The Gen Z Catholic Retreat Music Playlist
The slightly musty basement of the retreat house. The twinkling yellow-white holiday lights scattered in a circle. The kid who doesn’t want to be there. The kid who just loves being there. Whether you know it as Kairos, Spark, Magis, Encounter or any of the hundreds of variations of the high school or college spiritual retreat, the central elements of the experience stay the same. You know that liminal space between a small group activity and a faith-sharing circle? Chances are there was a song playing in the background that involved a banjo, a scraggly-bearded lead vocalist and lyrics about finding yourself through struggle.
In 2021, America’s literary editor James T. Keane and poetry editor Joe Hoover, S.J., compiled a list of the very best (and very worst) Catholic retreat songs of Gen X. While Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” are still used in today’s retreat world, this year's cohort of O’Hare Fellows, all Gen Z alumni of both Jesuit high schools and colleges, are revisiting songs from “the same overwrought well” of a very specific genre: The Catholic Retreat Song.
The thing about retreat music is that despite every cliché embedded in verses about “finding yourself” and “trusting in your power,” these intensely earnest songs are quite good. As we began brainstorming our song choices, we realized that our not-far-gone teenage selves had our musical wits about us. Our songs are not all by Gen Z artists; we think they all carry their intergenerational merits. Really, very little has changed through the generations—besides the battles retreat leaders now wage trying to get retreatants to turn in their smartphones.
We’ve traded in the ’80s for 20-Teens, Blockbuster for Netflix and boomboxes for Spotify playlists. Here are three Gen Zers’ picks for hall-of-fame-worthy Catholic retreat songs.
Very little has changed through the generations—besides the battles retreat leaders now wage trying to get retreatants to turn in their smartphones for the weekend.
“There Will Be Time,” by Mumford and Sons. Campus ministry veterans know the chokehold that Mumford and Sons has on retreat culture all too well. I have heard “There Will Be Time” more times than I can count. And it hits home. Every. Single. Time. The opening melody is the signature soft-electric folk rock of Marcus Mumford. Something about that subtle folky beat makes you stop and think, hmm, should I frame a 20-minute speech I wrote in my dorm room about my spiritual trauma with a song by Mumford and Sons? Perhaps it’s the influence of Marcus’s theologian older brother James Mumford that makes his lyrics so spiritually rich. On the track, Baaba Maal, a South African pop star, is singing in his native language. I can’t understand the language, and yet I feel what he is saying. And I guarantee those students sitting on a battered couch or tremendously uncomfortable folding chairs can feel it, too. - Christine Lenahan
“Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” by Green Day. My mom told me that when I was a child, “When I Come Around” was one of my first favorite songs, so my love for Green Day has always been there. “Good Riddance” is beautifully poignant even though it feels like the deck is stacked against the song carrying real emotional weight. Its snotty title reads like a teenage angst song, and it’s on an album with songs that contain subject matter such as crossdressing and going cold turkey. But chances are you’ve probably heard this song before at a graduation or some other ceremony marking the passage of time, as the song captures the fleeting nature of life so well: “Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road/ Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go/ So make the best of this test, and don’t ask why/ It's not a question, but a lesson learned in time.” For an upperclassman at a high school retreat reflecting on just how fast these four years are passing by, not many songs provide a better backdrop. - Michael O’Brien
“Godspeed,” by Frank Ocean. If you lived in a college dorm after the year 2017, chances are you’ve seen your fair share of “Blonde” album posters on the walls of young men wishing to signal that they’re willing to get deep. It only makes sense, then, that “Godspeed” has become such a mainstay in Gen Z retreat culture. It’s perhaps the most respectful, loving breakup song I know—set over organ music, its hymn-like qualities help to smooth the edges between the sacred and the secular. Carefully balancing themes of grief and persistent love, Ocean tells his ex-lover that even as “I let go of my claim on you… you’ll have this place to call home/ always,” which makes the song connect even more with any second-semester seniors in the audience. Plus, it’s a fun window into your retreat leader’s life; it’s a safe bet that if it’s a guy, he’s got a “Blonde”poster tacked to his dorm room’s cinderblock walls. - Delaney Coyne
No matter where you go, you can’t escape her—it wouldn’t be a Gen Z playlist without Taylor.
“Rivers and Roads,” by The Head and The Heart. With possibly some of the most soul-crushing lyrics, especially for high school and college seniors, the song opens “A year from now, we’ll all be gone/ All our friends will move away/ And they're goin’ to better places/ But our friends will be gone away.” This song makes me want to smoke a cigarette and sit on an old porch swing in a do-nothing town and think about my youth. Feeling a severe longing for the past and a simultaneous fear of the future? Blast this one while driving on a single-lane road imagining yourself in a movie montage. Or better yet, let a static-y Bluetooth speaker in a cold, damp church basement provide the soundtrack to your worried mind. - C.L.
“In the Aeroplane over the Sea,” by Neutral Milk Hotel. If I think about the lyrics of this song for too long, I’ll start to be overcome with an existential crisis; but I think that’s a good thing now and then. Listening to this song while on a retreat ahead of entering your last semester of college while figuring out what you want to be after graduation is like throwing yourself into a pool full of sharks. One of the most beloved indie rock songs of all time (and for good reason), it’s a pretty perfect meditation on how truly bizarre existence itself can be, and how it’s perfectly O.K. to grapple with it. The line that sends me spinning every single time is when Jeff Mangum, with his beautifully weird voice, ponders on “How strange it is to be anything at all.” When you think about it, there’s a whole lot more of nothing than something out there, and hearing this one in a retreat setting makes you think about how you want to spend your time as…something. - M.O.
