|Rev. Fr. Augustine Vallooran V.C.|
The Youth retreats at the Divine Retreat Centre are always celebrations of the vitality of the Church. Young people flock to the retreat not always knowing what God has in store for them. Invited by friends, urged by the parents, inspired by youth animators, they step in. Once they are challenged by the Word of God, they make a daring and honest soul searching and bravely commit their lives to God. God's Love revealed through the Word and the Sacraments fascinate them - giving a new direction and zeal for life.
The 34th National Youth Retreat that took place during the last week of May was a season of life-giving revelation and renewal both for the 1000 youth participants and for their parents who took part in the couples’ retreat that was held simultaneously on campus.
The theme of the retreat was St Paul’s exhortation to "Put On The Armour Of Light"(Romans 13:12). The retreat ended with the participants lighting their candles from the fire of the Easter candle and taking an oath together that they would live henceforth for and with Christ. The theme of light dominated the teachings and services at the retreat. The Light of Christ seemed to illuminate their lives giving every participant a clear vision of the failures in the past and the path they need to take for their future.
“Awake O Sleeper, Arise From the Dead... Christ Will Give You Light” (Ephesians 5:14)
It is interesting to note that this particular scripture that we chose for the Youth retreat had played a significant role in the conversion of another young man – a conversion that would greatly impact the world of his time and Christian faith for generations. As a young man, St. Augustine was no saint at all - Indulging in every vice, arrogant in his successes, irreverent to faith and in truth living a very ungodly life, Augustine was the despair of his saintly mother. However just as darkness cannot hold out against light, his impiety had to submit to the enduring zeal and prayerfulness of his mother. He began accepting Christian truths also with the influence of the saintly Bishop Ambrose. The fact was that for long, the acceptance was merely intellectual and never became a personal decision or commitment to give up his old sinful ways that he was enslaved to.
While earlier he justified his sins, now he realized he was in the wrong but would continue to pray “Lord change me... but not today.” Procrastination was the other powerful weapon of satan. At one point it is said that Augustine heard a voice saying “Take and read.” He took up the Bible and opened it to this Letter of St Paul and the words shone out, “It is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.” (Romans 13:11-12) A long struggle ended as this scripture verse gave birth to a saint. He made the decision to live in the armour of light and the radiance of his saintliness was tremendous.
St. Paul in his incisive treatment of the journey of man from slavery of sin to freedom in the enlightening truth of Christ again writes, "Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them... everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light." (Ephesians 5:11-14) This scripture verse was proved in the course of the retreat for these young people in a very powerful way. The Light of Christ enabled them to discriminate the good from the bad, the honourable from the unworthy in their lives. Even the inner motives of their decisions and actions which they were not even aware of earlier became clear before their eyes. In the moments of honest confession and counselling, they could understand themselves and accept the personal call to a higher living with generous and brave decisions. At the end of these sessions, they came out very happy with the revelation that God had not given up on them but they had something to count on - the Light of Christ in their hearts to guide them for the future. They regretted the ungodly decisions made, repented over the wrong steps taken as they realized that it was a meaningless darkness that they were groping through in the past without the Llight of Christ shining on them.
“Everything Exposed By Light Becomes Visible” (Ephesians 5:13)
When St. Paul speaks about exposing everything in the light, he had a certain image in mind of the marketplace of his time. The shops in the marketplace were covered enclosures without windows. Anyone going to buy a commodity like a piece of cloth or a work of art would take it out to the street and hold it against the sun so that the light would reveal its true quality and any flaws it could have. In fact in light, not only does an object reveal its true calibre, it also begins to reflect light. This is the principle that explains colours of objects. An object is identified as red, for instance, for in light, the substance emits a red shade of light.
The outstanding feature about the youth at this retreat was the daring with which they placed their life before the Light of Christ - accepting that what they had thought was the truth was indeed a wrong leading. They made their commitment to expose every decision and action and motive to the Light of Christ and live according to what their Lord would want of them. As stark as the difference between night and day was the new stance for life and holiness that the youth personally took up. It was indeed a moment of victorious celebration in the Kingdom of God!
