July 31, 2020

Institute’s online presence builds cross-country community

Missionary Disciples Institute participants give speaker Arthur Wilson a round of applause. (Submitted photos by Colleen Schena)

Missionary Disciples Institute participants give speaker Arthur Wilson a round of applause. (Submitted photos by Colleen Schena)

By Colleen Schena (Special to The Criterion)

“What energy!” read the text from nationally known speaker Mike Patin after receiving symbolic applause from the Missionary Disciples Institute (MDI).

In lieu of clapping, every high school student participant held their hands up close to their device’s camera and wiggled their fingers with as much enthusiasm as they could project. Quickly the screen filled with hundreds of hands and accompanying smiles. This had become a tradition at “MDI Online” as the week unfolded. While it may have been unusually silent, the energy radiating from the passionate students filled the space.

And the lessons learned from the unique virtual experience could bear fruit soon.

“After learning how to set up lectio divina, … I am going to create a group where kids of any faith can come together and practice lectio,” said high school student Isaac Fleck.

In previous years, MDI was a weeklong evangelization, in-person boot camp sponsored and hosted by Marian University in Indianapolis. The goal of this experience was to have a group of teenagers encounter others—especially those whom they might not usually come in contact with—and find ways to build community in the greater Indianapolis area.

But because of the coronavirus, institute leaders decided to change this year’s format.

Featuring its own website, online sessions and boxes of materials carefully packed by the college mentors for the high school participants, “MDI Online” took place on June 22-26. MDI made the decision to venture into the online community to encourage the growth of passionate students into driven missionary disciples. Even in the reality of social distancing, a call still rings out to continue proclaiming the Gospel in even the most non-traditional of circumstances, organizers said.

The bold invitation to join a weeklong online experience embodied the institute’s major theme—“Give us a holy courage”— from Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (#288).

Fully aware of the potential for impeding glitches, the MDI team pressed forward with hope and prayer that the Spirit would manage to work through each moment. “Pray and breathe” became a motto for trust in moments of technical difficulties.

Yet the risk of a format based in live streams and Zoom calls only further emphasized the rewarding message: missionary discipleship is always fostered in a faith-filled, supportive community. Distance has no bearing on its creation.

While it looked very different than what was expected in months prior, the fervor of MDI’s community burned brightly. High school students eagerly joined calls every morning and evening to reflect, play games, and livestream community prayer opportunities.

They interacted joyfully with keynote speakers Noelle Garcia, Mike Patin, Krista Chinchilla, Kristin Koehl, Franciscan Father Agustino Torres and Arthur Wilson. They energetically bombarded the Hussey Brothers, the Institute’s in-house band, with questions and song requests during their surprise live performance.

Students worked in their themed tracks and played during their breakout sessions, which offered chances for fruitful dialogue as well as fellowship. All contributed to a thoughtful pondering of their call to missionary discipleship, especially what actions they would take to bring the message to their hometowns. With an opportunity to brainstorm as a group, students took their passions and molded them into missions that would lead them forth after their blessing and commissioning.

“As human beings we are finding ways to share in our joys and our sufferings,” Molly Church, a college mentor said, “We have been creating community right here online.”

As the 80-plus participants signed off to re-enter the world around them, the zeal for missionary discipleship continued within them.

This “groundbreaking experience,” in the words of student director Elizabeth Kassab, continued its passion and its momentum even after the students were sent forth.

“I see all the things that I have learned staying with me in my faith journey for a long time!” affirmed Anna Moore, a high school participant, with the same energy she found during “MDI Online.”

A similar sentiment from participant Emma Morgan expounded upon the seeds of the Institute: “MDI has impacted me by showing me that community is vital to the Catholic faith, but we have no need to fear about the inability to be together during this quarantine.” Emma noted that her personal prayer life had been “transformed,” and she aspired to bring this renewed life to her high school as a missionary disciple.

Missionary discipleship can take many forms, often those seeming impossible or inconvenient, noted keynote speaker Arthur Wilson, dean of spiritual life at Huntington University in Huntington, Ind.

And from unique applause to endless online conversation, “MDI Online” used its groundbreaking format to bridge this inconvenience and proclaim the joy of the Gospel as far as Louisiana, Alabama and New York.

“Remember when MDI during a global pandemic changed our lives?” keynote speaker Kristin Koehl imagined the institute participants saying in the years to come. The students and staff alike are sure that they will not forget this unique opportunity offered in a time when few like it existed.

(Colleen Schena is a senior at Marian University in Indianapolis and a member of Holy Family Parish in South Bend, Ind., in the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese.)

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