The most famous religious retreat in history took place in a Middle Eastern desert and lasted 40 days. It began with prayer, included fasting, involved a spiritual battle, and launched a 30-year-old man into a public ministry that changed the world. New Testament writers do not use the word “retreat” to describe the wilderness experience of Jesus. But we could, and here’s why: Jesus abandoned his day job as a carpenter, left his family and friends, and retreated to a quiet place, a son alone with his heavenly Father.
Jesus set the example for what has become an important component of the Catholic university experience: the campus retreat. Once or twice a year, students at Catholic institutions across the nation set aside their studies and activities for a quiet weekend getaway. They gather in small groups for discussions, reflection, and prayer. They listen to speakers, share meals, and forge friendships that last a lifetime. Students return to campus refreshed and energized. Some change their majors and decide to pursue ministry. The experience can be transformative. Jesus went on multiple retreats and encouraged his disciples to do the same.
The challenges of being a college student
The college experience can be overwhelming. Students, especially freshmen, must become time management experts. There are books to study, projects to complete, exams to take, and jobs to attend. There are parties and extracurricular activities, a whirlwind of distractions and temptations. Relationships collapse, money disappears, loans pile up, nerves begin to fray, and before many students realize it, faith is forgotten. It’s easy to understand why. The stress college students face is high and sometimes can feel insurmountable. In a study entitled “Stress in America 2020,” nearly 90% of undergraduate student reported their education as a significant source of stress for them, according to a U.S. News & World Report article that compiles various studies and findings in relation to stress in college students. With college feeling so vastly overwhelming, students should have access to and take advantage of campus offerings that provide some relief from their busy day-to-day life.
The hope of rejuvenation
Catholic retreats provide a respite, and often rejuvenation, from the pressure-packed schedules of university life. More than mere escapes from busyness and chaos, they are fueling stations for perspective, energy, and enlightenment. Retreats provide a tranquil venue for many to rediscover faith and find purpose. “One responsibility of the Catholic university is to create opportunities for students to engage their faith life or lack thereof,” says Gloria Urrabazo, Vice President of Mission and Ministry at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas. “Studies show that young adults between 18–35 are like patrons in a line at a cafeteria, exploring what they were taught as children, what they lived, what they know of religion. “They are going to try to decide what they are going to keep, what they are going to let go of, and it’s up to us to provide for them a venue to explore the faith life. One component that seems to work has been in going away to a retreat site and providing a safe place where they can talk about relationships, personal challenges, and other issues. This seems to have worked in my 30-some odd years of experience.”
The benefits of campus retreats
Many Catholic university retreats are led by students. Juniors and seniors, for example, often meet once or twice a week to plan every detail, from the date and site to the activities and meals. During retreat, students lead group discussions on topics of particular interest to those in attendance, especially freshmen. Younger students often trust and relate better to older peers and feel more comfortable sharing their own struggles in this kind of setting. At the same time, adult campus ministers often share their personal lives with the group, making themselves vulnerable and more approachable. “Then from that day forward, those people who heard you reveal something always feel a connection when they see you,” Urrabazo says. “You’re more than just Gloria the vice president of whatever. You’re Gloria with a story and a history and a faith journey just like theirs.”
A changed life
A native of New Orleans, Enjoli Page grew up in a family with different religious traditions. Her father is Catholic, her mother, Baptist. She attended Catholic school and then a Catholic university. Like many first-year students, Enjoli felt a bit lost and was looking for a place where she could connect and make new friends. She went on an Awakening Retreat as a freshman, not knowing a single student at the site. Enjoli felt socially awkward and spiritually isolated, a Baptist at a Catholic retreat. The first evening did not begin well. “I was resistant to what the people were saying,” she says, “and withdrawn.”
Other students gently pulled her in and embraced her. They shared personal challenges, and Enjoli began to open up. By the end of the retreat, Enjoli formed connections she never imagined possible. “Despite where you were from, what you had done, or what you were in the middle of, the people genuinely loved you because you were one of God’s children,” she says. “Once I went on the retreat, I became a part of a family. And I didn’t have any family or friends when I got to college. That was something major for me. People said they believed in me, and I left believing in them.”
As a graduate student, Enjoli served as an advisor on Awakening Retreats at Our Lady of the Lake University. She immersed herself in campus ministry and began to view every meeting with a new student as an opportunity to touch somebody in a positive way. “The biggest thing I learned from retreat is to share the love of Christ with other people no matter who they are, no matter where they are, no matter what they have done,” she says. “When I became a part of the Awakening Retreat, I realized it was not just a Catholic retreat. It was a spiritual retreat for any student. They might not even be religious. But it’s an opportunity to find out who they are in God and to awaken their spiritual life that may be dead or might not have even started. The retreat changed my life,” she says.
A lasting impact
Across the country, thousands of students benefit from Catholic university retreats. Some may experience an epiphany or discover a religious calling, but almost everyone leaves invigorated and strengthened, bonded to a community of peers many liken unto family. Students who once felt isolated, alone with challenges and personal issues, suddenly feel connected. And that may be the greatest blessing of all. A three-day retreat can be transformative. History is replete with examples of people whose lives were transformed during retreats, and as a result, became a blessing to many others. Who knows how many great leaders—and how you—may emerge from Catholic university retreat?
Find more great advice on staying in touch with your faith in our Catholic Colleges and Universities section.