Students walk with Jesus and Mary at Focus 11

Apr 11, 2024
Students across the Diocese of Orlando participate in Focus 11 at Holy Family Parish in Orlando. There they gained a deeper understanding of God and themselves. (GLENDA MEEKINS)

ORLANDO  |  Hundreds of students from Catholic schools around the Diocese of Orlando teamed up with Jesus and Mary to learn more about vocations and to have an encounter with Catholicism’s most holy saint and her son.

The annual Focus 11 event, hosted at Holy Family Parish in Orlando, provided a setting and activities offering opportunities to ask big questions about faith and identity as children of God. The retreat is designed for 11-year-olds and high school juniors.

“These are the ages of young people who are in the midst of asking big life questions and they’re also at a point in their lives where they’re not afraid to hear the answer,” said Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary Sister Gianna Grace Perino. “It’s been a beautiful gift having the theme of Jesus’s last two gifts: The Eucharist and Our Lady.”

Sister Perino, associate vocations director for the diocese, added uniting the two in the theme has made for a powerful experience for the retreatants who she believes were “seeking the Lord in a powerful way.” She recalled one student telling her, “Sister, I’ve never prayed like this before. This was powerful.” Another shared, “I’m starting a new relationship with Our Lord and Our Lady. I didn’t even know how powerful it was that Our Lady always leads us to Jesus.“

Guest speakers and participants over the two days, April 8-9, included Deacons Michael Batista and Phillip Mills, scheduled to be ordained to the priesthood in May. Bishop John Noonan and pastor of Holy Family, Father Martin Nguyen, also welcomed fellow priests, religious and parish youth director Ellona Delac to share testimonies and stand as witnesses to the power of Christ in the Eucharist and the guidance of Mother Mary.

Father Zachary Parker, parochial vicar at Ascension Parish in Melbourne, brought the crowd to a frenzy as he began his talk with images of computer games Minecraft and Fortnite to a large screen. He said people like to play these games because of the adventure, because of what they get to see and do.

“There’s something in the human heart, something within you that was made for an adventure – to go out and explore, to see everything,” he told the youth.

The image was followed by one of Jesus in His suffering. “There is something interesting about living in a world that has so much beauty and so much pain and evil,” he said. “What’s so awesome about our lives as Christians is God has called you, called me, called the whole world to go out on this awesome adventure and save people from the evil that we see. God wants you, just like in Minecraft, just like in Fortnight, to go battle against the evil that’s in the world. He wants you to go on this beautiful adventure with Him and see all these beautiful things and help save people.”

Encouraging them, he concluded by sharing the story of when he met a homeless man who was rummaging for food in the dumpster next to his car. “It shocked me. For the first time, as we looked at each other, I understood our faith for the first time. I saw Jesus in this man’s eyes, looking right at me,” he said. “I learned the gift God placed on my heart was to show him, to show you, to show everyone that they are loved. That they’re important.” Father Parker said with the gifts of the Eucharist and Our Lady, God has equipped everyone  to participate in “this beautiful battle, this beautiful journey and experience with God who wants to take you to places you can’t even imagine.”

Next Ellona Delac, youth director for Holy Family, shared her journey of discernment leading her to consecrate her life to Mary. “Being a saint means to be holy, set apart. Not to be perfect ourselves, but to be perfect in and through Jesus,” she said. “Mary is the holiest saint and she is there to help us.”

After Eucharistic Adoration Deacon Michael Batista lifts the monstrance for Benediction of students and school staff gathered at Focus 11, April 8, 2024. (GLENDA MEEKINS)

The students made rosaries and prayed during Mass and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament led by Deacon Michael Batista. Noting how busy kids are these days, the transitional deacon said he thinks Focus 11 “gives them time to recognize what might be stirring in their heart and what God might be asking them to do with their lives. Or just to open their hearts to those questions… What am I made for? Who am I? What does God desire for me?” He added it’s good to share religious life with them – priesthood, diaconate, consecrated life, and “to be able to show them we too have those same desires and questions, and this is where Jesus led us.”

Matthew, a sixth-grader from Our Saviour Catholic School in Cocoa Beach, said he was glad he came. He said Focus 11 was helpful as he pondered what he will do when he’s older.

“I feel like God talks to me,” he said. “I feel that I definitely have a mission. I just need to find out what it is and I need to set out for it.”

“It was fun and educational,” said Malachi, a student from St. Mary Catholic School in Rockledge. Fellow classmate, Rachel appreciated seeing friends from other schools while Anabelle enjoyed making rosaries and the games.

In his homily, Director of Vocations Father Josh Swallows speaks to students about God’s will for their lives. (GLENDA MEEKINS)

“I think Focus 11 gives our sixth-graders a chance to see a different side of priests and religious,” said Father Josh Swallows, diocesan vocations director. “We just try to give them a fun day and I think it becomes clear that ‘ordinary’ people choose this life. Focus 11 is also awesome simply because the kids spend a whole day thinking about the Lord, and hopefully how God might be guiding their heart.”

To take a closer walk discerning priesthood or religious life, contact the Diocese of Orlando Vocations Office,

Click here to watch a video of games played during Focus 11.

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, April 1, 2024