Among the questions I most often get asked about Benedictine College are about our mission trips. We are famous for them.
More than a third of our students “travel for their faith,” including marches, conferences, giving retreats and going on pilgrimages and mission trips to places like Rome, El Salvador, Belize, Haiti, Jamaica, Israel, North Dakota, New York, St. Louis, New Orleans and Washington, D.C. This school year, we have raised more than $150,000 in service of the poor and unborn, and by May we will have traveled a cumulative 1.4 million miles for Jesus Christ and his Church.
Our charism is to share the spiritual wealth, so here is Benedictine College’s “mission wisdom”: five things you can do before you leave that will make your trip a spiritually meaningful and fun experience.
1. Get everyone to pray
Introductions are important, and, with them, prayer. If you are the group leader, send a mass email to everyone on the trip describing what they will accomplish on their adventure. This frames everyone’s expectations, builds excitement and unites everyone around the trip’s purpose. If you do this one to two weeks before you leave, this email can challenge everyone to pray for the success of the trip and for each other.
On our service trips and pilgrimages, the group leader will challenge everyone to pray a novena, offer a daily Rosary and even fast for the intention of a group.
2. ‘Pack’ ahead with meditations
Prepared meditations are a great way to get everyone involved in a spring break mission trip. Have each member of your group pick from a preset list of meditations. Then ask them to pray through it and develop a three- to five-minute reflection on how it relates to their life and goals of your mission. Tell them that one or two members of the group will be asked to share their meditation at different sites each day of the mission trip. Introverts will love it because it is a structured opportunity. Extroverts will love it because it is engaging.
You can choose any set of Scripture passages that fit your trip. For example, if your group plans to build houses in El Salvador, you might choose passages that focus on the importance of a home. Christ visited the home of Peter and many others in the Gospels. Another great source for shared meditations is the Rosary. Ask participants to pick the Scripture for their favorite mystery. Throughout your trip, ask them to read the Scripture aloud, then share their reflection on it with the group. You will find that they will see something in the Scripture you never thought of, and they will make connections between Christ’s life and the work you are doing.
3. Schedule a daily Mass
The Mass is a great source of strength on a pilgrimage or service trip. If you are on a pilgrimage to Rome, a Marian shrine or the Holy Land, your feet will be thankful for the rest. If you are building houses, volunteering at an orphanage or running a sports camp, it is time to be alone with the Lord. Try to bring a priest or plan to line up a priest and chapel at your destination.
Non-Catholics on your trip? They will see the beauty of Catholic life and the Mass. If you don’t have a priest, try to get to know the one you will be visiting. Email him, get to Mass early and introduce the group to him. Ask him for a blessing over the group. This kind of thing will immediately open doors for fellowship with him and the community.
I remember doing this on a trip to the Holy Land. After Mass the bus driver took us off the main road in the city of Cana. We drove up the mountain overlooking the “Wedding Church” where our Lord performed his first miracle. Our driver welcomed us into his own home, introduced us to his family and served us Turkish coffee overlooking the city. The Mass is universal and will open doors for you, too.
4. Don’t forget the music
Create a hymn book. A volunteer with music talent is always happy to do this. It can take work and effort, but the impact is amazing. Give the volunteer your trip’s itinerary and ask him or her to pick hymns for the opening song, Communion meditation and closing song that not only fit the liturgy of the day but also fit the itinerary. If you are at an orphanage, choose songs about being lost then found. If you are on a medical mission, hymns about healing. If you are at the altar of a saint, choose something about the saints. In the rush to organize a service trip, this detail can often be forgotten or viewed as something of secondary importance. Ask your volunteer to make a booklet for every two people. They will need to carry them in their backpack and hand them out before Mass each day. When you see how much your group enjoys singing together at a chapel in the middle of the jungle or a busy city, you will see it was worth the effort.
5. Celebrate a ‘First Supper’
Share a meal together. A Sunday or two before you head to the airport, get everyone together for an easy Italian meal. Everyone likes pasta, and if that is too much, organize a potluck or get sandwiches. Start the gathering off with a five-minute presentation that again casts the vision for your service trip. If you use PowerPoint, include pictures of previous trips, the people you will meet and the things you will do. This helps each person prepare for the experience. As you join hands and say grace, remember to ask the Lord’s blessing on the food and your group. Dinner will be fun, then close with handouts and final announcements, followed by a casual reception with soft drinks and dessert. This allows people to visit as long as they want and leave when they want. Remember, Christ celebrated the Last Supper before his journey into Jerusalem. If you do this, almost everyone will know each other before you get to your gate at the airport.
Benedictine Father Brendan Rolling is director of mission and ministry for the Atchison, Kan., college, which is also his alma mater.
Additional articles in the Catholic college special section:
Engaging with the world through foreign studies programs
Overseas faith journeys
Languages teach students more than just words
Facts and figures on international studies
Promoting overseas study
Benefits of study abroad indisputable, long-lasting