When the pandemic struck last spring and all of our in-person retreats were canceled, I naturally felt a deep sense of loss for our students. While I acknowledged and honored my own feelings of sadness, however, I also tried not to let those feelings spiral me down into despair or hopelessness. Instead, I turned to God.
So, what are we going to do, Lord? What do you have in mind?
I sensed the consoling feeling that “God is God,” and nothing can separate us from that truth. Nothing – not even a pandemic – can keep us from God’s love and creativity.
And so, with God’s help, I got to work. I turned to our wonderful Catholic retreat student leaders and asked for their ideas. How can we still run retreats virtually? The leaders imagined wonderful ways to mirror what we do on our in-person retreats, such as student and chaplain talks, small faith-sharing groups, guided Ignatian prayer, games, and even “Emmaus walks,” where students are paired in groups of two and walk together connected through Facetime. They walk and talk from wherever they may be, and share their stories of faith.
As spring 2020 unfolded, we continued virtually our God’s Light and Love six-week retreat in daily life (where students pray with scripture daily and meet weekly on Zoom with their spiritual directors), offered a shortened version of the Loyola retreat, and rolled out a special evening of reflection with Mass for our seniors. Throughout all of these newly configured retreats, my sense that “God is God” was sustained, and that feeling strengthened me to keep going.
Once August came, I offered a virtual weekend retreat just for the student retreat leaders. The theme was accompaniment: how is God accompanying us through our joys and struggles, and how are we called to accompany one another? A real gift of this retreat was providing space to process feelings that the pandemic had stirred up, such as isolation and anxiety, and ultimately to bring those feelings to God. In the end, students felt hopeful and encouraged, knowing God is with us through everything.
With renewed hope, we started planning Loyola for first-years and Manresa for all class years, as well as our God’s Light and Love retreat in daily life. We had weekly student leader team meetings, game nights to deepen the sense of community, and even post-retreat reunions, all on Zoom. Sure, there were challenges, such as not being able to share s’mores in person by the fireplace at the beautiful Calcagnini Contemplative Center, and navigating the nuances of Zoom, but the joys far outweighed the challenges.
Some of the joys, for instance, include students sharing their faith stories, praying the Examen and other forms of Ignatian prayer, sharing Mass together even on Zoom, living with renewed hope and joy, and saying these retreats are providing a real sense of community at a time when community is so desperately needed.
With a grateful heart, my vision for this semester is to keep doing what we are doing and offer virtual retreats and reunions for students to grow in faith, hope, and love.
By Michelle Siemietkowski, C’92, G’98. Michelle is the Catholic Chaplain for Spiritual Formation