Students from Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Grantsburg, participated in the May tradition of crowning the Blessed Virgin Mary with a wreath of flowers. Pictured (left to right) are Whitney Myers, Blandina Ayohua-Hernanedez, Aiden Ayohua-Hernanedez, Emma Swanson, Farah Flanagan, Deacon Stan Marczak, Lucas Swanson, Luis Ayohua-Hernanedez, Stephanie Ayohua-Hernanedez, Matthew Meier, Fr. Dennis Mullen, Jace Brown and Branson Flanagan. (Submitted photo by Mary Hinrichs)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Before the closing Mass of the Discipleship Weekend held April 5-7 near Rhinelander, all participants gathered for a “sharing of graces.”

Sr. Bernadette, a Missionary of the Word sister who helped lead the retreat, described the informal activity as a moment to recognize God’s goodness and give him the glory for the graces experienced during the retreat.

Of the high-schoolers who shared, the common thread was adoration and the sacramental encounter with Christ. Another was the presence and witness of the Missionaries of the Word – two young and vibrant professed sisters less than a year from their final vows, and three postulants discerning with the order.

Sharing his grace, which had come during that morning’s Lectio Divina, Chris Hurtubise reflected on the scene of the woman caught in adultery, brought by the Pharisees to Christ to see how he would respond.

Hurtubise, who leads the diocesan youth ministry programs, commented on the verse about the Pharisees who, after Jesus challenged who he was without sin to cast the first stone, walked away one by one.

“When we refuse to encounter God’s love, it breeds division, but when we encounter God’s love, it breeds unity.”

He continued, “The grace that I experienced the most this weekend was, how good it was that we were here together. It is good that we’re here as brothers and sisters.”

Combining leadership and discipleship

This weekend gathering was formerly called the High School Leadership Weekend. It has been offered for five years as an outgrowth of Extreme Faith Camp. This year was the second time the retreat had been offered in two locations to better serve youth of both the east and west sides of the diocese.

Hurtubise explained the name was changed to Discipleship Weekend out of a desire to refocus their leadership as an extension of their own deepening discipleship with the Lord. With most of the participants committed to helping as leaders for the middle-schoolers’ Extreme Faith Camp experience, Discipleship Weekend is these leaders’ chance for spiritual nourishment and fellowship.

“I see it as our (effort) of forming leaders because we are teaching them to pray and how to live a deep life of discipleship, before we ask them to lead others in that,” he explained.

Including students, adult leaders, clergy, sisters and diocesan personnel, 85 attended the Discipleship Weekend at CrossWoods Camp in Mason in November, and 47 were at Crescent Lake Bible Camp in Rhinelander in April.

Music leaders are brought in; Mary Clare Melero, at the Mason session, gave birth to twins in January. For the Rhinelander weekend, Tyler Revak – a veteran participant in diocesan events, flew in from Benedictine University, where he is a freshman, after spending one year serving as a NET missionary.

Fr. David Neuschwander assisted with both retreats, joined by Fr. Samuel Schneider last fall and Fr. Patrick McConnell this spring.

The talks were led by Missionaries of the Word Sr. Bernadette and Sr. Lucia. Although the theme “I Am Set Free” carried through both retreats, the sisters couldn’t claim repeat content. They are well-versed and practiced in Lectio Divina, something they school the students in, and acknowledged that the Living Word of God is always new and adapting to each session’s respective liturgical season-setting.

Retreatants were gifted Fr. Jacques Phillips’ acclaimed book “Interior Freedom” and a Lectio Divina guide booklet.

Sharing his grace from the weekend, Fr. Patrick McConnell, pastor of churches in Eagle River, Land O’ Lakes, Phelps, Three Lakes and Sugar Camp, spoke about the dignity of humanity.

“Not just the beauty of you, but the beauty of your uniqueness,” he said, adding that he had “lots of moments to reflect on the people around me. The glorious gift that God has made you to be and that you desire to share that. You might not all know how good you are, but you do desire to share that. You’re here to be a leader and share your life, your love of Christ with others.”

His comment, “We’re goofballs; we’re wonderful but still goofballs,” elicited smiles and laughter.

Fr. McConnell expressed his gratitude to God, and his gratitude to youths themselves. “The desire you all showed in desiring to enter into (deeper) relationship with God, that invigorates my priesthood, to participate in this and to nurture it and help it grow.”

He mentioned how mutually encouraging it is to share the gift of the witness of complimentary vocations – priesthood, religious, married adult leaders, single students and leaders. He brought special attention to Chris Hurtubise’s role and work with youths in the diocese, and in particular gave thanks to his wife and family for their sacrifices to make his participation in weekend events possible.

He encouraged them to carry home with them the desire to seek deeper and deeper intimacy with Christ, saying, “everything, everything pales in comparison with that.”

In the closing homily, Fr. David Neuschwander drew from the weekend’s theme of freedom. He said, “God’s expectations and rules aren’t meant to trap us, but to free us … We can resist God’s love and attention, but it doesn’t change God’s love.”

Youths were encouraged to turn self-talk into God-talk, turning to Him in prayer at all times and for all reasons. He said that builds a strong relationship with God, and that relationship is itself freeing.

At the end of Mass, it was acknowledged that coming away from a retreat is like descending from a mountaintop experience back to ordinary life. Youths were advised not to doubt God’s presence when they feel far away or when they’ve messed up, but to use the tools received on retreat again and again; to be simple and to keep saying, “Lord, I need your help. Lord, I need you.”