For two decades, the youth at Holy Apostles Catholic Church have taken time at the end of the summer to regroup before the start of the school year. This summer’s retreat at the Alton Jones campus of the University of Rhode Island took place on Aug. 4 and 5 and marked the 20-year anniversary for the retreat. The event had nearly 100 youth in attendance ranging in age from those entering freshman year of high school through those heading into their senior year of college. “Part of the goal of this retreat is to get everyone together before school starts, but it also serves as a springboard for our programs,” said Michael Santilli, Director of Religious Education and Youth Ministry Coordinator for the church. “The students remain faithful to the yearlong activities and this event is the beginning event, setting the pace for the year.”
Teen events throughout the year include, but are not limited to, sleepouts for a cause, teen nights, teen choir sessions, bake sales, winter Olympics, and a day trip to New York City. A select number of teens also choose to participate in a yearly mission trip to Jamaica each summer as well.
The retreat itself is voluntary, although the freshmen students are able to use it as a requirement for their confirmation, and this year’s retreat theme was one that the youth participants could certainly relate to. “Keep the streak” was a take on the popular SnapChat streak, and challenged the participants to stay in daily contact with Jesus Christ and the church. “Just as teens view SnapChat and technology as part of their daily lives, we discussed the importance of keeping God as part of our daily lives, the obstacles that prevent us from doing that and creative ways to keep that contact alive and a priority,” Santilli said.
Participant Michael Stabile, a junior at LaSalle Academy, agreed.
“The idea behind the theme was that kids our age are preoccupied with technology the priority is maintaining our streaks with our friends,” said Stabile. “We talked about how important it is to keep our faith with Christ and prayer and spend less time on social media and more time on our faith. On Sunday morning, the last activity reinforced that priority, and reminded us that when we leave and go throughout the year, to remember to keep the streak with our faith, especially when it might not be so easy when we’re with our friends.”
Anthony Simeone, a senior at the University of Rhode Island, just attended his ninth retreat.
“Growing up, going to church wasn’t really optional, it was part of what our family did,” he said. “The first time I went to the retreat I was a freshman and it was required. The experience made me want to keep coming back. I went on the mission trip when I was a senior in high school and the following year I was a table leader at that retreat. After that I was off to college.” Santilli asked Simeone to return to the retreat after his first year of college, this time in a supervisory role. “It was good to see kids who were once like me,” Simeone said of that experience. “Every year we have more and more kids coming and we have different themes every year.”
Cranston West Junior Rachael Perrotta has enjoyed coming to the retreat for several years, but said that initially she wasn’t looking forward to it. “Freshman year I wasn’t happy when we were driving over, but then we got there and realized it wasn’t bad at all,” she said. “A big part of Holy Apostles is the community and everyone in the community going to the retreat, it makes you connect with other people in your community like coaches and captains from school. It’s very much a role model experience. You get to know people older than you. When you’re a freshman and you meet the seniors you want to be like them.”
It is that connection that Santilli believes is part of the secret to the success of the event.
“The success is based on that sort of tradition of those coming back from college and helping to make the event a success and those young adults working with kids closer to their age and sending a positive message with their presence and their involvement.”
Sofia Amaral, a sophomore at Providence College agreed.
“A lot of the kids want a peer mentor and they get a lot more out of it having young adults running it, rather than parents and other adults,” she said.
Santilli emphasized that the youth leadership component is what separates the experience from religious education. The retreat itself has multiple parts, with some portions taking place at the tables, some in small groups and some in whole groups. There are intensely personal parts to the weekend with some Faith Witness sharing, a candlelight prayer service, penance and a rosary walk, and some shared fun, like a dance competition modeled after the popular So You Think You Can Dance television show, and a sing along led by music director Mark Colozzi, which was new this year and quickly deemed as one of the best parts of the weekend, hands-down. “All the kids were there singing and he led is in four or five songs,” said Stabile. “It was amazing with everyone gathered all around. He left saying that this was a day he’d always remember, and if it was that impactful for him, it was very impactful for everyone.”
Santilli also credits the church leadership for making youth ministry a priority at Holy Apostles. “Monsignor Paul Theroux is our pastor and it takes someone that is a spiritual leader to also be a shepherd,” Santilli said. “He sees the value in our young people being involved in their faith. Yes, it’s costly and yes it takes time, but he sees that as a priority as well. He spent Saturday with us. He knows that these young people are the future of our church.”