Letters from Missionaries
Alondra Almader, Servant Leader
Recently, I met a student who seemed like an average high school student on retreat. Once we started giving our talks on the retreat, I noticed he was acting differently. He seemed nervous and a little anxious. I felt that God was letting me know something was going on with him and to check on him.
When there was a break, I asked him if he was okay; he was honest and said, “No, there is so much that is going on right now.” We began to talk, and he shared that he was going through a really hard time. He had been feeling alone, failing school and struggling with drug addiction and vaping. He mentioned that the last thing he wanted to do is be on a church retreat, but as the retreat went on, he quickly realized that he needed it.
It came time to pray one-on-one together, and it was a powerful moment when he felt God the Father calling him back to himself. He said he wanted to quit drugs and tell his parents right after the retreat what was going on. He even shared with his youth minister what he was struggling with. By the end of the retreat he was joyful and amazed at how God had been leading him to this retreat to be filled with the courage to change and come back to His mercy.
As I look back to who I was before SPIRITUS, I see that Jesus had always put in my heart a desire to serve His people. Through SPIRITUS, I have been taught how to do that. This year has been a heart-stretching time. I feel God has made my heart bigger to encompass those around me. SPIRITUS has helped me be comfortable with loving complete strangers. It has changed the way I see the people around me as I more easily see how much God is after their hearts and how much He longs for us because I have experienced Him coming after me and longing for me through the deep prayer we have as missionaries. This ministry has been like an outlet of sharing His love and the Good News, and I only hope to continue to live this.
Gabriel Ogle, Servant Leader
We often see students who don’t want to be on retreat, only to awaken to God’s loving presence as we engage them in prayer and a life with Christ. One example of this is a young lady I worked with recently. She was shy and unsure of herself at the beginning of her Confirmation retreat, keeping to herself. After the retreat was over, however, she approached me and told me how she was affected by my personal story of getting to know the Lord. She said that hearing about my own struggles in life and faith had inspired her to seek the Lord through her own difficulties. She told me “Know that today you had such an impact on at least one person. You changed my life. Thank you!” It is truly a blessing to have so many encounters like this one, students who receive a taste of the Lord’s love and grace on our retreats. I am privileged to help lead them in opening their hearts and giving themselves to Jesus Christ.
I also have experienced a deeper conversion of heart this year. Jesus has been reaching out to me, drawing me nearer to His heart. My prayer has been asking Christ to reveal Himself to me, to which He has responded with grace in no short supply! I am still just beginning to learn how to love as Jesus does. Though I am always aware of my own weakness, the Lord is readily reminding me of His unyielding love for me. I have been increasingly firmly rooted in my identity as the Heavenly Father’s beloved son, and the more I live in this truth, the more open I am to relying on Him.
Megan Seamann, Servant Leader
I had a student in a small group on a Confirmation retreat recently. He came late because he totally forgot about the retreat and was planning on going into work that morning. He was honest in saying that he would rather be at work than at the retreat. His comments in the beginning were mostly negative, but he was at least sharing--some students choose not to share at all. He mentioned that his dad had passed away when he was younger, and, as he shared, I could see the woundedness that it had caused him.
Later, when we had a chance to pray one-on-one together, I asked if I could also pray for healing from losing his father. He was surprised but said I could. I felt a tug by the Holy Spirit to give this student permission to talk to his dad in the form of prayer. I explained to him that it could be similar to the guided meditation that we prayed earlier to talk to Jesus, but instead I told him he could imagine talking to his dad. Before he left at the end of the day, he came up to hug me and thank me for walking with him during the retreat. He said that he was actually glad he came on retreat instead of work that day.
With all the formation we are receiving, I can see how it is not only applicable to the mission we are serving now but also to helping people to be strong and faithful parishioners at a parish. God has stirred up a desire within me to continue to serve the Church and His youth after I have completed this mission year. I am currently looking into finding a youth ministry position where I can continue to ignite the faith in Catholic youth. Jesus has also helped me to recognize the ways He was preparing me before I had any desire to be a missionary. I have been able to reach out to some of those people who truly inspired me to say “Yes” to the missionary call and thank them for all the ways that they were teaching me to be a missionary disciple.
Abbie Arribe, Youth Ministry Intern
We receive so much formation throughout the year from many amazing people. We learn about many interesting topics--from the different types of anger to learning the beautiful journey of Mary in the Passion. We also have book discussions as a team. This has given me new perspectives on things. One book that has impacted me is called “Girl, Arise!” by Claire Swinarski. This book has made me feel empowered as a Catholic woman. Something that really struck me as I was reading was how women are commonly portrayed as fragile tea cups. I have learned that teacups are actually very strong. They are meant to take heat. This was something that I was really struggling with. A lot of the time, women are seen as little and fragile but, in reality, God has created us to be strong. As I learned more about the strength of womanhood, I became ready to tackle my brokenness.
