Thirty University of Central Florida students join more than 500 university students and St. Paul Outreach missionaries nationwide at the Ascend Conference, finding encounter and renewal in Christ Jesus. (GLENDA MEEKINS)

Students experience ‘mountaintop encounter’ at Ascend conference

ORLANDO  |  “The Lord did and intends to do powerful things,” said Brother Clinton Reed, Brotherhood of Hope (BH) Florida campus ministry director and St. Paul’s Outreach regional director, of the Ascend Conference, Jan. 3-6 at the Wyndham Resort in Orlando. Through Eucharistic Adoration, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Mass and presenters, St. Paul’s Outreach (SPO) and the Brotherhood of Hope, more than 500 students from university campuses nationwide experienced encounter and restoration. 

Ascend is the first SPO national event of its kind. The conference theme of “ascend” referred to Scriptures in which the people of God ascended mountains where an encounter with God, transformation and restoration took place – Mount Moriah and Abraham, Mount Tabor with Peter, James and John, and Mount Sinai where God communicated his law to the Hebrew people. 

“This conference has been like an awakening of the Spirit … Bringing new life and an invitation from the Lord, to get to know Him and really try to hear what he is trying to give us each and every single day,” said Sebastian Dominguez, president of University of Central Florida’s Catholic Campus Ministry (UCF CCM). He spoke of “simple phrases” that “captured his heart such as “personal does not mean private. Being in relationship with God doesn’t mean me and him by myself, but in community,” he added.

Dominguez admitted to his struggles the past year and named the culprit, pride. “I’ve been trying to do this all on my own. I brought that burden here and I’ve been feeling the Lord slowly lifting that off my shoulders. It’s so easy to fall into that trap … it’s not really my way, but his way. I am not alone in this journey and this struggle.”

“The journeys of faith are not always easy,” acknowledged Bishop John Noonan in a homily offered the second evening. He likened it to his own experience as a youth of climbing Mount Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July—a customary pilgrimage in honoring St. Patrick in Ireland, said to have spent the 40 days of Lent on the mountain. 

“As you begin to climb, it looks just beautiful. After about an hour, you get into a higher level, steeper,” said Bishop Noonan. “You begin to wind around the mountain and lo and behold the clouds come in. The wind and rain come and it feels miserable. Further it gets mucky, swampy. Then you come to this rocky patch and have to climb on all fours. At this stage, you’re desperate and just want to get to the top. Eventually you get to the top and there is a little altar there. Usually there is a priest saying Mass. Sometimes the clouds drift away and all you see is beauty and you realize it was worth it.” He encouraged those present to stay strong and “righteous,” right with the Lord, for the rewards are great.

UCF SPO missionary Jordyn Kukla agreed, having experienced the pain and joy of evangelization. “There is always going to be hardship in mission. There’s always going to be rejection, a place where you just get attacked. When we come together, it’s a time to share those stories and be uplifted by our brothers and sisters. To come together in prayer for that grace to persevere. And also being able to share the glory of God and hope … hope as an image of an anchor that’s grounding you. The security of Jesus Christ being with us in all the things that we have done, and centering our lives in that anchor so we are finding rest in the depths of the ocean with Him.”

She said students kept calling the conference a place of renewal. “Students can already feel the shift in their hearts, reprioritizing and placing Him at the center.”

This is the very goal of the symbiotic relationship between SPO and the Brotherhood of Hope. “We come together around a common reality of a personal relationship with Jesus and this sense of cultivating this thriving community life that can withstand the pressures and tensions of this dark age and culture surrounding us,” Brother Reed said. “In context, we try to cultivate a community that cultivates deep relationship with the Lord and one another … to bring life to people who were once dead, to speak joy where there has been sorrow; to bring hope where there is despair.”

This is often achieved through households of women and men, with missionaries and students living together, praying daily, sharing family meals and chores. Anthony Hammen, a junior at UCF in business management from St. Joseph Parish in Winter Haven lives in such a community. “I thought I could live my college career and my life without the Lord. I realized quickly that I couldn’t do that.” Through St. Paul Outreach missionaries and other men already a part of UCF CCM, “they pulled me back in the church and loved me very well. Through that I came to know that life in the Lord is the only way to live.” The households are “filled with laughter and joy and crazy college life, but also a real pursuit of holiness,” Brother Adam Neri, BH, director of UCF’s CCM said.

Gordy Demarais, president and founder of St. Paul’s Outreach agreed. “At the heart of our mission is relationship because we’re made for relationship with him and with one another. We live in the midst of a culture in which loneliness is epidemic. The Gospel addresses that need at its very core and it’s at the heart of who we’re trying to be to university students – to bring them in relationship with the Lord and help them experience authentic relationship with other brothers and sisters in Christ.”

“We are concerned about the entirety of these people’s lives,” Brother Neri affirmed. “I want these young people to go into our parishes and experience vibrant relationships with each other. A feeling of belonging, a challenge of discipleship, the privilege of walking side by side when someone is limping along … 

“These people here are going to go on to be religious priests, brothers and sisters and holy, married men and women who are going to invest in deep relationships with their spouses. That in turn will deepen family life and, in turn, give young people a sense of belonging and identity. It’s much greater than just coming to Church on Sunday.”