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Turn to Jesus (Article)

Choose Your Experience
Teens Design their own Lenten Retreat

Br. Lucio Boccacci with teens

Ash Wednesday is just around the corner (March 5, 2014). Based on his latest blog, Br. Lucio Boccacci LC discusses how to plan a Lenten retreat for teens with a bit of an unique approach.

I remember brainstorming last year for ideas for an overnight middle school Lenten retreat, one that would help the teens understand what Christ did for them through His suffering, dying and resurrection.

The concept for the retreat was for the teens to “accompany” Jesus through His agony in the garden and throughout the night, witness His suffering in the morning, His crucifixion in the afternoon, and ending with an “early version” of His resurrection. (Click here for the simple flyer to promote this retreat.)

My breakthrough came when I asked an audience of teens what they would consider to be an awesome retreat.  They gave me several ideas, but one suggested that they themselves decide what to do during the retreat -- the schedule and activities, right down to deciding when to go to bed!  At first, I rejected the idea. 

But I wanted to enhance the teens’ creativity, increase their ownership of the retreat, generate more excitement, and hopefully better reach them with the message of Lent and Christ´s death and resurrection. Then it hit me.  What if they did design the schedule? What a novel concept! I had no idea what would happen, but I set to it.

I hoped this approach would shift the emphasis of the retreat from what I wanted them to get out of it to what these teens wanted to get out of it. I also hoped the “accompany Christ” motif would encourage them to opt for the more spiritual activities over the fun games.

The first and last sections (the retreat started with a “Passover Meal” and an introduction and the retreat ended with Mass followed by dinner and awards) were set in stone, and it was mandatory that they had to get at least 6 hours of sleep.  Then I prepared 20 different activities for them to choose from.  The list included videos, talks or discussions, skits, different types of prayers like the rosary, Stations of the Cross, Gospel reflections, etc. I also included the necessary aspects like meals, games and sleep.

I had to prepare more options than they could possibly choose from. The teen would have to design the schedule with a logical progression within the given time constraints. I also printed a large poster with an hour-by-hour timeline of Jesus´ death from the last supper on Thursday evening to his death on Friday afternoon. 

Once everyone arrived, I gathered the teens together, welcomed them, explained the standard retreat rules to them, and formed teams of about five participants each.  I then began to explain how the retreat would work, motivating them with the meaning of Lent and Christ´s Passion.  I helped them understand the purpose of liturgy is to experience the life of Christ.  I told them in this retreat, they would not only be accompanied by Jesus, but they would accompany Him!  I went through the list of activities, explaining what they would do in each one.  Then I told them they could choose what to do.

At first they were surprised, and they tested the limits, asking, “Can we go to bed whenever we want?” and “Can we eat three snacks in one day?”  I offered them tips, saying things like, “It depends how much sleep you want,” reminding them with statements like, “At that time of the day Jesus is being scourged on a pillar, so you can eat your second snack if you don´t mind…”

These kinds of remarks made them think. Once the idea settled in, they were ready. From the beginning to the end, they began to fill in the retreat schedule. We used a white board and dry erase markers for quick editing.  I would ask what they wanted to do next and point out the corresponding moment of Jesus´ Passion. Some would raise their hand and propose an idea.  Depending on the amount of consensus, I either took a quick vote or gave them 3 minutes to discuss the options in teams. Then they would vote, with one vote per team and the most votes won. We continued this until we finished the schedule, which took about 20 minutes.

I was honestly surprised by the schedule they created, and by their choices and their reasoning. They had good reasons, making sure to put in all the spiritual activities during Jesus´ “toughest” moments, with a good blend of fun activities scattered throughout. They preferred to do simple visits to the chapel throughout the night and leave the half-hour of Eucharistic Adoration for the time when Jesus hung on the cross Friday afternoon. At 1:00 am, they would
Teen Lenten retreat Way of the Cross
do the Stations of the Cross.  

At the end of the retreat I asked them what they liked the most. The very first response was “choosing what to do.” I then asked them why. One teen said it helped them to better accompany Jesus.

Whoa! They remembered the whole point of the retreat!  It was very gratifying to witness these 10- to 13-year-olds understanding the message of the retreat and living out each experience the best they possibly could.



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