For the past four years, I have had the privilege of being invited by Life Teen to spend a week or two serving as a priest at one of their three summer camps. This past summer was the first time I was able to bring teens from my own parish to camp. At the end of the week, a religious sister at camp for the week told me that she had a wonderful talk with a young lady from my parish who confided to her that she was now thinking about becoming a religious sister.
It was not even 10 minutes later that one of the summer staffers came to me and said he had just told a young man from my group that he, the summer staffer, thought the boy would make a great priest. What an awesome feeling to see God planting seeds of future vocations to the priesthood and religious life in our young people!
My First Religious Summer Camp
As I think about my own vocation, I realize that attending my first religious summer camp had a strong influence on my ability to hear and to answer God’s call to the priesthood. Had I not attended Prep Vocation Week, I probably would not be a priest today. Named after St. Louis Preparatory Seminary, the seminary high school at the time, the week was a chance for middle school teens from across the Archdiocese to come to the seminary high school to learn about their faith and participate in other fun things.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis closed the seminary high school after my freshman year, and it was the priests, faculty and seminarians I had met during those summer camps who kept me thinking about priesthood.
Over 10 years of priesthood and nine years as a seminarian, I have realized that summer camps played an important role in my faith development and that God has used these camps to plant and nourish vocations to the priesthood or religious life in others. I believe that God still uses the opportunity of these camps to promote vocations today.
The main way in which summer camps promote vocations is that they provide opportunities for young men and women to meet and get to know priests, seminarians, religious sisters and others who are discerning religious life. Sadly, with the decrease in priests and religious, many young people are not exposed to these two vocations outside of Mass as there are fewer priests and sisters teaching in schools.
I know that, for most of my young life, the priesthood was a mystery to me until I had the opportunity during the Prep Vocation Week to sit down at lunch and talk to a priest about what he did outside of Mass. Questions like what does a priest do when he is away from the parish and what is the best part of being a priest would have gone unanswered.
At Camp There Is Time
At camp there is time for those conversations to take place because there is a lack of electronics and no one is going anywhere until the end of the camp. Authentic, joyful priests and religious dispel so many misconceptions and plant the seeds of vocations simply by attending summer camps with the young people and by letting them know that they care about them.
Catholic summer camps that are successful in promoting vocations also seem to place a great emphasis on the sacraments, especially the sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation. It is awesome to see a high school or junior high teen grow to a deeper appreciation of the Eucharist and Mass because they are surrounded by others who have already developed a deeper appreciation for the Eucharist. It is always more uplifting to attend Mass with people who see Mass as a spiritual gift and an opportunity to grow closer to God than to attend with people who do not wish to be there. With a greater love for the Mass comes a greater love for the priesthood because without priests there would be no Mass.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation at camps always seems to be a little bit more powerful and deeper because of the preparation the teens receive before they come to the sacrament. Often there is a speaker speaking of his or her need for the Sacrament of Reconciliation and, by sharing that experience, Reconciliation becomes “something I get to do” and not “something I have to do.”
High school teens and junior high teens also are able to prepare better for the sacrament when they know the priest a little better because of activities they have participated in together at camp. Once again, with a greater emphasis on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a greater love for the priesthood grows.
‘Come Follow Me’
When calling people to be His disciples Jesus never handed them a textbook and asked them to memorize stuff. Instead, Jesus simply said, “Come, follow me. . . .” In our world today, Catholics of all ages are being told that their faith makes no sense and that they should feel foolish for believing what the Church teaches.
There is a bit of truth is in that statement — our faith makes no sense to the world around us. I am becoming more convinced that the true wisdom of the Church can only be seen as one tries honestly to live it. Summer camp provides a unique opportunity for Catholic youth to come and live out their faith in an environment that shows this wisdom.
I like to describe my summer camp experiences these past four years with Life Teen as “being as close to heaven as I can be on this side of the grave.” I believe this because I witness everyone coming together in prayer, service and love to help the campers grow in their faith. The little things that bother us in the regular world disappear when our lives are focused on selfless service.
I am amazed by how the summer staffers gather in the chapel for a Holy Hour every morning and end each night sharing stories of how they have seen God working in their lives or the lives of the teens they are serving. Their example of being young adults on fire with the Gospel speaks volumes to the young people they are serving.
I believe this inspires the teens to ask the simple question, “What does God want me to do with my life?” This is the true beginning of vocational discernment.
As I conclude, I would like to invite you to consider sending the teens from your parish to a summer camp. If your diocese does not host a camp, maybe God is calling you to do a little exploring. I know that Life Teen has good camps, and there are other organizations out there such as Catholic Work Camps. And, if you are really feeling adventurous, you might try a mission to a Third World country.
“Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, ‘the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest’” (Mt 9:36-38).
FATHER PASTORIUS, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis, Mo.