Importance of retreats not lost on educators, students

By  Shona Assang, The Catholic Register
  • March 12, 2010
{mosimage}TORONTO - One of the things that differentiates Catholic high school students from their public counterparts is participation in sacrament-based retreats.

Fraser Garteside, a teacher from Francis Libermann Catholic High School, is the school’s chaplaincy leader and has planned and led retreats for two years. 

“It’s vitally important that students have an awareness and engagement with their spiritual life,” Garteside said.

One of the challenges he faces is “to create a nice balance between spirituality, discussion and fun.” When students leave these retreats, I want the students to walk away with a deep awareness or good in their lives.”

For Garteside, it has become an unlikely passion. Years ago he wouldn’t have expected to be involved in such a task.

“I never really thought of retreats being part of my teaching.”

Garteside’s retreats have a rather basic format — “It’s one day for six hours at a retreat centre, filled with activities, discussions, prayer service and lunch.”

He has seen the impact retreats have made with his students.

“I believe that retreats are absolutely necessary for the full development of our young people. The retreats give them a real chance to reflect and meditate,” he said.

Retreats help students step out of their comfort zone to get closer to God, according to Christian Elia, director of the Office of Catholic Youth for the archdiocese of Toronto.

“Students should remember what they learned and their closeness to God,” he said. “They also should make an improvement and strive to be more virtuous in life.”

In creating retreats, Elia said they need to have that sacramental side, otherwise it does not work.

“A retreat has to be sacramental, it has to have a priest. Without it, it would be unfortunate.”

Every retreat, especially those in high schools, is important in a student’s life. 

“High school retreats are very important because students at a young age can learn a lot from it,” Elia said. “A retreat physically moves someone from one’s surroundings so that they can feel a connection to God. This is important these days, especially for young people who are so digitally connected, to turn off their cellphones and be in a calm and tranquil setting where they can pray and contemplate their faith, and with nature around them they can meditate and concentrate more on Christ.”

Garteside and Elia have been participating and leading retreats for a long time, which have made for some unforgettable moments.

“The most successful retreat I have seen was a silent retreat, where the students could only talk with the priest, or the counsellor, no one else. By yourself you had to be silent. It was beautiful to be silent and have our thoughts in order,” Elia said.

“The retreat I find the most memorable was with the Grade 9 students this year at Manresa because the students had only been there for a month and a half,” said Garteside. “They are scared and excited, and are being led by senior students, which means a lot of relationship building.”

Although some students may not remember much more than the food served at the retreat, there are some who recognize the impact, if only to a small extent.

“The thing I liked about my retreat is that they have us go through spiritual and emotional workshops that get us to know each other, ourselves and God better,” said Jessica Assang, a Grade 9 student at Francis Libermann.

After attending the retreat, she said, “The one thing that surprised me was how comfortable I felt towards the group games we had to do, and I thought it was really nice. The student leaders at the retreats were great and I felt like I got to know God better.”

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