I wanted my heart to grow stronger as well. I will be truthful with you, my friend; I came to SPIRITUS really struggling with forgiveness. There were things in my life that I wanted to forget. I thought that “forgetting” was the best solution to my problems. However, I noticed that “forgetting” was only building a wall around my heart. It was also building up anger and resentment in my heart. I thought that I was doing a pretty good job with forgetting, but God had other plans for me. They were pretty funny plans actually…in a weird turn of events I was asked to give a session on forgiveness. I learned through this session that what I had to do with my brokenness was to forgive, to forgive myself and others as well. To truly let go, not just forget. Truly forgiving has helped me to love those around me more. It has helped me to live more freely. I no longer hold onto anger and resentment. I have surrendered my brokenness to God’s endless mercy.
Desireé Barron, Retreat Team
There is a particular student that comes to mind who began their retreat as an atheist, but throughout the small groups and one-on-one discussion, I witnessed a heart that was slowly opening to the truth. Light started to break through in this student’s soul, and they were realizing the reality of God. By the end of the retreat, this student became convinced of the True Presence in the Eucharist and the existence of God. I felt so humbled and privileged to be the carrier of God’s truth to this student and will be praying for their new journey of faith! It is through encounters like these that I realize how blessed I am to be a part of a mission that so effectively plants the seeds of God’s love in the youth of Wisconsin and strengthens the faith of those who have already met Him!
A theme that God has placed in my life this year is trust. In both big and little ways, He has been calling me to trust Him, unreservedly, with everything. And in that trust, there has been nothing but joy to be found.
I recently received a medical diagnosis of Hodgkin's Lymphoma cancer that left me free falling into the arms of the Father. When I got the news and learned that frequent doctor visits were about to be a prominent part of my daily life, I was faced with two choices. The first was to despair and ask God why He would allow hardship in my life. The second was to accept such a beautiful cross with joy and thank God for the amazing graces that he is pouring into my life through it. And I knew in my heart that trusting was the only way that God’s light could shine through, so I choose to trust.
This new cross has provided a beautiful avenue of service to others and has given me a new path on which I can share compassion, love and hopefulness in ways that were never possible for me before. This challenge, which is so often treated as a loss, has been such a beautiful victory in my life. If Christ embraced His cross out of love for me, how can I do anything but embrace mine with a joyful heart? How sweet a privilege it truly is to be allowed to suffer alongside Jesus Himself! What greater hope can there be in this life? By trusting Him, I have learned that there is nothing to fear, and nothing to be lost.
Andy Chmura, Youth Ministry Intern
On a recent retreat, the other youth ministry interns and I were doing a retreat for all our parishes combined. I had a small group of five boys, all of whom I had met previously. It was nice to see them again, but most really did not want to be on this retreat. They felt pressured to go for one reason or another.
It's hard to say at what point the shift took place. Maybe it was during the first couple witnesses. Maybe during holy hour. Maybe at another time. I’m not sure. But what I do know is this: I went upstairs in the middle of the night to make sure my boys were in bed, only to find all five of them sitting in a circle together having their own small group. I joined in shortly after and we just continued talking about the Catholic faith late into the night. It was an amazing moment for all of us, and one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen over the course of the entire year. They proceeded to have an incredible retreat experience. Needless to say, they were no longer wondering if it was worth going.
I also have found new life with Jesus this year, and my life has been forever changed. I just love being in an authentically Catholic setting 24/7, surrounded by people who legitimately love Christ. I’ve never been exposed to this before. It’s been very positive for my own faith life because the Catholic faith is ingrained in every part of our lives here at SPIRITUS, ranging from daily Mass to Holy Hour to living in a community with two priests in a rectory.
Joseph Hinshaw, Retreat Team
We’ve had some beautiful surprises on retreats during which certain things opened the students’ minds and hearts further to God. For example, we watched a scene from Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ, and one of the students in my small group said that it was one of his favorite parts of the retreat because it got him asking questions. Another student said that in the prayer time we had after the movie, she was asking Jesus, “Why would You do this for me?” I’m not sure if either of those students originally didn’t want to be on that retreat, but I definitely think the time of watching the Passion helped them to do more thinking. It was great that they took the movie seriously and that at least one student got pretty deep with the prayer time after the movie.
There have also been things this year that have been blessings for my growth. Something that affected me was on one retreat when we had one-on-one prayer time and a few of the students were emotional and open about the heavy burdens they were carrying. While it was a good experience to be able to be there for them while they were going through struggles, it was also a heartbreaking experience for me to hear what they said. I think that experience helped strengthen a sense in me of wanting to help others, of really caring about the youth. That time in one-on-one prayer further confirmed for me that I want to continue to do work in ministry because I want to help people. I don’t want to simply help them through struggles; I want to lead them to God, who is truly the only One who can grant them what they need.
