Journey to the Father still strong after 10 years

  • July 28, 2009
{mosimage}ST. RAPHAEL’S, Ont. - Towering ruins of an 18th-century church, large white tents and a procession of the cross led by bagpipes represent for many teens the setting for “a really awesome time.”

At the roots of the English-speaking church in the province, amidst the rolling hills of St. Raphael’s (pronounced locally as St. “Raffles”), 500 teens and almost as many volunteers gather every year for an extreme boost in their faith journey. They come to attend Journey to the Father, a Catholic teen conference hosted by the diocese of Alexandria-Cornwall that features talks, workshops, adoration, Mass, the rosary, music led by The Mustard Seeds from Hanover, Ont., a talent show and more.

“The singing is fun, adoration is very emotional and you feel really good,” summarized Amanda Wyllie, 15, who came to Journey for the first time with other teens from St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Hudson, Que., last year.

The conference draws youth from across Ontario, this year as far as Stratford, London and North Bay.

But as the conference hit its 10-year milestone July 17-19, organizer Marilyn Bergeron said the fruits of the first one are showing up in very beautiful ways.

“When I look around at the young people and some of the chaperones who started off 10 years ago, I see kids who came as participants come back as disciples, wannabes, chaperones and speakers,” Bergeron said.

Disciples are a group of about 20 trained senior high school students who provide skits, personal testimonies and help wherever they are needed throughout the weekend. “Wannabes” also help out behind the scenes.

Locally, a lot of kids “inherit” the desire to go.

“I have three older siblings and they’ve all gone to Journey to the Father,” said Matthew Sullivan, 16, from St. Andrews West. “The first year was really fun but there was a lot of prayer time which kind of surprised me at first. I decided I would give it a shot but then I really came to appreciate it because I find that in our busy lives with school, studying, work and sports, I find it hard personally to find time to pray.”

Sullivan added that he looks forward to Confession, available during the  conference. The lineups of teens made it obvious that he wasn’t the only one. Many teens even made a point of going on the Friday night.

“It lifts you up so you can use the rest of the retreat to experience the fullness and you’re not so weighed down by the sin that you had. So it’s like having a clean slate,” Sullivan said.

The conference is modelled on Steubenville teen conferences in the United States, which main organizer Bergeron attended with about 90 youth from the diocese more than a decade ago. On its second trip, the group was joined by then local Bishop Eugene Larocque, who proposed the creation of a Canadian “Steubenville” conference. Two years later, it was a reality.

“It’s part of the life of the church in the diocese and we’re seeing people who were disciples in the first year, now are married and have kids but are helping out as much as they can,” said Br. Gabriel Joseph, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal originally from the diocese, who will take his vows to the priesthood next year. Br. Gabriel went to Steubenville, Ohio, with Bergeron and the bishop and was later a chaperone at the first Journey. He lives and works with members of his community in Ireland, but came back as a speaker this year accompanied by Fr. Pio Maria, a Franciscan priest from New York.

From the beginning, organizers of Journey have focused on having Canadian speakers and MCs, with little exceptions like Maria.

“I think there’s so many good things going on in the church I don’t even want to compare it with Steubenville because the Holy Spirit is here too,” Br. Gabriel said. “The Canadian church has to find its own bearings and learn from the church in the United States but it also needs to be in touch with what the Lord is doing within its own boundaries.”

Bishop Paul-Andre Durocher came to the diocese after Journey had been running for a couple of years. He said the conference is a gift to the diocese, not only for the youth, but also because the 400 volunteers who help make the weekend happen then become an enrichment for their own parishes, in all the reaches of the diocese.

“I think to be a place that is identified as a source of dynamism for young people is a good thing for the diocese and there’s something biblical about a small diocese hosting larger dioceses,” Durocher said. “In the Bible, it’s often the small and the weak who are chosen by God to do God’s work.”

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