Largest Emmaus Days in a decade as 162 encounter Jesus, consider vocations

Father Chase Hilgenbrinck, diocesan vocation director for recruitment, leads an Emmaus Days session outside St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois in Champaign. (Provided photo)

That 162 boys and young men took part in the four sessions of Emmaus Days this summer in the Diocese of Peoria — the most in a decade — was “incredible.”

But there was another number even more satisfying to the seminarian leaders of the vocation awareness retreats sponsored by the diocese’s Office of Vocations.

The largest session of Emmaus Days this summer was the final one, Session IV, which drew 70 seventh and eighth grade boys to Peoria Notre Dame High School from July 20-22. Other group photos are found on The Catholic Post’s Facebook site. (The Catholic Post/Tom Dermody)

“We had 118 guys just the past week,” said Jack Swoik, head prefect for this summer’s Emmaus Days, speaking of Sessions III and IV hosted by Peoria Notre Dame High School July 17-22. “And I bet 100 of them went to confession,” he continued. “That was pretty awesome to witness.”

Jack Watt, assistant prefect, chose the same highlight from this summer’s retreats. On the final night of Session IV, he recalled, there were more than 70 junior high students assembled for an hour of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Watt announced that if any retreatant wanted to go to confession, there were priests available.

“Immediately, 40 or 50 of those young men stood up to go to confession all at once, said Watt. “It was incredible, something I’ll never forget. The kids came back with tears in their eyes and smiles on their faces. You could tell they had an amazing encounter with God at that moment. That’s everything we could ever hope for when we put on those retreats.”

The theme of Emmaus Days this year was “Encounter,” and the sacrament of reconciliation was just one way retreatants encountered Jesus as they spent time considering how the Lord is calling them to live their lives, including the possibility of priesthood. Other encounters included Mass, eucharistic adoration, witness talks given by priests and seminarians, and “good, holy fraternity,” said Swoik, a Pekin native who will return to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in the fall and is scheduled for ordination as a transitional deacon in 2023.

The first two Emmaus Days sessions — for men at least college-aged and then for high school juniors and seniors — took place in June hosted by St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois in Champaign. The sessions at Peoria Notre Dame were for high school freshmen and sophomores and then boys in grades 7 and 8.

Watt pointed to another encounter experience during adoration at Session II in Champaign. The retreat leaders had asked the high school juniors to stay at adoration for one hour. Quiet praise music was provided by Lizzy Hoffman on keyboard. When the hour passed, no one left. After two hours, all were still before the eucharistic Lord, with some obviously “touched by God” during the experience.


“We all have a calling from the Lord,” said Bishop Louis Tylka, who celebrated Mass and answered retreatants’ questions at all four sessions. (See related story.)

Deacon Daniel Dionesotes carries the Blessed Sacrament as high school juniors and seniors participating in Emmaus Days’ Session II take part in a eucharistic procession on the campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign. Four sessions of the vocations awareness retreat this summer drew a total of 162 participants. (Provided photo/Father Julio Faes)

“We all have a vocation,” the bishop continued in a homily at Peoria Notre Dame on July 20. “I encourage us all — whether discerning a vocation to the priesthood, religious life, marriage, or whatever it is — to trust in the Lord. Don’t look at your inadequacies, your faults, your failures, your sins. God will give you what is necessary if you are on the path of discernment to the vocation God is calling you to.”

Swoik credited personal invitations from priests and seminarians, a desire to return to normal after the COVID pandemic, and relationship-building by Father Chase Hilgenbrinck — diocesan director of vocations for recruitment — for the impressive numbers.

About a dozen other seminarians had various roles in Emmaus Days. The diocese’s four newly ordained transitional deacons each took part in one session so that they could focus on their summer parish assignments.

The retreats featured opportunities to both pray and play. For example, Swoik arranged for retreatants at the Peoria Notre Dame sessions to spend a few hours swimming at a local club’s pool.

Swoik noted that this was the 39th year for Emmaus Days in the diocese. He attended three of them in high school and early college, and is grateful to now have the leadership experience.

“To think that so many guys have done it before me and so many awesome priests still ministering in our diocese have led it,” said Swoik, happy to follow in that tradition.

For Watt, a Bloomington native who will soon leave for Mundelein Seminary to continue his theology studies, it was his first time seeing the “fullness” of Emmaus Days, though he assisted in parts of the retreats last year.

“It’s amazing and taught me a lot,” he told The Catholic Post, including all that goes on behind the scenes to make the retreatants feel welcomed, cared for, and aware that “this is a special place for them to encounter God.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: More photos from Emmaus Days have been posted to an album on The Catholic Post’s Facebook page.


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