Andrew Hollands, Retreat Team
Praise God! As busy as things were, I found myself continuing through the mission with joy and perseverance. I pray that the seeds I planted will produce fruit greater than I can imagine, simply by having connected with each student and giving each a better understanding of God’s love and mercy.
Anytime I’ve encountered a student reluctant to be on retreat, I noticed a kind of change in them, which makes it clear to me that their understanding of the retreat is better than they thought. I trust, with the help of Christ, that any seed planted will be received and bear fruit. One of the most positive examples of this change happening was after a student came to me for our one-on-one prayer. He hugged me after the prayer and, before leaving, thanked me and the other missionaries just for the work we do. Things got even better when, before concluding Adoration with Benediction, he gestured for me to come next to him, put a hand on my shoulder and said “my turn.” He wanted to pray over me. I believe that that young man is called to do great things as a missionary disciple!
Claire Kalaus, Youth Ministry Intern
I was on a retreat where a student told me in a small group that she was an atheist. As we talked more, it became more evident that this student was really confused about the Catholic faith and what society believes. She was really struggling to have the two coincide. During the prayer time with her, we got to talk about what she believes about the Catholic church and what society tells us. We also got to dive deeper into how we can have a relationship with God even through what we see and hear in the media.
Before SPIRITUS, prayer was definitely a part of my life. I didn’t know, however, just how deep my relationship with Jesus could be. During the weekdays on SPIRITUS, we try to have a holy hour every day. This was something that challenged me for a little while, but now it is something that I look forward to. What I have learned this year more than ever is to let go and just be in the presence of Christ. He has also invited me to lean on Him and trust Him. This is only possible because of the deep relationship I have entered into. I am really excited to continue to grow deeper in my faith and relationship with Christ.
Collin Killoren, Retreat Team
As I was praying with a high school student, he told me about his older brother. They had a great relationship but grew distant after his older brother made some poor decisions. Two years later, as his brother is recovering from the consequences of those decisions, the student wants to rekindle their relationship. Having lost my brother when I was six, I encouraged him not to waste this opportunity; his brother likely needs him now more than ever. He then told me that this was the first time he told another person about this struggle. I gently reminded him that he could talk to his parents about this struggle: when he lost his brother and they lost their son. He was very emotional during this conversation, and after I prayed with him, I gave him a big hug.
Another time, while on a middle school retreat, I prayed with a ten-year-old girl. She talked about her parents’ divorce. Her younger sister was now old enough to understand why her mom and dad were not always together. What she went through two years ago, her younger sister is going through now. I affirmed her as a great big sister and prayed that this divorce would not shape her view of marriage negatively.
The spiritual life has always been a struggle for me. I have come to think I am experiencing spiritual desolation. God feels far away. Prayer and other spiritual exercises are dry, difficult, and unappealing. The formation and spiritual exercises prescribed by leadership has been extremely helpful. Rather than backing off, the recommendation for navigating spiritual desolation is to go deeper into the spiritual exercises. Given what I am experiencing, SPIRITUS is the best place for me.
Alex Lupercio, Retreat Team
We often see students who don’t want to be on retreat, only to awaken to God’s loving presence as we engage them in prayer and a life with Christ. One example that I will remember for the rest of my life was with a particularly quiet small group from a couple of weeks ago, all of whom had been forced to go to their faith formation classes and to their Confirmation retreat. This meant that I had to do a lot more talking than usual during our small group time because they just didn't answer my questions. But then, I opened it up for them to ask me questions. I told them nothing was off the table…and they bombarded me. For most of their questions, I was able to answer fairly quickly and without trouble.
Then there came a question to which I didn't really have an answer, and the fact that I was honest with them about that really struck them. I told them that even I, a "perfect" missionary, didn't have an answer for them. Here I was trying to sound like I knew a lot about my faith, but the thing that struck them most was that I didn't have the answers to everything. It made me realize that what a lot of these students need nowadays is to know that they don't have to know all the answers. They don't need to be "perfect.” God loves us even in our brokenness and imperfection.
The biggest way I have encountered Jesus this year has been through community. I had such a good Catholic community back home at the Chico Newman Center that I feared it wouldn’t be the same over here. Boy, was I wrong! Living with people with the same views and mission has been one of the greatest gifts of this whole year. Being able to witness everyone grow closer to Jesus has strengthened my faith even more.
