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MERCER, PA — [Camp Nazareth]   From Friday, March 17 – Sunday, March 19 nearly 30 young adults ages 18-35, from 6 different Orthodox jurisdictions, gathered at Camp Nazareth for a Retreat. The Retreat was co-sponsored by the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh and the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese. The theme of the event was “Navigating Life Using Your Spiritual Compass”. Keynote addresses were delivered by Fr. Ed Pehanich and Mr. Nick Lionas. The keynote addresses also included time for break-out groups (smaller discussion groups) and activities that reinforced the topics main ideas. In addition to learning more about their Faith, the young adults celebrated services together, enjoyed some late night fire-side fellowship each night, spent some time hiking the Camp’s trails, had some fun doing ice-breakers as well as playing some games, and were able to relax and decompress from their daily routines. It was a first-time event for both the Metropolis and Diocese, but will become a semi-Annual event with Retreats being held in the Fall and Spring of each year for our Church’s young adults. Next Retreat is scheduled for October 20-22, 2017!!

This event came about as a result of discussions with church youth workers, hierarchs, priests and young adults themselves who feel events like this help them deepen their Faith and allow them to connect with their peers who experience the same daily struggles in order to keep that Faith. By all accounts it was an exceptional event and one that will be built on as a model for the ones to come.

The event itself was relaxed and yet gave the attendees exactly what it advertised – spiritual “tools” to help them navigate life while keeping their Faith and an opportunity to reflect and be rejuvenated. It started as all events like this must…with registration…but moved right into the “Green” Night in honor of the St. Patrick of Ireland who was commemorated by the Church on that day. The “Green” Night included a nice buffet, time to unwind after the attendee’s trips, and a chance to see friends you knew were coming and to meet some new friends.

Following the “Green” time, the attendees celebrated the Akathist Service to the Mother of God with the Salutations and then were greeted by His Grace Bishop Gregory who attended the event. His Grace offered words of welcome and a reflection that helped set the tone for the weekend – a spiritual retreat, a time for fellowship, and a time to enjoy the Camp, which was exactly what happened the rest of the weekend.

The Retreat participants then headed back to the Lodge for some ice-breakers and get-to-know-you games which involved puzzles, paper airplanes, playing cards and Skittles. Hmmmm. If you want to know how those things all go together, please come to the next Young Adult Retreat which is already scheduled. This was just a fun time where the whole group of participants was mixed and matched in order to play some games. The games had 2 purposes: 1. Help the participants get to know each other and 2. Teach a lesson.

After the Ice-breakers, the Lodge fireplace was put to good use. The Staff had brought couches in from the Business Wing and Staff Office earlier in the day and placed them in front of the fireplace. The fire was lit, the buffet remained open, and the Retreat attendees had time to just enjoy each other’s company and simply talk…which they did until 2:30am on Saturday morning!!! What was really great to hear and see was that the conversations were both “light” and deep. You heard about people’s funny experiences, but you also heard deep discussion about matters of the Faith. You heard questions about where people had travelled from and you heard questions about the spiritual life. Conversations developed, fellowship deepened and personally I would say that the participants helped each other’s faith. When the opportunity is given, and when Camp is revealed as a holy place, it’s not just among kids that faith is deepened and fellowship develops, it happens with EVERYONE, and with the young adults who came here over the weekend, it was no exception.

By the way, we also projected onto a screen in the Lodge some of the Madness of March. For those who came to the Retreat but were really missing seeing some of the games, we gave them a little screen time. Surprisingly, no one really watched, but some did sort of “check-in” on the games being played.

The next morning, Saturday morning, we celebrated morning prayers and since it was an All Souls’ Saturday, we offered a Panachida. Each Retreat participant was asked to write down their Orthodox de parted who we then prayed for at the Panachida. Six different jurisdictions represented, but all praying for each other’s departed loved ones – that’s not just common ground, that is the strength and beauty of our Faith in action. Following the prayers and Panachida, His Grace Bishop Gregory offered a homily, and then the participants had opportunity for some reflection time before breakfast.

After breakfast the first keynote address was delivered by Fr. Ed Pehanich. Fr. Ed’s talk focused on how Modern Saints use their Spiritual Compass to Follow Christ. The attendees listened to the lives of saints like, Mother Maria of Paris, St. Nectarios, and others whom most attendees didn’t even know including a priest’s wife who lived in Alaska, a parish priest from Athens who had a grand total of 10 parishioners, and someone who became a doctor simply to help alleviate the suffering in his own village. After 2 or 3 lives were presented, Fr. Ed led a discussion about what we as participants can learn from these saints and apply in our own lives as we try to navigate life and keep going in the direction of the Kingdom of Heaven. After the entire presentation, the participants formed smaller discussion groups and had conversations about what they learned and how the message delivered could become a part of their own lives. The gift of God’s saints to us trying to be heard and understood by young adults and then made a part of their lives – exactly what we tell people to do so often, but given them little opportunity to learn how to do. This Retreat was hopefully some help in the “How To”.

