The surprising way Catholic college retreats foster community and spiritual growth

4 mins read
Catholic College retreats
Adobe Stock

For many students, college is a significant life change, and a prominent point of transition. At Catholic colleges and universities throughout the country, retreats for incoming freshmen provide an important opportunity for the students to be grounded in community life, camaraderie, and most importantly, their Catholic faith.

Freshman year is pivotal, and retreats for freshmen can prove invaluable in helping them get oriented to the college experience. “The freshmen have a chance to better know themselves and to live in the truth, especially through good friendships and — we hope — through a heartfelt relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church,” said Father Joseph Hagan, O.P., Chaplain for Undergrad Formation at the Catholic University of America. The freshmen retreat at CUA is intended to help with this. “It’s a chance to get away from the distractions and stresses of our regular schedules, and to dedicate a time to prayer, community, and recollection,” Father Hagan said.

Back to school, back to confession

“We hope our retreat gives the freshman a chance to better understand who they are in light of the Father’s love, to decide what kind of friend they want to be, to experience Christ’s mercy in confession, and to worship the God whose love is everlasting.”

The retreat at CUA is voluntary and for incoming freshmen. Typically around 200-250 student take part, which is about a third of the freshman class. The retreat takes place at a campground on Chesapeake Bay, which allows for both outdoor recreation and quiet reflection.

Student leaders take charge

Michael Ellison participated in the retreat as an incoming freshman in 2021, and has also served on the leadership team each year since. Now a junior, he is a philosophy major with a theology minor. “It is highly important to provide retreats to college freshmen because they are a wonderful way to not only become introduced to the school and its culture, but also provide an experience that allows the freshmen to come together and make memories, leading to new friendships and a sense of connectedness once they return to campus,” Ellison said.

Michael Ellison
Michael Ellison

His experience leading the retreats has been rewarding. “It is honestly just very fun and spiritually fulfilling to work on these retreats and minister to the freshmen,” he said.

Ellison said that CUA’s retreats are set apart from those of other schools in several ways. First, they are entirely student-led, with campus ministers and retreat leaders taking charge. Second, the influence of the Dominican friars and other campus ministry staff members “bring such a distinctive and unique spirituality and mindset to the retreat, resulting in an experience that is fun, thought-provoking, and enriching,” Ellison said. Lastly, the retreat isn’t just a weekend away from classes; “It is a weekend with a mission, to bring students toward each other and Christ, and serves as an introduction to our entire campus culture, a culture of community guided by our motto, Deus Lux mea est.”

Building connections

Providence College has been welcoming freshmen to its Rhode Island campus for over a century. Jessica Sullivan, a senior Elementary/Special Education major and philosophy minor, now helps lead the retreats which help orient freshmen to the Providence experience.

“The purpose of a freshmen retreat is to welcome freshmen and introduce them to each other and to the Faith,” Sullivan said. “Many freshmen come from a faith background (which has drawn them to this retreat) and many are still learning about the Faith, but each and every freshman entering college has the choice to pursue faith on their own accord, and freshmen retreats introduce what a life of faith in college looks like.”

Read more Fall Catholic college articles here.

The retreat is referred to as “The Connections Retreat”, because it is about more than orienting students to campus life. The intention is that freshmen will make connections with each other outside of the busy college environment, planting the seeds for deep and meaningful friendships with their peers, Sullivan said.

All of the retreats at Providence College rest upon the basis of faith. The structure of the retreats revolves around celebration of the holy Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, and talks from the retreat leaders about their faith journey. The freshman retreat gives focus to the transition into college and getting to know the people around you, Sullivan said. “While faith grounds the purpose of the retreat, the Connections Retreat allows room for team-building activities, advice for transitioning into a brand new environment, and time to learn about your peers and who you are in Christ,” she said.

Learning to navigate life

The Connections Retreat allows students to minister to their fellow students on how to navigate a life of faith on a college campus, Sullivan said. “We share our honest experiences with each other, lead each other in meaningful conversation, and inspire each other to be better.” The retreat also opens the door to involvement in campus ministry, inviting freshmen to explore each of the ministries available in the hopes that they will join, or even lead, those ministries. “This retreat is set apart from others for its friar spirit, enthusiasm, and the deep and meaningful connections that are with the friars,” Sullivan said.

“The purpose of a freshman retreat is to help grow their relationship with God as they are entering a new phase of life: going to college,” said Adam Aguiar, sophomore Management major and retreat leader. “Especially with Providence College, a freshman retreat introduces the freshmen to the Dominican friars and current students, who provide an insight into having a faith life on campus but also practicing the faith with and like the Dominicans.”

The presence of the Dominicans also adds an element of catechetical instruction to the retreats. It “allows students to ask them questions they may have about the Faith or faith-related topics,” Aguiar said. “Having the friars on this retreat allows the students to build a friendship with them that will continue throughout their four years at Providence College.”

Paul Senz

Paul Senz writes from Oklahoma.