Luke Kellish didn't know what to expect when he went on his first Journey retreat for Catholic teens last fall. But by the end of the four-day faith experience, he felt closer to the retreat participants than to his best school friends.

"There's no way I can describe it that does it justice," said Luke, a junior at Niskayuna High School who goes to St. Kateri Tekakwitha parish in Schenectady. "With high school, there's a real problem of trying to find who your real friends are and what not to get mixed up with. Journey is a very respecting, loving environment. [You form] true friendships."

When the 56th local Journey retreat kicks off today, Luke will be a "table leader." That means he'll talk about his faith and facilitate group discussions for first-time retreatants.

Journey is the high-school offshoot of the Cursillo retreat movement for adults, which was introduced in the Albany Diocese in 1970. The college version, Emmaus, started three years later; Journey began in 1986 and now attracts the children of its early alumni.

Peer-led
Journey and Emmaus are led by students with adult support. Luke has been attending weekly team meetings for two months to talk about details and practice what he'll say on the retreat.

"It's one thing to listen to a talk from an adult, but it means so much more to have a peer talk to you about their relationship with God and the struggles they go through," he explained. Participants talk about "learning how to fall in love with God, with the first step being loving yourself. It really deepens and solidifies religious faith [and] makes you respect yourself."

Journey retreats are held two or three times a year and attract up to 25 candidates and 15 teen team members from area parishes. The retreats include speakers, discussions, liturgies, reconciliation, the Rosary and activities. There's spiritual guidance to foster the teens' relationships with God.

'Jesus boot camp'
"We're in a closed environment for four days, sort of Jesus boot camp," said Mark Sabatini, the adult lay director of Journey. "It really forces these kids to consider faith. They come out of it with a much better idea of what Jesus is all about."

Luke and Mr. Sabatini said some self-professed atheists and agnostics have attended begrudgingly and left with a desire to learn more about the faith.

"It's not very forceful, but if you're open, it's moving," Luke explained. He tells his friends, "Worse come to worst, you don't like the retreat, but you miss a day of school and you get to hang out with me."

Mr. Sabatini said participants discover "there is a Christian community of peers outside of their family, their parish, their school. They find out that they're not necessarily alone in their beliefs.

"I don't want to say that we're responsible for a couple of marriages," he added with a laugh, "but we have had kids who have come on the retreat who have gotten married."

Luke wants to tour the Diocese with other team members to speak about Journey at Masses. Teens who have gone through the program do charity walks together and reunite in small prayer groups throughout the year.

"Journey meant a lot to me," Luke said. He stays involved because of "the thought that I'm setting up that environment for someone else, giving them the opportunity to find a community with such loving people."

The Emmaus retreats have a similar effect on college students, who can be a hard-to-reach population for the Catholic Church.

"Many parishes tend to focus their events on the very young or the very old. College students are not having their needs met and not having the opportunity to bring their gifts to the table," said Fred Boehrer, a lay spiritual director for both Journey and Emmaus. He's also a leader of the Catholic Worker movement in the Diocese. "The Emmaus retreat helps to address that."

Up to 20 first-time participants, known as "travelers," attend the annual retreats; about 20 college students do the behind-the-scenes work. The retreats teach about God's unconditional love and friendship, faith, the sacraments, community, discipleship, forgiveness and spirituality.

"It's really being in a welcoming space," Mr. Boehrer said, "to hear about the faith journeys that other college students are experiencing in times of celebration and in times of doubt."

From all over
Students typically come from campus ministry programs at The University at Albany, Hartwick College and SUNY in Oneonta, The College of Saint Rose in Albany, Siena in Loudonville, Russell Sage in Troy, Hudson Valley Community College in Troy and SUNY Adirondack in Queensbury. Leaders believe Emmaus is the longest-running Catholic college retreat program in the country.

Christopher O'Neill, Emmaus' co-director, went on his first retreat in 1975.

"I got a lot out of the program when I was a student," he said. "It gives them a chance to see their Catholic faith in a very positive light, to recognize that their Catholic faith and God's love is a positive force in their lives and a chance for them to grow and be the best person they can be. It's also really helpful to meet other students who share their faith."

Mr. O'Neill said the program creates leaders in campus ministry programs.

"The students that we get are just very inspiring," he said. "They have so much to offer. The weekend brings out the best in people."