Christina Marchel, Youth Ministry Intern
Some of these students are going through a really tough time in life. There was this one particular student who I could tell wasn’t enjoying the retreat, so when it came to one-on-one prayer, I asked her how it was going. She didn’t want to tell me at all, so we just prayed. After we prayed, I asked her again how it was going, and she opened up to me a little. I prayed with her again, and her heart was much happier after that, knowing someone was there and saw the beauty in her! These students need encouragement, someone who is there for them. It’s such a blessing to me to be able to be there for the students. We tell them and show them that they are loved. They are very surprised to have some random person who has never met them before love them for who they are.
At the beginning of the year, I hardly knew who I was or what I was even capable of (who knew I would be able to love these students so much and show them they are loved!). I wasn’t very confident in many things, but now, I know more of who I am and what all I am capable of doing. I may have known deep within my heart all of what I could do, but actually putting it into practice was a different story. I now know I can lead retreats, be in front of many people and talk, and find out a bit about the students to know where they are at in their faith life to be able to help them.
I have found new life with Jesus this year, and my life has been forever changed.
Kelsey Overland, Retreat Team
We often see students who don’t want to be on retreat, only to awaken to God’s loving presence as we engage them in prayer and a life with Christ. I remember in particular one high school student who really wanted to make sure I was aware of the fact that she did not want to be there and had no intention of taking the retreat seriously. Throughout the day, it became clear to me that she was carrying a lot of wounds in her heart. Whenever I asked about how she felt on the topics being discussed, she would make a joke instead of offering an answer.
When the time came for one-on-one prayer, I asked her how she felt about praying with me. She talked about how she doesn’t really read the Bible or care about her faith. After speaking for a while about how she doesn’t have a relationship with God, I stopped her. I looked her in the eyes and said “You have been waiting all day for me to reject you, but I need you to know that won’t happen. I accept you and so does God. He is your Father who wants to love you and be let into your heart.” As soon as I spoke those words to her she started to cry and said that she really had been waiting for me to grow tired of her complaining throughout the day.
The beautiful thing about our ministry is that God is calling us to the students who don’t want to be there. They have something keeping them from Him, and, a lot of the time, it is all lies. As soon as this student understood just how unconditional love can be, she changed. She started paying attention to talks and participating in small groups. Watching her heart change also reaffirmed my own trust in the Lord’s love.
It is through everything I have learned as a missionary and in all of the ways I have grown that I can say I am ready to live a happy and successful life. The Lord has shown me how to fight for goodness instead of settling for emptiness. It’s funny, as I reflect on this past year, I think I have learned just as much about the Lord as the youth we encounter. What a beautiful thing it is to know that no matter how old we get or how deep into our faith we become, the Lord still fights for us. We never outgrow our need for our Heavenly Father, and He will always pursue our hearts. No matter what.
Ali Prekker, Retreat Team
We often see students who are hesitant to be on retreat, but soon watch them grow as we engage them in prayer and a life with Christ. A great example of this was during one-on-one prayer with a middle school girl about a month ago. She had all kinds of energy and was full of random comments. It clicked really fast that there were sincere questions on her heart and that she was testing the waters to see how much attention I’d truly give her. She was questioning if I would actually listen to her comments and ideas or shrug them off like so many others had in her life. (This is one reason I love being a missionary; the kids that struggle the most are the ones that capture my heart!) It was later in the afternoon, and I saved her for last for one-on-one prayer. If there was extra time, I was determined to spend it with her listening to whatever was on her heart.
She started off by asking how I had made it through middle school and high school, digging deep into how did I stay true to the faith and how did I find true friends. She was so bubbly and outgoing that it was absolutely beautiful, but she was struggling to find friends who believed the same things and could handle all of her energy and zeal. For a while, we talked about that and how her zest for life was actually a very powerful gift. That helped us dive deeper into her faith-related questions: what we believe, why we believe it, and a lot about Mass. We talked about ourselves and the faith, and she also asked about life as a missionary.
She walked away from the retreat feeling so much more joyful and alive, having received answers, having had a good conversation where she felt heard, and knowing that she has gifts and talents that are beautifully unique to her. She was my best buddy by the end of the day, and she’ll forever hold a special place in my heart.
I have also found new life with Jesus this year, and my life has been changing because of it. I’ve learned how to pray way more in depth over the seven months we’ve been here, and I’ve been experiencing Jesus in new ways because of this. On retreat one day, one small group asked if they could have one-on-one prayer up in the choir loft. I went up occasionally to check on them, and the last time I went up, I sat down in the back for a moment and just glanced at the Tabernacle. It was beautiful to see if from above. I was quickly, totally, and fully enraptured, and a new thirst blossomed inside. I truly wanted Jesus like I never had before. I didn’t know how and I couldn’t explain why, but this deep desire was suddenly all I wanted and cared about. My heart was yearning in a way I didn’t know was even possible. Jesus has definitely been at work showing me new, beautiful things about Himself and my life with Him.