Christine was a medical college student. She had grown up in the wholesome atmosphere of a village with life revolving around the family and the parish in the devout practice of the Catholic faith. When she joined medical college, she was confronted with a situation she was least equipped for. Some of her classmates did not have any religion at all. A few were voluble about their atheistic ideas. There were a few Christian students who were under the influence of a Pentecostal pastor who was a rather persuasive preacher. Christine found it difficult to go to the Catholic Church. For one thing that it was not near her college and also since the services which were in the local language, which she was not familiar with, were at timings when she had to be present at college. Her friends invited her to a Pentecostal prayer meeting. Though initially apprehensive, because of their persistence, she began participating in this. She was disturbed by the negative preaching that focused on discrediting the Catholic teachings and painted all the other religions in very dark colours. However the fellowship gathering and the fervent prayers attracted her. In a personal meeting with the Pentecostal pastor, she was asked to reject the Catholic faith if she wanted to be saved. Her friends also urged her to heed the pastor's direction. Christine was very disturbed and felt lost. There was no one she could talk to, no one who could tell her the truth. For the vacation, she returned home but still plagued by the many confusing claims of the Pentecostal preacher that were in total conflict with the devout practices that her family was dedicated to. Her cousins who had all planned to come for the youth retreat invited her to join in - which she did in great anticipation. Here she offered to God all her confusions and disturbances asking for a clear revelation of His true Will. The Word of God says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him.” (James 1:5) Again it is the testimony of a seeker assuring us, “For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6) While speaking about the spirituality of the Catholic Church, a preacher quoted the declaration of Jesus to Peter, "I tell you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:18-19) In the light of this Word, it became very clear that the Church of Jesus Christ was founded on the rock of Simon Peter and this Church is to be led by the successors of Simon Peter. Before her eyes, was exposed the evil agenda of the Pentecostal pastor to control and redirect the faith of the people towards himself. She understood she was misled by the foolish zeal of her companions and she made a firm commitment to be rooted in the Church.
In a world where media bombards the youth from every direction with ideologies disguised as truth, the action of the Spirit through the Proclamation of the Word at the retreat was revolutionary. “For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5) The retreat itself was a war cry urging everyone to be ready for a battle which is always imminent. There is a perennial fight going on between light and darkness.
“I Have Fought The Good Fight… I Have Kept The Faith” (2 Timothy 4:7)
St. Paul likens our spiritual existence to a warfare. There are evil powers within us and around us. Detailing for us the cross-section of a human heart, he writes that there are powers of darkness within, which forbids a man to do what he wants to. Though he wants to do the good and delights in the good that he wants to do, he finds that he is incapable of fulfilling his intentions. "I take delight in the law of God in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members." (Romans 7:22-23) These powers of evil are so strong that they are able to enslave a human person compelling him to actions against his own will.
St. Paul also explains how such powers of evil get entry into human heart. "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil." (Ephesians 4:26-27) By anger in our hearts, we are giving entry to the evil power of hatred. Getting angry could be a temperamental impulse but after getting angry and hurting someone, we have two choices. We can get reconciled with that person and soothe his feelings. Anger vanishes and the relationship is restored to warmth and good will. However if one remains stubborn to cling on to their anger, one would justify his arguments and nourish these in his heart. That is when it becomes a power of anger and hatred.
Our imagination prefers to characterize evil as an ugly figure that lurks in darkness or mythical locations and by evil spells. But the Lord Himself tells us that evil stems from the human heart (Mark 7:20-23). As the powers of evil dwell and dominate our hearts, St. Paul tells us we are being led by the flesh. "For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God." (Galatians 5:17,19-21)
James was an engineering student who was taking medication for depression. When he came for this retreat, he shared with me of how he was deeply distressed because of a deep-rooted addiction to pornography. He was introduced to it by his schoolmates. Every time he went for the Holy Mass or participated in the family prayer, he felt convicted and terribly guilty. He began to resent prayer because he felt condemned. On one occasion his uncle caught him red-handed and admonished him severely - threatening him of God’s curse. He felt like dirt now even at home. This made him all the more upset but he was more powerfully sucked into this unholy habit. This guilt and sense of shame led him to continuous tension and depression. He had to resort to medical help. I pointed out to him that the distress in his mind was but caused by a spiritual warfare within him between the forces of light and darkness. I invited him to make a total commitment to Jesus and surrender his body and all the capabilities and expressions of his body to Jesus Christ. Sexuality is a blessing God has given to man to enable the expression of love in the holy bond of marriage. God works through this to mould individuals into parents, participating in God’s creative work, bringing children into the world.
