VENICE | More than 80 youth opened their hearts to the loving word of God for 48 hours and left the retreat inspired and motivated to spread the good news.
The high school youth participated in the annual Diocese-hosted NET Ministries (National Evangelization Team based in Minnesota) retreat on the weekend of April 6-8 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat Center in Venice. NET teams have become a regular guest of the Diocese, with this same group holding a retreat for students at Bishop Verot Catholic High School in March.
A NET retreat is an intense time for the teens. While most are present as part of a religious education requirement, any initial lack of enthusiasm is quickly dissolved as the weekend progresses and their faith is more deeply explored.
A young woman from St. Cecilia Parish in Fort Myers explained how the weekend reinforced her love for Jesus Christ, putting into reality something she knew she always felt. “This has been a very good weekend,” she said.
The youth were encouraged to dig deep within their souls to find the healing mercy of the Lord. This powerful self-examination frequently evoked tears and smiles from the participants, sometimes at the same time.
For many of the participants, the weekend was a complete break from their regular lives — including technology — putting the chaos of life aside to focus on finding the healing love of Christ. What they found often surprised them.
A young man from Epiphany Cathedral in Venice admitted that the hardest part of the weekend was sharing his faith with others, something he viewed as very personal. The NET members did not force him to say or do anything during the weekend, but the young man eventually shared the struggles he has had with his faith. At the encouragement of the NET members, he later participated in the Sacrament of Confession and felt a burden lifted from his shoulders. “There are so many pressures and things in life to deal with. It is nice to know God will always be there, by my side, no matter what,” he said.
The young women and men were separated for directed discussions. The groups were then split off into smaller teams led by NET members. This was done to create a comfortable and affirming atmosphere for everyone while allowing each teen to get a full and enriching experience. Overall, the youth were given basic prayer tools while encouraging each of them to become more active in their faith life.
Throughout the weekend, the NET members performed a variety of dramas (skits), which demonstrated real-world situations as well as life lessons on how to deal with others the way Jesus calls us to live and act. The smaller groups competed in educational games, which tested their knowledge of the faith in a fun and interesting way.
A highlight for everyone was during the second evening, which included Eucharistic Adoration and the opportunity for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Bishop Frank J. Dewane celebrated Mass for the group April 8, Divine Mercy Sunday, and reflected upon the strong message of the Gospel of John, which is the story of “Doubting Thomas.” The Bishop encouraged the youth to be true believers, not needing to see, but believing in Christ because of their strong faith.
To help build that faith, they must first develop a stronger relationship with the Lord, the Bishop advised. Regular communication is built with friends through talking, texting, or social media, takes time and effort, and is how one develops normal friendships.
The Bishop then asked, “Who here wants to be a friend of Jesus Christ?” Hands immediately went up. “Since you want to be a friend of Jesus Christ, how are you talking to him? It works the same with Christ. You need to take the time through regular and profound communication to the Lord. That is prayer!”
He noted that the NET retreat is a good place to jumpstart their relationship with the Lord, and he prays for them that they carry forward what they learned. “You have to ask yourself, how is it going to make me a better person? A closer friend of Jesus Christ? I can’t give you that answer. … You have to find that answer within.”
Before concluding, the Bishop also offered final words of encouragement by quoting from the Gospel reading (John 20:31): “And that through this belief, you may have life in His name.”
Guest speakers included Joshua Mazrin, Diocese Director of Evangelization; Father Casey Jones, Chaplain at Bishop Verot Catholic High School and Florida Gulf Coast University; and Father Sean Morris, Oblates of the Virgin Mary, Director of the retreat center.
The retreat concluded after more than 48 hours of non-stop spiritual activity, when the young women and men were given the opportunity to stand up and reflect on their experiences with the whole group about how they personally grew in a deeper and stronger connection with Christ.