Building Bridges: The sacred path to finding his way
Darius Villalobos is on a mission. He believes that it is not just important but essential to reach out and guide Catholic young adults into deeper communion with Christ and to engage them in active leadership roles within the Church.
Ministering with and advocating for young people is his vocation and avocation. As the Director of Diversity and Inclusion for the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry, the 34-year-old is leveraging his commitment to serve diverse communities and young people. His goal: to help the Catholic Church become a more welcoming and inclusive community for all.
He is blessed, he says, because his life is filled with depth and joy everyday doing what he feels called to do.
But that did not come easy.
In fact, Villalobos attributes the gifts he experiences today to many, many years of discernment and a willingness to place his life in God’s hands. These are lessons he discovered on retreats beginning in high school. That’s when he started asking the big questions about identity, meaning, and the purpose of his life while exploring the important callings in his life.
“I will never forget my first Kairos retreat in high school,” says Villalobos, who went to Lane Technical College Preparatory High School and attended St. Mark Parish in Humboldt Park. “My grandpa, aunts, and uncles were all in ministry, so I grew up in church circles. But I never took that seriously as a vocation for myself. On that first retreat I started watching the retreat leaders and how they were interacting with us and it seemed so fun and fulfilling. I remember thinking, ‘Is this what people really do for a living?’”
The retreat was held at Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House.
Despite his admiration for the retreat leaders and their work, Villalobos had other ambitions.
“I wanted to be a writer and an editor and was planning my life around my career,” he says about his years in college at DePaul. At the same time, he volunteered with the parish youth ministry program. “I kept feeling this nagging pull.”
That’s when he was re-introduced to the North Side Kairos program, the unique retreat experience that made it possible for him to attend a retreat at Bellarmine as a public school student. A collaborative, diversity-based effort by Chicago parishes, North Side Kairos brings together youth from around Chicago who otherwise would miss out on an experience offered to many of their Catholic school peers.
“I’ll never forget the impact Bellarmine had on me,” says Villalobos. “Here I was, this kid who grew up in the city, and we take this school bus away from all the concrete and grayness and suddenly everything is green and we’re right in the middle of this beautiful nature. It was amazing.”
So amazing, and so transformative, that today Bellarmine is a must-attend annual event on his personal to-do list. And, though writing is an important foundation for his work, his full-time vocation and volunteer life are driven by his ministry to serve young people and to empower them to have a deeper relationship with God.
“On the silent retreats, I learned that it is really important to listen to God,” he says. “How can you do that if you are doing all the talking and filling the air with noise? When you go into silence, you are creating space for God to talk to you.”
As a volunteer for the North Side Kairos, Villalobos continues to take young people back to Bellarmine with the hopes that they will find the transformation and career discernment he found.
“I tell them that it’s important to get away if for no other purpose than to think about and work on their relationship with God,” he says. “Retreats are such a good way to re-calibrate yourself and to get in touch with the feelings and emotions that are right below the surface.”
“When I think of my own Kairos experience in high school, a ministry profession seemed so far away from what I imagined I’d ever be doing,” says Villalobos. “But I now realize that God planted the seed in me way back then. I just needed to learn how to trust and to say yes. I now realize that God’s plan for me was so much more exciting than anything I was planning.”
Both Villalobos and his wife, Lissette Castaneda, work full-time in ministry and non-profit work and have attended retreats together.
Though his Catholic college education did not include Ignatian training, Villalobos says he is an enthusiastic student who “soaks up” everything the Jesuits teach on the retreats.
“I now carry an Examen card in my wallet and reflect on my day every day,” he says. “I understand now a lot more about seeing God in all things, and I draw strength and lean on the fact that God is in the midst of every day.”