High school students in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend participate in annual retreats and days of reflection organized by their schools’ pastoral ministry offices. During this school year, however, plans for retreats changed as COVID-19 social distancing protocols had to be implemented.
At Marian High School, Mishawaka, freshmen attend a retreat at the beginning of the school year.
“The theme of the retreat is friendship, and the talks and activities are focused on growing in their friendship with God, Mary, the saints and each other,” said Marian pastoral minister Angie Higginbotham. “There are witness talks given by faculty, staff and upperclassmen who are Campus Ministry leaders — a group of students helps lead the retreats by running the activities, facilitating small-group discussions and assisting with behind-the-scenes activities like setting up for Mass.”
After each talk, the first-year students have an opportunity for silent reflection and journaling before they participate in small-group discussion.
“For our sophomore retreats, we separate the students by gender,” Higginbotham said. “Marian invites Hard as Nails to put on a boys and then a girls retreat. Hard as Nails is run by Justin Fatica and a group of young adult missionaries who are on fire in their faith and passionate about their relationship with Jesus. The retreats focus on encountering Jesus in the good times, but especially during hardships.”
Junior retreats at the high school focus on being men and women of virtue and are also separated by gender. The senior retreat is about gratitude and reflecting on the students’ time at Marian.
Bishop Dwenger High School, Fort Wayne, has developed its retreat program over the past nine years.
“Initially, these “days of reflection” were broken into four parts. We would have half of the ladies for a morning and then the other half for the afternoon and then repeat the following day for the guys,” said pastoral minister Jason Garrett. “It has evolved into most recently hosting all the ladies in the morning and then all the guys in the afternoon. In all attempts throughout, we have always included Mass, adoration and the opportunity for the sacrament of reconciliation. At times, we have had outside speakers present, and other times we have presented ourselves — the chaplains and or me.”
Each grade has a patron saint on whom the retreats center, as well as the sacramentals associated with each.
“Freshmen themes and presentations center around faith — St. Simon Stock and the Brown Scapular,” Garrett continued. “All freshmen are enrolled in the Brown Scapular.” Sophomore themes and presentations center around devotion and focus on St. Catherine Laboure and the Miraculous Medal. Junior themes and presentations center around conviction, holding up St. Dominic and the rosary, and senior themes and presentations center around service and focus on St. Juan Diego and the floral gift of roses or carnations in thanksgiving for gifts and guidance received throughout their high school years. All seniors then receive a yellow rose at graduation, and they present carnations to Mary while on retreat at St. Felix Catholic Center in Huntington.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the way the high schools planned this year’s retreats. Marian, for example, implemented social distancing measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“The safety of our students is our first priority, and we made sure that social distancing was maintained during the retreat. We separated our freshman retreat by gender so we could sit the students 6 feet apart in our main retreat space, which was in our practice gym,” said Higginbotham. “All of our retreats were also at Marian this year instead of going to Sacred Heart Parish Center at Notre Dame, in order to avoid having students sit closely together on the buses.”
Higginbotham implemented a virtual retreat as well so students could complete their reflection online.
“We livestreamed the witness talks and Mass, and then they had their own online small group over Google Meet led by a teacher,” she said. “Our sophomore retreat also had to be rescheduled from October to March because we went into the hybrid model of learning.”
Although Marian had to adjust its retreat program due to the pandemic, Higginbotham still views the school year’s retreats positively.
“Even though we needed to make some adjustments, the students were able to encounter God through prayer and the sacraments and grow as a class.”
Saint Joseph High School, South Bend, opted to forgo retreats and days of reflection this year due to the challenges of the pandemic and havoc it wreaked on in-person learning and school schedules.
Bishop Luers High School, Fort Wayne, was successful in implementing an outdoor courtyard Mass among the events for a school day of reflection. Pastoral minister Nicole Rudolph had postponed the event to the spring, however, when favorable weather would allow students to participate safely outside.
“We had the students stay in small-group pods of three to six to limit and track exposure,” Rudolph said, “and we would divide the larger group up and rotate for some of the elements of the retreat for social distancing needs, such as in adoration. We also scheduled it during our last virtual Friday, which gave us more room and freedom to have the retreat on campus.”
Maria Solis, a junior who attended the Bishop Luers retreat, said in mid-April that she learned if a person interacts more with God, they will find peace in their life. Solis also mentioned that the day of reflection prepared her for life’s chaos by reminding her of “our little bit of silence” that can be found by contemplating the Eucharist.
Although the pandemic forced high schools in the diocese to reevaluate the details, through preparation by dedicated pastoral ministers, students still encountered Christ on these days set aside to focus on Him.
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