Three years ago Paul and Irene Muhs decided that, when the next Christmas “shopping season” approached, they would forgo the mad mall rush they usually dove into for their large and still-expanding clan.
Through prayerful discernment they decided on a gift that would reward the recipients spiritually rather than materially: a family retreat. “I felt the best gift would be to have time with each other — faith-based time,” says Irene.
Not far from their home in Farmingdale, N.Y., they discovered St. Gabriel’s Spiritual Center for Youth. Located on Shelter Island at the tip of Long Island, it’s run by the Passionists and primarily serves teens. They’ve rung in the last three New Years with their loved ones there, booking the facility from Dec. 29 to Jan. 2.
In the process they’ve shown, by example, how other families can enjoy the many benefits and blessings of a family retreat — whether it’s made as an annual event or a one-time happening.
The Muhses have daily Mass celebrated by St. Gabriel’s director, Passionist Father Chris Cleary, along with a holy hour with adoration, opportunity for confession, daily family Rosary and the Divine Mercy chaplet. The chapel is always open for prayer and contemplation.
The only requirement they hold everyone to is Mass attendance on Sunday and New Year’s Day. All else is offered as optional. But many of the 40 guests — Paul and Irene’s five children and their spouses, 20 grandchildren, a few other relatives and close friends — do take advantage of the opportunities to grow deeper in the Catholic faith.
At the most recent family retreat, “the whole family was involved with the Mass and the Eucharistic adoration,” explains Paul. Some served as lectors and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion. Grandchildren in music ministry at Franciscan University of Steubenville led the singing. Two 9-year-olds stepped up to learn altar-server duties. (Through the experience, both became eager to altar-serve in their home parish.)
The low-pressure approach to sharing the faith, warmed by the welcoming family setting, lets the active Catholics in the clan — several of whom are leaders in various Catholic ministries and apostolates — witness Christ to those who aren’t as far along in their commitment to the Church and the sacraments.
“They see a lot of people heading into the chapel to say the Rosary or going to reconciliation, and in obvious and subtle ways it helps them see the depth of faith in their family,” says the Muhses’ daughter Mary Bangs, who together with husband Ken and their four children drive in from Collinsville, Conn. “We have the constant of grandma and grandpa being there — practicing and living their faith, setting the example in a very loving way.”
It works. One day, confession ran two hours over its half-hour allotment on the schedule.
Of course, the hours aren’t completely filled with spiritual activities. There are also fun games to play, tasty meals to share and, simply, good “downtime” memories to make. Still, says Father Cleary, the Holy Spirit is at work through it all.
“The young adults and the teens may not be able to put it into words,” he says, “but they value what they see their parents and grandparents witnessing to.” Blessings are even there, he adds, for those wrestling to believe the Gospel or accept the teachings of the Church. Such “wrestling,” he says, can be a very good thing when it’s done “in the environment of the family, with the constant witnessing of the faith and no worries about being rejected. That’s what I see as the benefit of the experience at a family retreat.”
On a broader scale the Youth and Family Encounters (YFE) sponsored by Regnum Christi, the Legion of Christ’s movement of apostolate, achieve many of the same results as the Muhses. YFE events have been drawing families to strengthen earthly and heavenly bonds since 1996.
Jay Dardis met his wife, JC, at a YFE event. Both had been attending as singles. By 2005, they attended the YFE in San Jose, Calif., as a family with their little ones. (Sites change around the country for each YFE, which is online at yfe.org.) While Jay and JC were challenged to live out their faith, their first two youngsters were having a “retreat” in the Catholic Kids Net section.
Jay describes how the two oldest, 7-year-old Jack and 6-year-old Amanda (the Dardises have six children with a seventh on the way), got to learn the virtues by doing arts and crafts, and how even the songs got them excited.
“Songs like ‘I’ve Got a Mission’ taught them you’re a person God chose and he has a mission for you,” says Jay. “It really grabbed their attention. Their eyes got big and they wanted to know about their mission.”
Now at home in Baton Rouge, La., the Dardises look for opportunities to teach their children one virtue at a time, and to give them a chance to put concepts into practice. Asked to cite an example, Jay describes how their son Jack came to see the good in kids who annoyed him — a lesson he learned through Catholic Kids Net and YFE.
For one thing, he doesn’t come home wanting to punch out the class bully. “He responds with love,” says his happy dad, “and realizes he can overcome evil with good.”
From these particular events, the Dardis parents know families who’ve been through the same things they’ve been through or are going through.
“And they’ve succeeded,” Jay says. “You see the 14-year-olds who have Catholic Kids Net and who are solid and mature in the faith. So it helps you … love what God is calling you to.”
“By bringing the kids to YFE,” adds Jay, “it sunk in with us that we are on a mission as a family — not as individuals.”
Michael and Theresa Lawson also found family retreats an ideal way to play, pray and grow together when they attended their first Holy Family Fest at Catholic Familyland in Bloomingdale, Ohio. Then the oldest child was 14. Today their 11 children range from 30 to 6.
“We went to Mass on Sunday because we had to,” Theresa says. “My biggest longing was that my family pray the Rosary with me every day. I had been asking Our Lady for that favor for years.”
Learning of these family retreats by Familyland’s Apostolate of Family Consecration (online at familyland.org), she wanted to “vacation” there. Her husband was reluctant and the kids said it would be boring.
“But after the first 24 hours on the grounds,” says Theresa, “my children were all asking to come back again.” The family hasn’t missed a year since 1991.
During each of the seven days they found Mass, confession, family Rosary, Divine Mercy chaplet, Eucharistic adoration, age-appropriate studies — along with campground-style amusements like swimming, horseback riding, concerts, games and bonfire sing-a-longs.
The Lawsons now visit and volunteer during the year, too. This summer the talented Lawson children will provide the music for liturgies at August Fests.
“My husband and I feel very strongly that Our Lady used this apostolate to pull our family up out of the secular pit we were in,” explains Theresa. “After the second time we had gone, we said Our Lady had taken our family by the hand and said, ‘Come to my Son,’ and led us to him through this apostolate.”
No longer lukewarm Catholics, they now go to daily Mass, monthly confession, weekly adoration and yearly renewal of their consecration to Jesus through Mary.
And that family Rosary request? Theresa got her answer after that first retreat in 1991.
Sometimes unexpected developments add special power to the family retreat. Says Mary Bangs of the Muhses’ last one: “My sister-in-law called us all together and said Anthony [Muhs] and Stephanie are getting engaged in the chapel. We stood in tears outside waiting for them to come out. ... To share it at Shelter Island with all of us to be there [on retreat] was great.”
It was a highlight for Father Cleary, too, because he knew Anthony, who works in campus ministry at a Catholic high school and had been to St. Gabriel’s on other occasions. “That was so special to me basically because it influenced him so greatly that he wanted to propose here.”
From her honored position, grandmother Irene puts family retreats in perfect perspective.
“The best thing to give children beside the faith is memories,” she says. “It bonds us. And when you’re bonded in Christ, that lasts forever.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.