Young adults and families gathered at La Torretta Resort to reconnect with God on September 30th through October 2nd. The event, Encounter: Houston, began Friday night with a music festival and a few talks to kick-off the conference. On Saturday, there were opportunities for confession and quiet prayer in a Eucharistic adoration chapel, as well as three major talks to help the young people re-kindle their faith and love for God. These talks created a theme for the conference, and included the following topics: Freedom to Truly Live, Authentic Community, and Intimacy with God.
Freedom to Truly Live
“Whatever you got, we need it today,” said Brian Greenfield, speaker for the first talk at the conference. “There’s power in each and every one of you.” Greenfield encouraged his audience to be authentically themselves, even though there is temptation to do otherwise. We want everyone to see the best of ourselves, even if it’s not our real self, explained Greenfield. He went on to describe that we often have a “pool mentality”. “I don’t have a beach body,” Greenfield said laughing. He described how he and many others feel the need to “suck it in” at the pool, even to the point of muscle ache and becoming tired. “In life, you can only suck it in until you get exhausted.”
Greenfield went on to explain that, like Adam and Eve, we often struggle to be the “God of our own lives.” After his conversion, Greenfield was enthusiastic and gave his life to God. The speaker shared that even he struggled with the desires of life and pressures to provide as a husband and a father. “I gave my life to God, but everything is supposed to be okay,” he said. “I took my life back.”
However, after a terrible car accident with his family, Greenfield found himself in a situation where he had no money, no family nearby to help, and no strength to handle the situation. “All I could do was sit,” he explained. “And I think that’s the answer.” He relates this experience to the story of Martha and Mary, where Martha was busying herself, trying to do everything right and be in control. Mary, however, sits. “That’s how we find freedom…acceptance of God’s plan.”
Greenfield presented another challenge to the young adults: Do we have enough strength and knowledge to say that there is a God, but I’m not Him? “None of us are strong enough to do it on our own,” Greenfield admitted, emphasizing the need to go and pray for God the Father to help us. We can go through life and work hard, said Greenfield, but know that we have a Father who cares for us.
After having time to attend workshops and browse the volunteer tables, the young adults re-gathered for the second presentation by Emily Wilson. She began her presentation with a rather unusual topic: geese. “They’re crazy, but awesome,” said Wilson, explaining that these unpredictable birds can teach much about community. In addition to affecting each of us, the Fall of Man affected our relationship with each other, reminded Wilson. She emphasized the importance of working towards repairing our relationship with our fellow man.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. (John 13:34)
Wilson quoted this verse from John’s gospel and explained that we can even turn a simple fact, like geese flying south for the winter, and learn how to be better Christians in our community. “We choose friends who are heading in the same direction,” she explained, emphasizing the importance of choosing friends who are also aiming for Heaven. “It’s hard if people don’t care about getting there…I need to surround myself with people who will help me get there.”
Just as geese fly in a V-formation to help each other by providing an uplift, so should those in our community help us in our greatest need. Wilson relayed a personal story of when her mother struggled with cancer. While the Wilson family became tired during this difficult time, her parish rushed to help. “The parish community came and flew in front of us,” Wilson described. “This is why we need others and real community.”
Wilson admitted that today, communities often seem disjointed or even non-existent. She explained the danger of saying that you don’t need fellowship at one’s parish. “We’re not complete in and of ourselves,” she said. Intimacy and vulnerability is what makes churches living and breathing places, Wilson added. However, there are a lot of roadblocks to intimacy, as people are broken and don’t want to be uncomfortable. Social media and the over-sexualization of the culture also make it hard to connect with others genuinely. “We make it difficult for people to come in and love us,” Wilson said.
