DCN. CLAYTON THOMPSON
“Sure,” I said, “sounds like fun.” And thus began the two-year ride of my massive high-school retreat planning career. The question came in May 2010 from the chairman of the Mount2000 retreat to be held in 2011 – he had asked me to be his vice-chairman, with the provision that I would take over for the following year’s retreat. Little did I know how much “fun” I was in for! My year of apprenticeship went quickly; the retreat was executed without any major glitch; and then the whole load fell into my hands: a retreat for 1600 youth, held at Mt. St. Mary’s University Arena, an evaluation of my “pastoral capacity” on the line, and all in the middle of February.
The following months consisted of a lot of pondering – “develop a vision for the retreat,” I was told – soon my thoughts fell upon one of my favorite scripture passages: John’s prologue. The tension that appears between light and darkness in that Gospel’s first chapter has always captivated my attention. It did so again as I thought of the retreat: what are young Catholics worried about? What do they need to fix their gaze upon to find direction? Soon, verse five answered my question: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
In a world darkened by sin, a world antithetical to Gospel values, a world in which that darkness becomes frighteningly tangible to the souls, especially, of young people, the light of Christ continues to shine. It has never stopped. Christ is the world’s light; he is our guide; he is our hope; he is the way to authentic fulfillment in this life. I thought on how many times I’ve examined the world, how I’ve felt over-whelmed by the opposition to what God has called me to do, and how the consoling words of Christ from the same Gospel came to my aid: In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33). This was a message worth passing on: Christ shines in the heart of the Church, especially in the Eucharist – He is your hope and your salvation.
Vision…check. Then began the to-do list. I brought together a power house of other seminarians who served as my “Core Team,” advising me and helping me accomplish the slew of tasks that remained in the months of preparation before February 10-12, 2012. The tasks were diverse: developing a poster, a website, online registration pro-grams, a holy card, apparel, signing contracts, hiring speakers, getting a band, organizing volunteers both in the seminary and from the college. With inspiration from another seminarian, I made one major change to the retreat – innovative and unprecedented on this scale – to include four times for silent prayer throughout the weekend. Using a method of prayer called Lectio Divina (look this up and try it if you’re unfamiliar with it!), a seminarian would lead a guided meditation on a given passage from Scripture. The sessions lasted from 10-25 minutes and formed the basis for taking retreat conversation to a much deeper, personal level. “1600 high-schoolers being silent?” I thought, “…we’ll see.”
Then came the night before. 170 seminarians set up the arena; the preparations were laid and continued into the night. And as I looked out on the empty gym that was about to be inundated, I was filled with a great sense of peace, breathed in, and said, “Well, here we go, Lord.”
And away we went. The weekend was a blur. How did it go? I, honestly, have no clear idea. I found myself running around backstage for the majority of the weekend, making sure everything was coming together correctly. The reactions were excellent, very positive across the board: great speakers, awesome band, well-organized, smooth flow, good entertainment, cool seminarians (okay, that last one is made up). But above all, the Lectio Divina groups worked. Were they profound experiences for everyone? No. But they were, indeed, the beginning of a new level of faith and life for many – you could sense that in the demeanor of many who attended – the door had finally opened to them to learn how to pray, to pray personally. As one of the priests told me afterward, “This Mount2000 was different [from the past 10 years]. It was more…spiritual.” I agree – the Spirit took control in an incredible way, especially through this time of silent prayer with Scripture, and the effects were immense.
Soon the weekend ended. The planning had paid off. And I have to say, honestly, it was a lot of “fun.” The months of preparation certainly were not the same-ol’ of seminary life; especially during the final weeks, Mount2000 absorbed my life. I recall sitting in class once, simultaneously taking notes from the lecture and answering the Mount2000 emails that poured into my inbox every 6.8 seconds. At the end of the 75-minute period, my classmate stared at me with a look of sincere astonishment and said, “How do you do that?!?” The pressure did have a certain element of exhilaration to it. But it’s still more satisfying to sit back and reflect on the experience. In retrospect, I see that the fact that it was always on my mind – planning for the retreatants, how to make it an effective source of God’s grace to change hearts – was a good training in a very different respect: to have the heart of a pastor, to be constantly thinking of and consumed by concern for the people under your care, and to bring them in touch with God – whether it be 1600 or just one.