A Fire at St.Gabriel's

On Tuesday evening, June 9th 1999, the main retreat house building of St. Gabriel's Spiritual Center for Youth on Shelter Island, New York, was set on fire by an arsonist. The building is almost totally destroyed; the police are investigating. Thank God, no one was in the building when the fire was started. But beyond the loss of a building, I feel a spiritual loss: so many young people planned to come to St.Gabriel's next season. Now they will not have the advantages of this holy place.

St.Gabriel's, sponsored by the Passionists of St. Paul of the Cross Province, has been a holy place for thousands of teenagers each year. I have seen God's grace working its gentle way, over an over, in the young people who come here. And during retreats I have experienced the Passion of Jesus in them, as they turn to God and God turns to them. Sometimes I feel like a bystander in the crowd watching it all. At other times I'm like Veronica or Simon, expressing compassion in whatever way I can.

Let me tell you some of their stories.

Stories from St. Gabriels

A few Saturdays ago, I was up in the Chapel preparing a talk when a teenage boy, a weekend retreatant, came into the Chapel. He sat in the last pew in the Chapel. After a few moments passed, the silence was broken, at first by vague sounds of crying, which eventually led to deep heart-wrenching sobs that filled the Chapel.

That is not unusual at St.Gabriel's.

Often we find young people, like Veronica, wiping the faces of each other. During our night prayer opening each retreat, we invite each teenager to come up to the altar and light a candle, after sharing with the group where they find peace or what it is that unsettles them.

On one particular night, the service had concluded and the teens laid left the Chapel. I was just about to blow out their candles, when the Chapel door opened. Three youngsters, two boys and a girl, entered the Chapel. One of the boys walked right down the aisle into the sanctuary and got himself a chair and placed it right in front of all the candles. He sat down, put his head in his hands and then started to cry.

His friend stood right next to him with his hand on his shoulder. All of a sudden in the midst of the tears, the boy started talking to his friend. These were his words: "I've tried so hard. I've looked all over, but I just can't find a father image. I so need a father."

I didn't know what to do with myself; I couldn't leave them alone in the Chapel, but I felt I was intruding on a very intimate and sacred conversation between God and a couple of friends.

The tears and conversation continued about 10 minutes and the young friend would bend over and wipe the tears from his friend's face and give him a hug. After awhile, the boy stopped crying, lit a candle, got up, put his chair away, gave a hug to the girl and then left the Chapel. The boy and girl then knelt down together in front of the candles and prayed silently.

Isn't this the Passion of Jesus; young people, like Veronica in the 6th Station, reaching out to Jesus in one another?

The Seventh Station: Jesus Falls the Second Time

There are so many stumbling blocks for teens today. As one young girl expressed to me, "No matter how hard I try, I just can't get my act together." Rape, incest and the lack of healthy family structures cause kids to question. Who are they? Who can they trust? And, yes, and, is there really a God?

Our challenge is to accompany them in their pain in a way that will enable them to find or experience God in it, through it and in spite of it.

Some of our youth struggle for the basic needs of lifeÐ food, shelter and clothingÐ while others struggle to be the best in everything, so that they can get into the best college, so they wont disappoint parents or their own expectation of themselves. Whether it is for survival or success, the fear of failure carries a lot of pain. Isn't this is the living passion of Jesus?

The Tenth Station: Jesus Is Stripped of His Garments

Too many teens today are being stripped, stripped of their dignity, stripped of self esteem and, sad to say, stripped of their youth. One Saturday night, as we gathered in the Chapel for our reconciliation service, I noticed the young girl in the pew in front of me was rather agitated. The girl next to her turned and asked me if her friend could leave the Chapel, because she needed to relieve herself. Of course I said, and thought nothing more of it until I got back to the retreat house. For some reason, I happened to go to the refrigerator outside my office. To my surprise, I found three small bottles of mother's milk. Then I knew why the girl was having discomfort and had to leave the Chapel.

The next morning, I saw the same girl running up and down the beach, collecting shells to take home in a plastic soda bottle with its tip cut off. A child and a mother, at 16. An example of lost innocence. So many secrets are in their wounded hearts. Isn't this the Passion of Jesus?

At St. Gabriel's, especially during the night, our little Chapel on the hill seems to become for our teen retreatants a true sanctuary, where they find freedom, release and healing from the deep pain so many of them endure. I think they find God's special presence here. I have to admit that many times I am overwhelmed with the feelings of pain that permeates our Chapel.

What do we, the retreat team, do when the pain comes forth? Well, we do lots and lots of praying, and trust in the Holy Spirit that we will know how to respond. Often we simply sit there with these young people. Usually words are few. We probably put an arm around their shoulder, perhaps hold their hands, and when it seems appropriate, give them a hug. Our hope and prayer is that our presence will provide them with some tangible assurance that they are not alone and, especially in what is for them a very vulnerable hour, that someone does care. Perhaps we can be Veronica and Simon for them.

Personally, I continue to experience the passion of Jesus in them and I have come to believe and trust in a God who cries with us. This is the God I want to present to teenagers because for so many of their questions and dilemmas there are no ready and easy answers. "Why the pain?" .... "Why do my friends die?" .... "Why is there so much violence?" .... "Why am I so troubled?" .... "Why can't I find peace?"

So many of these young people who come to St. Gabriel's are the suffering, the crucified of today, whom Jesus accompanies on their way to Calvary.

The Shelter Island Passionists, our retreat team and the staff of St. Gabriel's Spiritual Center for Youth, hear a call to experience the Passion of Jesus among the youth of today.

I hope we can rebuild soon.

Sister Maureen Kervick, SSJ, is the Executive Director of St. Gabriel's Spiritual Center for Youth on Shelter Island, NY.



Crucifix photo credit: Bread on the Waters

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