To build real relationships and community, we will have to become uncomfortable, open and honest, challenged Wilson. It’s important to invest in vulnerability and take down any roadblocks we’ve built up to prevent others from entering into our lives. Excuses often become a challenge. “I don’t want give people the opportunity to hurt me,” said Wilson, describing a common excuse. However, no matter the excuse, humans were not made for isolation or shallowness. “We have to love others and let others love us,” declared Wilson. “No one said life with Christ was easy, otherwise everyone would be doing it.” Wilson closed her talk with a quote from Dorothy Day, emphasizing the relationship between Christ and community:
We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet, and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.
Intimacy with God
Michael Gormley gave the final talk at the conference on intimacy with God, prior to Eucharistic adoration. He began with the garden of Eden, where Adam was given the command to till the earth and guard the garden. Recounting the Fall, Gormley explained that the devil’s plan was to have us look at the limits of freedom and the burdens of obedience. The serpent is attempting to make us lose our trust in God. “God is asking us for trust,” Gormley said.
Gormley continued by giving a new perspective on the story of the Fall. Gormley proposed that Eve, focusing on the limits of her freedom, only saw the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil before her. “If Eve had turned around, she would have seen the Tree of Life,” Gormley reflected. Our choices can lead us to either life or death, but it is the moral decision that leads beyond reality, and leads to a relationship. “Eve severed that relationship,” said Gormley, sharing that Eve committed an infinite offense due to self-centeredness. This is not unlike today, where we live in an altruistic society, as we continue to talk about ourselves.
However, we as human beings go one step further. “Don’t pretend for an instance that this idolatry isn’t in our hearts; we just don’t know it…and that is the most deceptive we can possibly be,” declared Gormley. While idols today can take many forms, whether it be careers, money or sex, Gormley warns us that there are two things we need to know about false gods: 1) They are never satisfied even though they always demand sacrifice, and 2) they cannot love you. “People are on their death beds, and they don’t say ‘if only I had worked 50 more hours this week.’ They are crying because they wish they spent more time with their families.”
However, there is hope for us, as God has not abandoned us despite our tendency to idol-worship. “When in the garden, Adam and Eve had done such a terrible thing, where they broke their relationship with their Father, our Father did not break our relationship with us,” reminded Gromley. “He cursed the serpent, and promised us a Redeemer.” As God had ransomed us and redeemed us, we cannot win our salvation, but we have to accept it. “You do not save yourselves,” said Gromley. “And we need to repent of our own schemes to self-justification to make ourselves look better in our own eyes.” Re-emphasizing that salvation cannot be bought or self-attained, Gromley reminded the audience: it is not based on what we’ve done, but on what Christ did for us.
Recognizing that the young people gathered come from different places in their spiritual lives, Gromley encouraged the young adults to surrender themselves to Christ. “Jesus Christ is knocking on the door to your heart. He’s a gentleman who knocks. It’s his heart, he made it, and he could walk right in. But he knocks…he wants to be your companion.”
Gromley recalled that Christ even goes beyond this; Christ becomes a cure for us, and dies on the “Tree of Death”. “God is in the business of transformation, He can take the tree of death…and turn it into the tree of life. He can take bread into His hands and wine and say a blessing and giving thanks, transform it into His Body and Blood,” said Gromley. “He can even take this idiot like me, who struggled with habitual sin his whole life, and turn him into this fine specimen you see before you today,” finished Gromley, evoking a laugh from the audience. As the time for Eucharistic adoration approached, Gromley challenged the young people with a question to ponder during the next hour: Am I ready to commit? Am I ready to commit my entire heart to Christ? “Our God is in the business of transformation…do you want that for yourself?”
Following the three themes of Saturday, the young people gathered as a community to pray in front of Christ in the Eucharist, with the opportunity to surrender themselves to Christ so as to be transformed by him. Closing the conference with prayer and community and social time afterwards truly fulfilled the mission of the Encounter Conferences: “to gather Catholic Young Adults and draw them into an encounter with Jesus.”
Encounter: Houston was sponsored by Adore Ministries. To learn more about Encounter Conferences, please visit www.steubenvilleconferences.com/enc/.