July 16, 2021

At MDI, real encounters lead to radiant witnesses

Participants at the Missionary Disciples Institute at Marian University in Indianapolis pose for a group photo. The theme for this year’s weeklong gathering was “Radiant Witness,” inspired by Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.” (Submitted photo)

Participants at the Missionary Disciples Institute at Marian University in Indianapolis pose for a group photo. The theme for this year’s weeklong gathering was “Radiant Witness,” inspired by Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.” (Submitted photo)

By Aubrey Major (Special to The Criterion)

On June 14, car after car pulled into the parking lot of Marian University in Indianapolis. Out of the cars came high school students, some from hours away and others only a few minutes. With duffel bags and pillows in hand, they waved goodbye, full of nerves and excitement as they stepped into the week to come.

The outcome? A week of transformation beyond all plans and expectations.

The Missionary Disciples Institute (MDI) has always been driven by intentionality, creating an experience for high schoolers that goes far beyond the week spent on Marian University’s campus. There was something especially unique about MDI this year, with one of the largest number of in-person participants and biggest group of college mentors that it’s ever had. However, it wasn’t the numbers that drove this year’s institute.

On the contrary, it seemed to feel more personal.

This year’s institute was powered by the theme “Radiant Witness,” inspired by Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.” Full of colorful stained-glass imagery and powerful saint witnesses, this theme explored the call to allow Christ’s light to shine through our lives to illuminate the world. Inviting students to bring their whole selves to the gathering, it served as a reminder to consider their individual gifts and to let those be their guide through the flow of the week.

MDI follows an intentional path to teach students how to live as missionary disciples: encounter, accompany, community, sent. This year’s keynote speakers dove into these steps each day, bringing honesty and authenticity to the table. They invited students to dive into what the faith truly is: an encounter with the Lord to be remembered and shared.

One keynote speaker, Vanesa Zuleta Goldberg, spoke of encountering Christ: “[Jesus] will walk with you. If you are small, he will be small with you. If you are broken, he will be broken with you,” said Zuleta Goldberg, who has worked in youth ministry for 13 years as a youth minister, Franciscan Youth Volunteer, worship leader and speaker.

“He will ask you to go back out on the road and tell people what happened, and walk with them, journey with them—because that’s what Christ does with us,” she continued.

Students discovered that evangelization is based on a relationship with God, a retelling of our encounters with the Lord rather than just a telling of points and information. Even further, encountering Christ is not based on one all-encompassing template, but it is knowing that Christ meets each of our hearts exactly where they are.

“We all have a seat at the table. We have to accompany one another to get to that table, and Jesus accompanies us to get to that table,” said student Daysun Brown, a three-time MDI participant who is a senior at Zionsville Community High School in Zionsville, Ind. (Lafayette Diocese).

“But once we get there, Jesus invites us to sit at his table, break bread with him, and then he says, ‘Go out and be a missionary disciple. Go out and evangelize to the rest of the world,’ ” added Daysun, a member of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis. “In addition, I know that I always have a place, and I can always go back to that table, always go meet God again and be replenished and go back out.”

Opportunities for adoration, the sacrament of reconciliation and daily Mass created spaces for students to be still and encounter the Lord in this way amid a busy week of learning and immersion activities. High school student Nate Christy, another MDI participant, said that the time in adoration was one of his favorite parts of the week.

“Praying in front of Jesus with so many other people my age who share my faith is the best feeling in the world,” explained Nate, a senior at Beavercreek High School in Dayton, Ohio, and a member of Ascension Parish there.

Being fueled by prayer together is what led to a big transformation in the students’ hearts, rooting them in relationship with God so that they felt ready to be equipped to put love in action.

The first step? Learning true accompaniment—walking side by side with others as God walks with us.

Rosie Barrett, a high school junior at Guerin Catholic High School in Noblesville, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese, walked away from the gathering with this on her heart:

“One life lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t take your faith journey alone. You need to build a community of different people that can stand by you and help you to get stronger,” said Rosie, a member of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Westfield, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese. “Just being together in unison in God’s love will immediately make your faith stronger.”

The genuine community that Rosie mentions is the next step in the path to missionary discipleship.

Day by day, “missionary discipleship” shifted from an idea that the participants read on paper into a tangible calling that they were already able to start living during the week together. They also put it into action during a day of service immersion in the Indianapolis area at multiple locations, including the Society of St. Andrew, the Learning Tree and Providence Cristo Rey High School, as well as crafting mission plans to bring their strengthened faith back to their home communities.

The final days of the institute focused on being sent to continue this good work, encouraging students to let the week be more than just a one-time experience, but a lasting change in how they live.

“When you come to MDI, yes, you come so that Christ can fill you,” said college mentor Timothy Hosford. “But you also come so that Christ can send you out.”

Getting out of their cars on the first day, many of these students were unsure, yet hopeful, at what was to come. Together in friendship, they left MDI 2021 equipped with honest encounters and a calling to share them boldly.

In only six days, the Missionary Disciples Institute made an impact that will surely leave a footprint in eternity.

(Aubrey Major is a junior at Marian University in Indianapolis.)

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