist, let’s let people see the love of God through the good that we do, and be willing to sacrifice to show that love,” he said.
After Communion, Fr. Anicama called each retreatant forward by name and placed a chastity ring on his or her hand.