Following the first keynote and discussion groups, the Retreat attendees had time to relax and unwind. Some played games. Some sat and just talked. Others went on a hike to see the waterfalls. It was raining, but the rain didn’t seem to bother those that went to see the sets of falls. The majority of Retreat participants had never been to Camp Nazareth before so hiking the trails and seeing the falls was brand new to them, and they wouldn’t let a little drizzle (it was more than a little) stop them from hiking.

After this midday activity and time to unwind, the group gathered back together for lunch, but with an additional guest present. His Grace Bishop Neofitos of Nyeri & Mount Kenya (yes Kenya!!) stopped by the Camp to see it and to visit his old friend from seminary days, His Grace Bishop Gregory!! This was really a wonderful event during the weekend. It had been planned. Bishop Neofitos was visiting the United States for 3 weeks and part of his time brought him close to Camp Nazareth. It didn’t take long to make the connections and the result was just a tremendous part of the weekend’s events.

After a very warm greeting among old friends, Bishop Gregory invited Bishop Neofitos to join us for lunc h and for the rest of the day. This included a beautiful slideshow presented by Bishop Neofitos to us after lunch. The slideshow included pictures of His Grace’s Diocese in Kenya and what is happening there. It was simply beautiful to see and hear what is happening there, a place of 1 million Orthodox faithful!! And they are growing!!

Following His Grace’s slideshow and talk, Mr. Nick Lionas gave the 2nd Keynote address during which he focused on Hearing and Being Heard in a Noisy World. During the keynote, he had the participants form smaller groups to engage his topic and really think about how social media impacts the way they see and view the world. He also included ways to help the Retreat participants really hear what others are saying and really be heard themselves. He concluded with an activity that drove home the point of hearing Christ in a world that threatens to drown out His message. The group came away from his presentation with a new perspective on again, the “How To”, as they struggle to maintain their Faith in a world which is often against it.

There was some time to relax again after the 2nd Keynote and before Great Vespers. The Great Vespers was celebrated during which different Orthodox traditions represented at the Retreat had opportunity to sing. That was again a really beautiful part of the Retreat as all had come together to learn about and deepen their common Faith. Confession had been offered before Great Vespers and continued after Great Vespers as well.

Dinner followed, and then it was time for more fire-side fellowship. The fire was struck, the couches hadn’t moved, and the Retreat participants got to simply enjoy each other’s company in what had become their “living room”. That was really great to see, and that’s a real blessing at Camp, that is, when Camp becomes your home, not just a place you happen to be staying for a couple days. This wasn’t quite as late a night as the night before, but almost.

Divine Liturgy the next morning, Sunday morning, was very beautiful. His Grace Bishop Gregory was the celebrant and delivered the sermon. He spoke about the Antimension and what it is and why we have it as a way to reveal aspects of our Faith that the Retreat Participants may not have known. We continued to sing according to the various traditions (as able) that were represented at the Liturgy including a beautiful moment when the Tropar was sung several times, according to several chant traditions. It was the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, the middle of the Fast, and to have the Divine Liturgy this way was uplifting.

Following the Divine Liturgy a special presentation was made to Bishop Gregory by Kassi Tofani, a member of our parish of St. John’s in Hermitage, who attended the Liturgy together with her parents, Gino and MaryAnn Tofani. Kassi presented His Grace with a sketch she drew of the Camp Church which will be framed and placed in the Business Wing of the Camp. The sketch is tremendously detailed and tremendously beautiful. It was touching to see the talent Kassi has put to use in this way. Kassi is a senior at Reynolds High School (which is right around the corner from Camp) and will be attending college in the Fall.

After Divine Liturgy, the Retreat participants had brunch in the Lodge, cleaned their rooms and cabins, and departed for home.

As mentioned above, plans have already been made for this Retreat to become a semi-Annual event, once in the Spring, once in the Fall. The next Retreat is scheduled for October 20-22, 2017. So for those who are ages 18-35, plan on attending. This event had been really excellent. We await the surveys from the participants to see how the event can be improved, but we are grateful to God for everything He had given us in this event. Among the many blessings – 2 Jurisdictions working together to plan the event and co-sponsoring it, 6 different Jurisdictions represented (7 if you include Bishop Neofitos!!), 28 participants, 2 excellent keynotes, great late-night fire-side discussions, beautiful services, delicious Lenten fare, 2 hierarchs together (who were old friends from Seminary days!!), a great group of fun-loving faith-filled Young Adults, Camp Staff, and communion in our Faith and Holy Communion in the middle of the Lenten Season. Those are some of the blessings we are grateful for, but there are more. Each Retreat participant has their own for which they are grateful to God. We’ll plan for the next Retreat with gratitude to Him for what He has given us and in the hope that what we do will be blessed by Him.