“Vienna,” by Billy Joel. A retreat director once told us that “Vienna” was so overplayed on retreats that if we wanted to use it, we needed to write up a one-page reflection on why it was strictly necessary for our talk. For me, Billy Joel’s music is synonymous with my father. It’s “dad music” in the best way, and “Vienna” is the perfect example of this, bestowing the advice of a level-headed parent: “Slow down, you’re doing fine/ You can’t be everything you want to be before your time.” It’s the kind of advice a 19-year-old retreat leader can’t give with authority, but Billy Joel—a stand-in for our Gen X fathers—can. Forty-six years after its release, it still resonates in rooms full of anxious young people. - D.C.
Somewhere on every retreat will be a bro with a “spiritual-but-not-religious” edge who uses 2006 John Mayer to express what his hypermasculine side cannot: his feelings.
“To Build a Home,” by The Cinematic Orchestra. To quote Brother Joe Hoover, “This song is so depressing I don’t even want to talk about it.” In summary: A relationship is formed, something as beautiful as a family home charged with the memories and nostalgia of childhood, and then the relationship crumbles for no explicit reason other than the “the gusts came around to blow me down.” It’s the worst. Not to mention the most magical violins and harps you’ve ever heard build to a gorgeous crescendo that brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. Does The Cinematic Orchestra have any other songs? I don’t care. I only want to hear this one over and over again. - C.L.
“The Rainbow Connection,” by Kermit the Frog. While the voice of the aforementioned Jeff Mangum might be a little unorthodox, it pales in comparison to the wackiness of that of Kermit the Frog. But that’s one of the best parts about music—if the message hits home, it doesn’t matter what you sound like. Retreats offer us a space to bridge the everyday to the divine, and that’s just what “The Rainbow Connection” is. While the song is overall an optimistic, idealist vision of what the world could look like, it also grapples with some themes that are eerily reminiscent of questions I ask myself during prayer: “Who said that every wish/ Would be heard and answered/ When wished on the morning star?” Kermit sings. Replace the words “wish/wished” with “pray/prayed” and “on the morning star” with “to God,” and you have a pretty good description of what it means to pray. The Muppets are often seen as a silly band of characters, but they’ve helped me ask myself some hard questions. - M.O.
“Unwritten” falls into a category I like to call “retreat bangers”—this is one played at the end of the retreat when you’ve learned that the true secret of Kairos is (spoiler alert) love.
“Clean,” by Taylor Swift. No matter where you go, you can’t escape her—it wouldn’t be a Gen Z playlist without Taylor. From her seminal 2014 pop album “1989,” “Clean” is the kind of song that feels made for a retreat leader trying her best to project strength, dealing with those relationships that hang in the dark closets of our minds “like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore.” A melancholy synth ballad about healing from past hurts by a pop superstar known for neverreallymovingon, “Clean” fits right in among retreat talks about past traumas that still linger. Replete with rain imagery that my co-author Christine Lenahan once called “baptismal,” this is Ms. Swift’s contribution to Catholic schools everywhere. - D.C.
“Waiting on The World to Change,” by John Mayer. Somewhere on every retreat will be a bro with a “spiritual-but-not-religious” edge who uses 2006 John Mayer to express what his hypermasculine side cannot: his feelings. “One day our generation/ is gonna rule the population” is the anthem of the dude who plays football and approaches his retreat talk as if he’s about to crack open a cold one with you and discuss the ever-mysterious topic of “life.” He probably gave the talk on servant leadership and said something along the lines of “I wouldn't be here today without my teammates, who turned into my brothers.” All of the Taylor Swift supporters immediately tuned out or mindlessly doodled in their retreat journals after hearing the twang of Mayer’s opening verse: “Me and all my friends/ we’re all misunderstood.” - C.L.
“Blessings,” by Chance the Rapper. Chance the Rapper was the soundtrack for much of my high school experience, and his mixtape “Coloring Book” is chock full of bangers like “No Problem” and “All Night.” But perhaps the best song on the entire tape is a meditation on Chance’s religious life: “Blessings.” A born-again Christian who fell back in love with the faith through the birth of his daughter, Chance extolls the virtue of finding God in unexpected situations, rapping, “I know the difference in blessings and worldly possessions/ like my ex-girl getting pregnant/ and her becoming my everything…” Hearing this song in a retreat setting helped me to reflect on ways in which I find God in ways that I may not have thought about before, and the epic, brass-kickin trumpets of the song blare in a way that swells my heart to thank God for all of the blessings in my own life. - M.O.
“Unwritten,” by Natasha Bedingfield. This song was written to be blared from a car stereo speeding down an open road on a summer day with the windows down. If it must be played elsewhere, I suppose the vaguely damp, carpet-padded hall of a retreat center can serve as a close runner-up. “Unwritten” falls into a category I like to call “retreat bangers”—this is one played at the end of the retreat when you’ve learned that the true secret of Kairos is (spoiler alert) love. In a campus ministry milieu that relies so heavily on folk-pop, a song like “Unwritten,” which lived on the Billboard charts for 38 weeks in 2006, is often a breath of fresh air. It’s the retreat leader’s way of “opening up the dirty window” (and potentially inviting a sing-along), and its theme of finding joy in authenticity makes it a perfect entry into the “retreat banger” canon. - D.C.