A reflection on the "Open Your Hearts" student retreat

May 18, 2023

This year the Manchester Universities’ Catholic Society held a student retreat at Savio House in the Peak District.

It had been feared that the retreat would not go ahead because of the increase in the cost of living. Thanks to the kindness and generosity of the local Catenians, the retreat turned out to be a wonderful success!

The theme chosen for the retreat was ‘Open Your Hearts’, based on a phrase from the Acts of the Apostles. Paul arrives in Philippi where he meets Lydia the merchant of purple textiles. Luke writes that: ‘she listened to us and opened her heart to what Paul was saying’ (Acts 16:11-15). The students were invited to open their hearts to listen to the Gospel so that they might respond to God in their lives. Many young people have a keen sense of being invited to a deeper commitment in the Church. All they need is the trust and support of the previous generation to be able to build the Church of tomorrow.

The weekend began with an introductory session and a meal before the students were led into a candlelit chapel for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Some of them stayed until late in the night praying the rosary. Over the following days there were inputs on ways of praying, discovering God in your life story, and imagining your future. The workshops were interspersed with silent prayer exercises and group conversations. Many students commented on the usefulness of these conversations to integrate their life with their faith.

They also took the opportunity to relax away from their studies by socialising together and walking in the grounds of Savio House. Many of the students noted the positive impact of the retreat. One said, ‘I felt it was the spiritual rest I needed.’ Another said, ‘I melted into the joy of the experience, and I must say it had a profound effect on me.’ Others commented on the usefulness of the reflective prayer activities, and quality of the home cooked meals!

On the Saturday afternoon the students climbed up Kerridge Hill to the White Nancy monument which was built in 1817 as a memorial to the Battle of Waterloo. From the brow of the hill the students caught a glimpse of the city of Manchester down below in the distance. It helped them gain a perspective on their studies and the challenges that await them as they move forward. Many friendships were formed over the retreat and some of the participants have gone on to deepen their commitment to the Church in different kinds of ministry. It has also helped others to clarify and discern their vocational choices.

Many students are experiencing hardship because of the cost-of-living crisis. They have to make difficult decisions about how they spend their money. Since the cost of the accommodation had increased considerably over recent years, it was feared that it would be impossible for the Catholic Society to organise the retreat. Fortunately, the Salesians at Savio House agreed to a reasonable price for the bunkhouse accommodation. To keep the costs down, Fr Philip Harrison SJ did the cooking as well as leading the retreat, helped by Fr Luis Manuel Vizcaino SJ, a Mexican Jesuit studying Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Manchester. With the kindness of the Catenians, the cost of the retreat for the students was brought down to just £15. This wonderful act of generosity encouraged many students to come for whom the price would otherwise have been an obstacle.  

The Manchester Universities’ Catholic Chaplaincy is currently housed in a prefabricated building right opposite the Students’ Union of the University of Manchester (while the Diocese of Salford makes plans for the redevelopment of the old chaplaincy building). The Catholic Society Committee and the chaplains work tirelessly to help people to feel welcome and participate in the community. Thanks to their efforts, the prefab has fast become a port of call for students who want to grow in faith through deep conversations and real friendship.

The adjacent Church of the Holy Name of Jesus is renowned for its architectural beauty and for its musical tradition, both in classical and contemporary styles, and is entirely organised by students on a voluntary basis. Among the other opportunities to deepen their faith provided by the Chaplaincy are volunteering in the community, rosary, bible study, scripture workshops, talks, social events, reading groups, faith development, an annual week of guided prayer, spiritual direction, and country walks. Once a month people off the street are welcomed into a candlelit church from 7:30pm to 10pm for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament accompanied by live music. You can find out more about the Manchester Universities' Catholic Chaplaincy here.

by Fr Philip Harrison SJ

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