Ever struggled to organize a meaningful retreat for high schoolers? From age 12 to 18? A thousand of them? All of them at a different point in their walk between no faith and faith? Should the retreat be Ignatian, fun, dynamic, touching the hearts of teens and with something for everyone to take home? With small groups led by peer leaders?
Does it sound too ambitious?
Not anymore, if you get hold of the new publication of the Ignatian Pedagogy Workshop (IPM), ‘Did Not Our Hearts Burn Within us? A Guidebook and Blueprint to Ignatian Retreats for School Groups’. The book contains the detailed description of six different retreats written, tried, and perfected by the Chaplaincy Team of the JEZSU, the only Jesuit high school in Hungary.
During the 28 years of the school’s history, retreats have developed and grown together with the steadily increasing number of students and staff.
Mrs. Kinga Rivasz-Tóth who has been a permanent member of the Chaplaincy team for almost twenty years saw the methodology and material grow organically: “Every time we ever organize a retreat, the team takes notes of all ideas, tips and tricks, collects written and verbal reflections from organizers, team leaders and participants. Based on this vast amount of information we evaluate the materials, the methods, and the whole process, and use our evaluation as a starting point to the following retreats.”
The JEZSU is in the fortunate position to be a school where young Jesuits spend two or three years, their magisterium, as part of their formation, so the team have received a steady flow of Jesuits-in-formation along with younger or more senior Jesuit chaplains over the years who worked together with the more long-term lay members of the Chaplaincy team. “We owe the richness of this material to the excellent cooperation of dozens of team members, both religious and lay over almost three decades,” explains Mrs. Rivasz-Tóth, deputy principal of the school and coordinator of the always changing Chaplaincy team.
Eventually, in 2021, Fr. László Elek SJ, then serving as a freshly ordained School Chaplain compiled the material and experience that have accumulated over the years. He emphasizes his gratitude to the thirteen authors, including Jesuits, religious sisters, and lay teachers.
‘Another significant group of people who have contributed to the creation of the book are the student peer leaders, members of the ‘Embers’ group, adds Fr. Elek, who got his MA in Boston College in pastoral theology, his field of study being the development of faith in adolescence. ‘The ‘Embers’ are students in the upper grades who have a desire to share their faith or enthusiasm with their schoolmates. The JEZSU Chaplaincy team has created a leadership training program for them that enables these mission-minded teens to lead small groups, go on missions to other schools and share their faith and love for the Lord. We can say that the JEZSU has developed a strong school retreat culture, and a methodology, to include all students at the same time. This culture, being solid and strong, consists of three always-changing, ever-growing elements: the Chaplaincy team, the organically developing retreat material and the ‘Embers’.”
The beauty of these school retreats lies in their versatility. The openness to Christian values is a prerequisite of admission to the school, so many of the children who are admitted, are able to see the value of the daily prayers, the Examen, Holy Eucharist and the two annual school retreats. However, with the increasing secularization of Hungarian society, the number of non-Catholic and non-religious children is growing among the student population. The retreats aim to offer something to all, may they be seekers or people with deep convictions, regardless of the ‘state of their faith’.
Teachers of the school all can be group leaders along with the Embers during a school retreat. ‘We need almost every staff member along with the ‘Embers’, as it is best to have smaller groups. Children find it easier to pray and open up in a small group”, says Fr Elek.
The Jesuit priest explains how such a mass retreat is done in the JEZSU. ‘The Chaplaincy team, together with the Embers, selects the topic of the retreat and creates the program for each age group. The two annual mass retreats are in Advent, and Lent, and the topic is something related to these seasons, to help the community prepare for the feast. The program always includes an assembly at the beginning, when the theme is introduced, then the small groups retreat to a small room or a corner of the campus and do their thing – prayer, sharing, drama, some creative work etc., and at the end the whole school assembles again for the Holy Mass or a closing prayer. Every child and every small group bring in what they made, and we literally may assemble something big out of the little things the children made during the creative time. All activities are gauged to the age and psychological development of the children; the youngest may play games and paint pictures, 14-year-olds may dramatize a Bible scene while 17–18-year-olds may meditate on Scripture and share about their hopes and fears.”
The Handbook has six retreat blueprints that one can simply print and distribute to the group leaders. “It tells the group leaders what to do and how to lead the retreat step-by-step. It compiles the experience we have gathered over 28 years, and even complete beginner group leaders can lead a retreat quite successfully just by following the tips and instructions. It is also a good idea to have a pre-retreat for just the group leaders so that they have a personal experience of the retreat before they lead it,” explains Fr Elek, now coordinator of the Ignatian Pedagogy Workshop, with the objective to propagate the ‘Embers’ and the retreat methodology to other Catholic schools in Hungary and beyond.
Using the methodology of this book any chaplaincy can streamline these retreats, adjust them to their own needs or create completely new ones, says Fr Elek. “We are hoping to start a new trend, a school retreat culture trend not only in Hungary but also abroad. The paperback is sold in the Jesuit bookstore, but the whole material is also available online, free of charge, both in Hungarian and English. Any school that would like to start an ‘Embers’ group, use these school retreats, or make new ones may contact us and we are happy to offer online or in person consultation and mentoring. Since the book’s publication in 2021 the first ‘Embers’ groups have already sprung up in a couple of Catholic high schools in Hungary: one in the capital, Budapest, the other in Győr. Now that the material is available in English as well, we hope the trend reaches other countries and continents as well.’