James wept but this time not out of pain but out of the relief that God had not abandoned him but was going to be there to help him come through what was a nightmare phase of sin and slavery. I could see in those tears the love and grateful joy of the prodigal son in the arms of his father. I led him to make an irrevocable commitment of his life to Jesus. He continued praying during the Inner Healing prayer service. The next day when he met me, he shared that he felt an overwhelming joy in his heart during the Adoration service. This joy was a result of the anointing of the Holy Spirit that set him free completely.
“Where Sin Abounded, Grace Abounded Much More” (Romans 5:20)
While explaining how pervasive sin can be, scripture describes that “through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all.” (Romans 5:12) As sin tormented individuals, it has a stranglehold on society at large. We are surrounded by sin at every level that it is so possible for a person to completely be desensitized to the atrocities of sin around.
In their journey towards light, the young people became aware of not only the powers of evil dominating them in their own hearts but in the society as a whole. St. Paul speaks about this conflict, "For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand." (Ephesians 6:12-13) Rebellion against God that welled up in the first parents has overflowed pervading every generation and becoming an evil power vitiating human relationships and social structures. Many of the young people I met shared how helpless they felt before the oppression of these evil forces in society. John, a young government servant, shared with me the tension of his mind. He grew up in a pious Catholic family and was himself actively engaged in the youth movement of the diocese. When he got this job, he took it up with the determination to be a witness at his workplace. Inspite of this, he was not prepared for the onslaught of evil. He was shocked when at the end of the first month, an unaccounted amount was paid to him by his immediate boss. When he tried to clarify with the boss as to its source, he laughed aloud and proudly boasted that everybody in the department got a share of all the money that passed under the table. Politely but decisively John returned that money to the boss telling him that he did not want to take home money that came from an unjust system. The boss advised him at first gently to flow with the current. When John refused to budge from his stand, the boss spoke in an intimidating tone warning him of the consequences of such a rejection. Everyone in the department would isolate him as a traitor and turn against him. This would definitely lead him to trouble. The boss advised him to rethink his stand. That night when he came home, he realized he was not ready for such confrontation. He also began to reason out that he needed all that money for the admission of his younger brother in the college. Consequently, he became part of the unjust system. Even when he saw his co-workers arrogant and heartlessly unjust to the helpless who came for any service to this department, he turned a blind eye. It hurt him often but he justified it by the argument that no one could fight such a rotten structure. At the retreat, he was confronted by the Light of Jesus Christ and he allowed the secret corners of his heart to be enlightened by the zeal for truth and righteousness. He felt a new confidence that through prayer he would be able to stand against the current. He confided in me that whatever loss he must incur, he was ready for the battle for now he was sure that all he wanted was the Lord on his side.
The Word of God finds fulfillment - "Everything which is illuminated becomes light" (Ephesians 5:14) As these young witnesses march out into the world, there is a radiance on their faces. A radiance that comes when one has a vision of the Face of God. Truly “the light shines in the darkness and darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5) A contingent of strong young people have set out into the world rooted in convictions of the life-giving truth that in Jesus is Life and in Him is the Light.
Let Us Pray
Heavenly Father we thank You for the spiritual transformation You have brought about in Your children whom You drew into Your Presence. They have accepted Your Son Jesus Christ as the Light of their life. They have examined their lives in the Light of Your Son and they are now prepared to reflect that light around them. Hold them close to Your Heart that their light may glow in the world - bringing a new hope for humankind.