Hearts on Fire: Applying the Spiritual Exercises in the 21st Century

by | Jan 29, 2024 | Spirituality

I hear a common refrain among young adults today: “I love attending retreats, but I haven’t had the time or the opportunity since I finished college. And it’s hard to find fellow young adults to go with. Besides, good retreats are a long drive away.” 

A group of Jesuits solved this Millennial – Gen Z problem with one easy fix: day-long traveling retreats, called Hearts on Fire (HoF), for young adults at local parishes. 

Last summer, we traveled through three cities in the Midwest, offering retreats to spiritually seeking but time starved young adults. We met them where they are, quite literally, and offered day long retreats at their local community. Because they were accessible, requiring minimal commitment in terms of time and money, and easy to coordinate with friends, they were quite popular with young adults. Through talks, personal prayer, small group sharing, and the sacraments, we deepened our relationship with God and with each other at the HoF retreats this past summer. Specifically, the content of the retreat included four talks corresponding to the four weeks (parts) of the Spiritual Exercises: meditations on purpose, discipleship, sin, and God’s love.  We hoped that the day-long retreat would be just the start, or a small step along the way, of a lifelong journey with Christ.

With many of the best things in life, we wish we would have more time to truly enjoy the experience. For instance, Yosemite can’t be seen in eight hours, but you can get started with what you have. Better to have spent a few hours in Yosemite than never to have seen it all. I hope that if you spend a day in Yosemite valley, you would be inspired to return for longer backpacking trips in the future. In the same vein, if you only have a day to spare, we can offer the “Best of the Spiritual Exercises” to give you a taste that will  leave you wanting more. And perhaps, even desiring repeated retreats for the rest of your life. St Ignatius wrote his masterpiece, the Spiritual Exercises, for a 30 day experience, but he knew, even back in the 16th century, that most folk don’t have the luxury for a month-long retreat. Knowing that retreats do not have to be an all-or-nothing affair, and in true original Jesuit practicality, he offered various alternative versions of it along with a “do what works best” instruction to help the faithful in whatever way possible. Sometimes I wonder how Ignatius, a pioneer in practicality, would write the Spiritual exercises in this present age of Tiktok, memes, and tweets. I suppose the task of applying medieval wisdom to this postmodern world has fallen to young Jesuits, thus yielding all kinds of fruits, including HoF.

The key for retreat directors is to meet the retreatants where they are, and to make spiritual wisdom relevant to their lives. Even though the Spiritual Exercises were written five hundred years ago, they are still applicable today because humans are largely the same. Despite living in the glitz and glamor of the roaring 2020s in Milwaukee, our attendees still looked for more meaningful relationships with God and fellow humans. The question of what is a good life (or for the spiritually alert, what does God want from me) has been asked in various forms across all cultures and history. Unsurprisingly, we are still asking that question today because we are still human despite the hysteria about cyborgs taking over and AI infiltrating our lives.

Retreats are a helpful spiritual practice to revitalize our relationship with God, including the times when the pressures of life threaten to suffocate us. Additionally, it is important for members of young adult ministries to have had a common spiritual experience to ground their fellowship and camaraderie. Sharing our deepest longing for the transcendent with our fellow pilgrims is a wonderful way to forge deep friendships, and to prevent young adult ministries from devolving into happy hour circles or knitting cliques. 

My talk on the retreat was a reflection on the Principle and Foundation which is basically Igantius’ vision of the purpose of human life. It is my favorite part of the Exercises, and I have talked about it on numerous occasions, including a recent Jesuit Post essay. In fact, I had upcycled that essay into the talk. And I hope to upcycle that talk into another essay. I am going green with my spiritual insights by constantly upcycling them. Some of the best spiritual insights of our faith tradition are so impactful that they are worth repeating over and over.

For me, as someone aspiring to follow Ignatius’ steps in the 21st century, HoF was a wonderful experience of articulating out loud my own spiritual insights. In a way, the graces of God become more tangible when I speak about them. That’s why I enjoy spiritual direction and faith sharing. Somehow talking about God makes God more present in my life. In the same vein, I was delighted to hear about ways in which God was working in the lives of the retreatants. Graces shared are graces multiplied. And I was also made aware of the challenges they face as they navigate their young adulthood. Listening to their stories helped me get out of the religious life bubble that can sometimes insulate me from the real world.

With the decline in the number of Jesuits, we have fewer Jesuits in each of our ministries. Consequently, we rarely work together on the same teams, working toward the same projects. As such, it was a blessing to build community with other Jesuits through ministry.  A shared ministerial experience with my brother Jesuits helped increase my love for the Society, and filled me with great consolation to know that I am in an order with men on fire for preaching the Gospel. We had the opportunity to work in one of our professed apostolic preferences, journeying with the youth, while sharing one of the great treasures of the Catholic tradition, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

As ministers of the faith, I believe we need to make it easy for young adults to discover and experience the spiritual treasures of the Catholic church. And we need to help the faithful find a robust community of faithful in our rapidly secularizing culture. The HoF retreats fed these two birds with one scone (that is a vegan version of the archaic two-birds-one-stone idiom). For the retreat junkies out there, we could add a frequent flier program to incentivize repeat customers. Would a Stanley tumbler in your color of choice inspire you to attend three HoF retreats? Attend five, and you could get featured on the widely popular Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network’s, the parent organization of Hearts on Fire Retreats, Instagram page. 

Ultimately, I hope that the retreats are spiritually beneficial to the young adults and their Jesuit directors as we seek to follow Christ in all things. May St. Ignatius help us live our lives for God’s greater glory.


Daniel Mascarenhas, SJ

dmascarenhassj@thejesuitpost.org   /   All posts by Daniel