Joseph Staniunas, Special to The Catholic Virginian

 

Gary Capone of St. John the Evangelist, Waynesboro, said one girl heard something at the Discovery weekend held at his parish that she has never heard her own mother say — that she is loved.

It’s one of those moments of grace that can happen at these retreats for high-schoolers.

The team leaders from St. John and St. Ann, Ashland, chose “Grace on Every Horizon,” a line from Matt Maher’s song “What a Friend,” as the theme for the Dec. 6-8 event. Some 33 people — most of them ninth and 10th graders — from St. John, St Ann and parishes in Harrisonburg, Henrico, Lexington, Powhatan, Staunton and Richmond took part.

“Many of them are here because the parents forced them,” said Father Rolo Castillo, pastor of St. John. “And the first Friday night with icebreakers and everything, some of them don’t participate. They sit on the edge, waiting it out, hoping their reluctance will allow them to go home early. But by Sunday afternoon, no one wants to go home.”

Some participants act out lines in “What a Friend” — the theme song for the Discovery weekend, and the opening hymn at the closing Mass. (Photo/Joseph Staniunus)

The atmosphere Father Castillo and other leaders create at Discovery weekend help participants feel comfortable enough to open their hearts to the messages being delivered.

“At first, I wasn’t too excited about coming, but all the people are so welcoming and loving here,” said Jordyn Favale, one of the participants. “They’ve helped me expand my faith. And I feel a lot closer to God, especially after reconciliation. That just lifted a lot off my chest.”

In addition to reconciliation, the teens also listened to talks by older teens and adults, small group discussions and liturgies. The decision to hold Discovery weekend at St. John rather than at a retreat center was made to save money.

The youth team leaders included several recent Discovery participants, including 19-year-old T.J. Williams, whose first experience with the program was three years ago. The next year he was on the team.

Williams said he has enjoyed sharing his faith and helping others grow in theirs.

“A lot of them are questioning and are trying to figure out what they truly believe,” he said. “And I think during reconciliation, we saw a lot of people come out of their shell and really cry out to God, ‘I want you in my life.’ And it was amazing to see that.”

Fellow youth coordinator Elizabeth Fosnocht said she resisted going on a Discovery weekend at first, but then gave in and had such a great experience that she wanted to be on a team, too.

A Discovery participant gets a hug from youth coordinator Elizabeth Fosnocht and cheers from new friends during the closing ceremonies. (Photo/Joseph Staniunas)

“I think it allows people for the first time to fully find their own definition of what it means to carry the light of Christ with them,” she said. “It’s the first time they’ve had a chance without their parents or without their priest to really sit down and think about what it means for them.”

St. Ann parishioner Amy Flagg spoke on Saturday morning about the joys in her life — her faith; her husband, Jud; her three children — and the challenges, such as the unexpected death of a relative and her mother not recognizing her anymore because of Alzheimer’s disease.

“I know I can lay my burdens down, and he carries me when I am too weak to walk on my own,” she said. “I truly have a friend in Jesus.”

Her daughter, Sadie, also talked to the teens. She said she worked on her presentation for about six months, seeking the right tone and message.

“We try to make them as personal as possible, so instead of being preachy it’s more like we’re sharing our story,” she said. “And that’s why we call it a talk instead of a speech because it’s not meant to be a sermon. It’s meant to be like you’re talking to a friend.”

Following the closing Mass on Sunday, several participants took turns sharing what a great experience they had. Bill Beard, who coordinated the weekend with Capone, gave the group some ideas for continuing their faith journey, such as getting more involved in their parishes, attending the next Diocesan Youth Conference and going on the annual March for Life in Washington in January.

“I definitely want to evangelize through my actions, not just my words,” said Hanna Vosburg, another Discovery participant, “because that message kept on coming up this weekend about how you don’t just have to tell people about your faith but should act it out through small acts of kindness — just small words that you say can really affect other people.”

“Everyone has to go back to their parishes,” Father Castillo said. “And the hope is that this will get them more involved and awake in their ordinary parish experience. Church is not just me and God. Church is me and my sisters and brothers and all together connecting to God.”

Capone said people will sometimes tell him that they don’t see many young people in church that often. But he reminds them that they are out there — a new generation on the horizon, seeking and finding grace from God.