“It has been the best day of my life.” This is the verdict of a twenty-year-old third level student – no, not at the end of a day of retreat, but in a quiet moment at the end of a day spent working at the construction of a humble little home for a needy Indian family, while he was part of an overseas module on his course.
I am sure that many even better and more memorable days will come as his life unfolds. But learning to recognise what gives life meaning and deep satisfaction, what life is for – this is very much what a retreat experience is about, and especially so for young people.
A changed culture
In Ireland, some 90% of over 18s now own or have access to a smartphone, putting Ireland among the top users of smartphones in Europe. On average a person checks their smartphone 57 times a day. This figure is certainly higher still among younger users. But this is not where we are likely to access the deeper things.
In a recent message addressed to young people, Pope Francis again showed that he is ‘on the ball’ in reading their underlying concerns: And you young people, what worries you most deeply? An “underlying” fear that many of you have is that of not being loved, well-liked or accepted for who you are. Today, there are many young people who feel the need to be different from who they really are, in an attempt to adapt to an often artificial and unattainable standard. They continuously “photo-shop” their images, hiding behind masks and false identities, almost becoming fake selves. Many are obsessed by receiving as many “likes” as possible.
So how can we support and accompany our young people on the path to finding who they really are, and who they are meant to be?
Where do our young people get time for prayer?
In Ireland, it is now well more than one generation ago since daily family prayer was taken for granted in most of our homes and Sunday Mass was a weekly appointment for most young people. Catholic schools and those of other denominations still integrate time for reflection or prayer into the timetable, and many of them go to some trouble to prepare thought-provoking and meaningful assemblies on a regular basis.
But my hunch is that the experience of regular prayer, in the sense of space and time to be in touch with God and to be at home with God, is not easily accessible to teenagers and young people. Their generation is growing up in a digital world where diversion is ubiquitous. Their access to information and distraction can be highly addictive. It is no easy task for them to find and to build into their lives reflective space and to develop a personal prayer-life.
This is to say that for these young people the need for the ‘taster’ experience of reflection and prayer that a retreat offers is both more urgent than ever and at the same time more distant from their day-to-day experience.
However, St Augustine’s insight still applies: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The young Augustine learned this truth from his experience. His own deeply restless heart eventually exhausted itself and when the time was right God caught up with him.
A range of opportunities
My years of experience teaching at a secondary school taught me unmistakeably that young people are very open to learn the value of time to catch up with themselves, for example in an opportunity for a little guided meditation. Some of you reading this are RE teachers, third level Chaplains, youth workers in parishes, John Paul II Co-ordinators who, along with many parents and grandparents, appreciate the value for young people of creative opportunities for reflection and prayer. Some schools offer the option of a retreat experience as part of the school programme, perhaps to their Transition Year Group or their pre-leavers. And many third level chaplains create first-time retreat experiences for young adults who may not have had an earlier opportunity.
The wide variety of programmes and opportunities that are facilitated by diocesan and parish youth programmes across the country often include retreats and pilgrimages where they have the chance to experience faith as alive and with an element of fun. Indeed, not a few of our young people who go on to become active in parish life begin their engagement with a World Youth Day trip or some other pilgrimage. In many dioceses the annual pilgrimage to Lourdes includes youth volunteers accompanying older and infirm pilgrims. Their presence offers the wider pilgrim group a vibrant witness of hope while the young people have a hands-on opportunity to combine practical Christian service with an introduction to the wider Church-at-prayer-and-devotion.
These experiences help young people to touch in to the restless part of their young hearts. At the same time they come to realise that they are not alone on the journey, and that a deeper and meaningful new life is there to be discovered and shared. Indeed, not a few of them catch something of that ‘missionary’ outlook that Pope Francis hopes all of us would make our own.
There are also several energetic and vibrant Christian youth organisations for whom retreat or pilgrimage events are a strategic part of their faith development programme. Some of these come to us on Lough Derg with regular pilgrimage bookings, either as part of the traditional Three Day Pilgrimage or on a Youth Retreat in our autumn schedule.
Come and see
Thank God that such a range of retreat locations and opportunities for young people are on offer in Ireland at the present time. Vocational discernment is another element that may surface for young people in the context of a pilgrimage or retreat. Perhaps as you read this article you are thinking already of someone you know who may be open to the suggestion of a retreat or a pilgrimage, or of someone for whom you could help to facilitate such a possibility.
Our young friend in India, who in his evening time of reflection realised that he had just spent the best day of his life, can stand for a whole generation who have so much to give and so much to receive with gratitude. I suggest that it is essential that they discover that reflection and personal prayer open us up to life beyond the surface, to a deeper life. This is a discovery that is facilitated by the experience of a retreat or pilgrimage appropriate to the stage one has reached on life’s journey.
So let us remember a prayer sometimes for those who are engaged in this ministry, as well as for all those young restless hearts who may not yet suspect that the Master is there, and he is inviting them: ‘Come and see.’
Fr La Flynn, Prior, The Sanctuary of St Patrick, Lough Derg
To find out more about school and youth retreats on Lough Derg contact Nuala in the Lough Derg office on +353 (0) 71 9861518 or firstname.lastname@example.org
 Newstalk 5 Dec 2017 report on Deloitte survey findings – mobile phone habits of Irish People Revealed.
 Message for 33rd World Youth Day, issued 11 February 2018.