Pinoy Jesuits to hold online Holy Week retreat

Complete with music videos, movie clips, and online polls, an interactive Holy Week retreat will run from Thursday to Saturday to cater to people whose schedules or locations prevent them from attending face-to-face prayer sessions.

Prepared by Jesuit priests Johnny Go and Francis Alvarez along with other Jesuits, the retreat titled “The Fugitives of Lent" takes off from the stories of the people whom Go calls the “bad guys" of the season – Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus Christ; Pontius Pilate, who sentenced him to death; and Peter the Apostle, who denied his Lord thrice.Using Facebook to supplement his online retreat for the first time, Go and his team put up an online poll asking people if they believe that Judas Iscariot — one of his retreat's "fugitives" of Lent — is in hell. "The results are surprising," he said. Screen grab from Facebook

In Go's effort to try something different this year, four comic book characters take centerstage in the brief preparatory module for the retreat. In the first few web pages of the retreat, Go invites participants to go deep into the characters of “the comic world’s worst villains" – Frankenstein, The Penguin, Dracula, and Lex Luthor.

Highlighting nuances in the characters' individual personalities, Go introduces participants to the antagonist-centered retreat with the opening line, “Even with villains, there is nothing black and white. Only grays."

In an e-mail interview with GMA News Online, Go said that the retreat also targets a “tougher" audience to reach. “We're hoping and praying that people who don't believe in God or those who have fallen away from the Church will stumble [upon] the site and in spite of themselves begin thinking about God again and – who knows? – maybe find their way back to Him," he said.

Initially for OFWs

Go —who is also the director of Xavier School in Greenhills, San Juan— began to hold online Holy Week retreats in 2008, initially to cater to overseas Filipino workers who find retreats largely unavailable in the countries where they live.

“At the time, I was religiously posting Bible reflections every Sunday on my Multiply site. The Bible blogs were being followed by a virtual community, who would post their questions or insights after every blog. So we thought an online recollection might work," he said.

His first online retreat, called “Meeting Places," carried interactive features such as a virtual Stations of the Cross, and was packaged in three modules that would require at least 30 minutes each. Go said the response to the retreat overwhelmed him and his fellow Jesuits.

“The website crashed on the first day," he recounted. “Once we managed to fix that, we got thousands of hits – many of them, the stats showed, actually going through all three days. Some of the sharing and prayers posted by the online retreatants really touched me."

In his 2010 retreat called “God of the Dungeons," a participant under the username “ps" thanked God for the online retreat “since I always feel that in my life, I don’t always have time or chance to pray to you, get close to you, or even to attend Sunday Mass."

Another participant under the username “tava" said in a prayer: “Lord, even at the end of the retreat, I’m still confused, hurt, and lost. But I thank you for your reassuring love."

Go said an average of 2,000 participants have finished the annual Holy Week retreat for the past four years, based on site statistics. He said the figure excludes participants who only come and stay for a while but do not finish the retreat.

Something new each year

While virtual retreats "can never replace a real-world retreat," Go explained that the use multimedia makes the genre of online retreats stand out. “Images speak to us, at times more powerfully than words. Going online allows us to use a whole repertoire of devices to achieve this and to go beyond simply using words," Go said.

Go, who has also pioneered e-learning programs in Xavier School, related the innovation of an online retreat to a similar trend in the field of education. “Students no longer want to learn just by being told. They learn best when they are guided in seeking knowledge for themselves and figuring things out on their own," he said.

“Why not the same for faith?" added Go, citing an increasing reversal of a previously “one-way" process of spreading the Gospel “from the preacher to the preached."

“Today it has to be two-way," he said. “The preacher, more than anything else, provokes the desire in the person to look for God himself or herself. Many people these days don't like just being told what and how anymore; they prefer being able to go through their process actively."

CBCP’s online ‘Visita Iglesia’

At the start of the month, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) launched another effort to extend Holy Week traditions to the online world – its online “Visita Iglesia." The CBCP said the program caters to disabled Filipinos as well as overseas Filipino workers who cannot make it to the Philippines during Holy Week.

As of Wednesday noon, the counter on the Visita Iglesia website said it has registered over 46,000 visitors so far.

The Catholic Church has stepped up its use of Internet technologies, with no less than its head, Pope Benedict XVI, urging Catholics around the world to use social media and social networks to satisfy “the desire for meaning, truth and unity which remain the most profound aspirations of each human being." — TJD/VS, GMA News