The Bible is filled with stories of people being led into the wild and returning with newfound clarity, strength and determination to accomplish God’s mission.
From Adam and Eve in the Garden to the Israelites’ 40 years and Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, the wilderness has been consistently fertile ground for the Holy Spirit.
“We know that whenever God’s people entered the wilderness, they came out transformed,” diocesan Youth Ministry Coordinator John DeLaporte pointed out during the sixth night of this year’s CHRISTpower retreat for high-school teens.
“They went out fortified to do the work even more fully than before,” he said. “They went through trials and hardship and came back transformed and ready to go out and proclaim the Gospel in word and deed.”
Twenty-two teens representing 12 parishes attended the 15th annual weeklong retreat, which combines service to and fellowship with people in need, camaraderie-building activities, prayer experiences and lively faith discussions.
This year’s theme was “Into the Wilderness.”
“It was a blast. It was a good week of service,” said Andrew Muenks, an adult mentor who spent the retreat helping the teens get the most out of it.
“Whenever you have an experience where you dedicate your entire week to prayer and service, you have plenty of time to pray and reflect on ‘How can I act on this once I go back outside the wilderness?’” he noted.
The teens spent their nights at Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City and headed out into the community in groups of six to do service work at different locations each day.
They had daily Mass, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, with opportunities for confession and Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Families took part in an evening of outdoor games and levity on Wednesday, halfway through the retreat.
Out of the wilderness
In evening discussions, Mr. DeLaporte kept pointing to the kind of inner transformation that changes everyday life forever.
The last night of the retreat, he talked about how God transforms ordinary bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, and how that is meant to profoundly influence all of humanity.
“The Eucharist is the source and summit of all transformation,” he said. “God is constantly calling us, molding us and shaping us into being Eucharist.”
He acknowledged that Holy Communion is intensely personal and intimate — “so much so that it can feel as though it’s just ‘something for me,’ ‘something between me and God.’”
“But nothing could be further from the truth!”
He said there’s a good reason why the Mass culminates with the Eucharist.
“We receive God and then are sent forth to be Eucharist in this broken world, to be broken and poured out for others, especially the poor, the marginalized, the neglected, the stigmatized,” he stated.
He backed that up with statements from St. John Chrysostom and the three most recent Popes.
Then it came time for the teens to worship with their feet, following the Blessed Sacrament out into the neighborhood.
Vested as if for Mass, Father Daniel Merz, the retreat’s spiritual director, carried Christ Fully Present outside in a monstrance, under an embroidered canopy.
Altar servers led the procession with a crucifix, candles and burning incense, filling the sidewalks with a sweet fragrance.
Singing hymns and praying litanies, they stopped at temporary altars of repose in the yards of four nearby homes.
Teens took turns carrying the canopy and proclaiming Scripture readings and meditations at each of the stops.
“It was a beautiful witness of showing Christ to the world,” said Celina Pinedo, the retreat’s lay director. “We receive our nourishment in the Eucharist and take that with us out into the world.”
What God wants
Volunteers from all over the diocese helped staff the retreat and feed the participants.
Ms. Pinedo said this year’s CHRISTpower was filled with “expected and unexpected grace.”
“The Lord provided and the team of volunteers was amazing,” she said.
Kris Hartman was struck by her daughter’s transformation.
“She’s always been great, but it’s like the Holy Spirit opened a door for her,” Mrs. Hartman said of Tori Hartman, soon to be a senior at Helias Catholic.
Tori’s brother Jacob had been trying to convince her to go on CHRISTpower for a couple of years, but she was nervous about it.
“None of my friends were going,” said Tori. “But I wound up getting to make a lot of new friends.”
She said the retreat was an ideal environment for bonding with good people who are commonly committed to following Christ.
She said her work group could find something to laugh about in any situation.
“That’s what made the weekend so memorable,” she said. “We got along so well and were joking around and just building our relationships with each other.”
As for the friends she had before CHRISTpower, she’s now a lot more open to ministering to them, too.
Mrs. Hartman was impressed to hear her daughter talk to friends about how she had spent her week.
“CHRISTpower,” said Tori, “made me more confident and strong in my faith and I’m more open to talking about it than I’ve been in the past.”
Two years ago, her brother returned from his first CHRISTpower and told Mrs. Hartman that it had changed his life.
“You want your kids to be happy,” she said. “You want them to be doing what God wants them to do.”
“Carrying on the experience”
This was Mr. Muenks’ first CHRISTpower. His pastor, Fr. Merz, invited him to volunteer.
“I had the week open, and I was looking to do a little volunteering this summer, so I took the opportunity,” he said.
What he found was a group of kind and helpful people who were cheerful even when they were working hard and tired.
Thanks to the service and prayer experiences, he’s now on the lookout for ways to volunteer in the community as he looks ahead to graduate school.
“I’ve noticed I’ve also been praying more in my day-to-day life, carrying on my CHRISTpower experience,” he said.
“Succeed in Christ’s victory”
Fr. Merz said CHRISTpower is all about connecting with Christ in prayer and worship and then magnifying His holiness at the work sites and beyond.
“We lived the early-Church experience of being formed into a beautiful community, not for ourselves but so that we could go forth,” he said.
He noted that throughout the Old Testament, God gives His people wilderness experiences to help them get close to Him, cultivate holiness and make it spread.
“And each time, they failed,” he said.
Then Jesus came and sent His disciples out as His Own Body to spread His holiness to the rest of the world.
“And that’s what we’re called to do,” said Fr. Merz. “We would fail on our own, but we succeed in Christ’s victory.”
“I have seen Christ”
Tori asked for prayers for her and her fellow CHRISTpower participants to be able to “keep on preaching the Gospel and taking what we have learned this week and putting it into our own lives.”
Mr. Muenks suggested praying for God to continue helping them grow in faith and knowledge of Him and in their desire to keep serving Him.
Ms. Pinedo said she’s praying for them to keep their hearts and minds open to the presence of Christ all around them.
“It was really beautiful for them to be able to say to each other, ‘I have seen Christ in you,’” she said. “I pray that they never lose sight of that.”