My First Service Retreat

I went on my first service retreat this weekend hosted by UChicago’s Catholic student group. About twenty students made the trek over to Our Lady of Angels mission on the west side (for those that don’t know, the site of the infamous 1959 school fire that killed 95 people). Catholics love their retreats, and I was glad to finally partake in one myself.

It was a short retreat, only an evening and morning, but I needed the space to refresh, recharge and refocus. Recently I’ve been a bit stressed over my thesis so this retreat was just the spiritually affirming experience that I needed. Friday night we had a time for Eucharistic adoration while journaling about our faith journeys, during which I wrote down this reflection:

Why am I Catholic?
-Peace. I found peace in the stillness before mass, the beauty of liturgy, the comforting atmosphere of the Blessed Sacrament.
-The intellectual tradition. I felt my faith and mind reconcile; it made sense, it had answers, though others may disagree.
-The joy. I met joyful Catholics, whose faith and life didn’t seem in conflict. They made me think , “This is what it means for faith to be seamlessly integrated into life.”
-The Eucharist. If it was real, how could I not want it?
-The authority. I needed authority in my life. I needed to know right from wrong.
-The freedom. The freedom of knowing right, a freedom that I don’t know how to explain. The freedom of knowing wrong, and always being able to ask for forgiveness, and receive a response. The freedom of knowing that when I ask for forgiveness something really does change in me.
-The saints. The true universality of our faith, that we are all bound in one body, and we share life in a way deeper than I can possibly understand.
-The accountability. I am challenged in my beliefs. The sense that faith is larger than me.
-The heart. The fact that service is at the front and center of what it means to be the Church.
-St. Augustine. An experience with a painting in an art gallery, that allowed me to see myself more clearly than I ever had before.
-I guess at the end of the day, I heard Jesus’ voice.

Post-adoration we split into small groups to share. In my group, a mixture of cradle Catholics and converts, we all felt led to share with each other about why we are Catholic. Everyone had a story; those I least expected had the most painful, and the most beautiful. The stories of changed lives brought by the light of hope, and of emerging from the other side of pain and suffering with faith moved us all. It amazed me that this collection of people from different walks of life, different backgrounds and different countries could be brought together so unexpectedly to reveal how much God had worked in each of our lives in ways so similar, so familiar. His hand that has comforted and guided me is the same hand that comforted and guided others through situations so far removed from my own experience.

The next morning commenced the service portion of our retreat. Up early for mass and breakfast, then it was time to get moving, preparing for the “mobile pantry.” The mobile pantry is an outdoor pantry the mission hosts each month, feeding about 250 families in the neighborhood. About 150 other volunteers and myself set out massive amounts of food, clothes, toys and housing supplies (we were also supposed to be giving away TVs but the truck broke down on the way there, so that will have to be saved for next time). We helped people bring groceries to their cars and homes, giving us the opportunity to chat for a bit. For the duration of the mobile pantry, volunteers took half hour shifts in prayer and adoration, praying for the community and the city. It was a COLD but beautiful morning. I think I was especially touched by all of the kid volunteers who were outside early on a frigid Saturday morning, uncomplaining and smiling.

Honestly, it was too short. Having a break from business as usual in a different setting really did wonders for my mental and emotional state. But what especially filled me was the community, and the acts of service.

I can’t thank the sisters of the mission enough for opening up their doors and providing such a welcoming space for us, and for being a haven in a city that I care deeply for.