New retreat introduces young adults to Ignatian spirituality


by Fr. Michael Sparough, SJ

For almost eight years I worked at Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House outside Chicago. While the average age for Bellarmine's retreatants is right around 60, the house also hosts successful Kairos high school retreats. Year after year, high school students rank these peer-based retreats as a high point of high school.

But we had difficulty attracting the middle ground, young adults, those in their 20s and 30s. We knew they were out there, searching for a spiritual connection but distrustful of the institutional Church and frightened at the prospect of a silent weekend retreat. A Bellarmine task force began exploring what we could do to bridge that gap.

Right around this time the Chicago Province held two days of input and discussion to explore the spiritual needs of Generation X, those born between 1960 and 1980. And an article in America magazine by Tom Beaudoin on the spiritual hunger of Gen Xers caught our attention. Beaudoin argues that today's young adults are seekers engaged in an irreverent but deeply felt spiritual quest, the symbols of which are found in the songs, television, and movie images of pop culture.

Fr Sparough at a retreat

Author Fr. Michael Sparough, SJ, focuses his retreat ministry on Gen-Xers, a group, he has learned, hungry for things spiritual but leery of traditional old-style retreats. Interested? Visit

Beaudoin's article was on my mind when I came to Loyola University Chicago in early 2000, assigned to do some work in outreach to young adults. I worked with Jesuit scholastics here to design and give a new style of retreat, an entry-level, peer-ministry model that could open our Ignatian heritage to a generation starving for spiritual food.

Jesuits Scott Opperman, Mike Conley, Greg Schenden, Martin Schreiber, Peter Nguyen, and I held a series of focus groups with young adults eager to help reach out to their peers. What emerged was the Charis (Greek for grace or mercy) retreat, our way of making Ignatian spirituality more available to Gen Xers.

Young adults lead our Charis retreats. Retreatants speak about their experiences, their prayer, their suffering, their desires, and their search for community and mission. Retreat leaders give talks peppered with music and images from pop culture that are spirituality "from below." It gives voice to their search for God in the pages of their lives.

Silent reflection follows, introduced by questions written by presenters. After this comes small-group sharing facilitated by one of the young adult teams. This confidential sharing follows our "No JAB" rule (no Judging, no Advising, no Blaming) to create a safe place for honest and open talk.

The retreats build to sacramental reconciliation on Saturday night and a closing Eucharist and "commissioning" on Sunday. Many of the young adults have been deeply moved by this time set apart.

Last summer, I began working with Tim Hipskind, SJ, and Mary Anne Reese in Cincinnati to help organize Charis retreats for the Milford Spiritual Center. They adapted the Chicago Charis model, tweaking it here and there to give it their local twist. The results are encouraging: two sold-out retreats and waiting lists for future retreats, including some planned for Detroit, Indianapolis, and Cleveland.

Charis has grown in other ways as well We have days of prayer, young adult parish missions, spiritual direction with Jesuit scholastics, and faith-based sharing groups. Media presentations are also in the works. And we have hired Diane Mitchutka Frazer, from Georgetown's campus ministry staff, to be the associate director of Charis Ministries, as we now call ourselves.

The graces that come to these young retreats are palpable. Many of them experience inner healing and move to new depths in their relationships with God, their understanding of Jesus, and their involvement in the Church. For them, Charis is a breath of fresh air that brings the mercy of God to a generation that has a hard time knowing this. *

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