When you go to something like 100 parishes a year, you see a lot of different attempts at wooing youth. There’s a lot of pizza and a lot of awkward games and a lot of good people trying to lead a lot of reluctant teens (and some interested ones) closer to Christ. I’ve seen some great youth ministers and some great Bible studies but the most beautiful community of youth that I’ve encountered was at a random parish in Southern Maryland.
Two years ago (as I remember the story) the pastor of St. John’s in Hollywood, MD walked up to the youth minister. “I hired two teens for the summer, so…we need to find something for them to do.”
Fr. Ray and Rich started brainstorming and wondered: “What would happen if we got young people going to Mass and adoration every day?”
So they did. They set up a day camp for that summer and started hiring 16-22-year-olds to staff it. But this isn’t just a job for these young people: it’s a mission summer. Yes, daily Mass and a holy hour and a theology class are written into their contractual day. They have to go. But there are events every evening of the week, too: pool parties and encyclical study groups and girls’ nights and bowling nights. Some of them are intense and intellectual, others more concerned about building community; all are optional. But the staff knows coming in that their summer job is not a 9-5 deal. They’re there to serve and they’re there to be transformed.
Even on paper, it makes so much sense. Here’s a Catholic school standing empty all summer–why not use the facility? Struggling with low enrollment in your parochial school? Draw families in during the summer and they’ll become part of the community.1 Can’t afford a youth minister? Camp fees pay the summer program staff plus a full-time youth minister year round. Families coming in for Mass on Sunday but not part of the community? Build community for them. It’s easy to fill your rosters because you can charge less than any other camp or daycare in the area while still paying all your bills–and once the price tag draws them in, the Holy Spirit will do the rest.
But you guys, this is so much more than just what is practical and reasonable. This program is transforming the parish. The families know each other so their kids want to be at church events. Some kids have been received into the church as a result of their experience with the summer program; other families started at camp because it was cheap or convenient and are back practicing the faith again after years away.
The biggest impact, though, is on the staff. These kids take a summer to serve and they come away transformed. They learn theology in their classes and discussion groups, but they also learn it in their conversations with their peers. They learn to pray both by being expected to do it every day and by being led deeper by leaders and friends. They learn what true friendship looks like by building community with the staff–community that lasts well past the end of camp.
And it’s not just relationships with their newfound friends that last. During that first summer, two of the staff discerned a call to enter seminary and one discerned a vocation to religious life. Two more will enter religious life this fall, strengthened by the support of this incredible community. The ones still in high school are volunteering as catechists and itching to get back to camp. Those who are off at college are generally going to daily Mass and spending serious time in prayer. Honestly, they challenge me, when we’re all hanging out and they suggest that we go to the chapel instead. Or when I tell them they can read the whole Bible in a year in just 20 minutes a day2 and they ask if that’s really enough time to meditate on it.
I’ll be real with you: I’ve never met young people with such hearts for Jesus. And it’s all because someone asked them to be holy. I’ve always thought the best way to reach young people was with truth and goodness and beauty, with the meat of the faith not pizza and cozy relativism. This summer program does it: no gimmicks and nothing washed down, just solid theology, intense prayer, and the expectation that you’ll give everything. Once you go all in, you’ll be amazed at what God can do with your meager gifts.
Why am I telling you all this? Because you can do the same thing–and way more easily than they did. St. John’s believes in this program so much, they want you to have it, too. They’ve done all the legwork for you. They’ve put together all their resources: camp schedule, classes and curriculum, payroll info, even the forms you have to fill out to be accredited in Maryland. And they want to give it to any Catholic parish. For free.
Seriously, all you have to do is take the work they’ve poured into this money-making, grace-filled game-changer, write your name at the top, and sign at the bottom. They’ll help you through the whole process, simply because they see what the Holy Spirit is doing through their program. Will you think about it? Take a look at the St. John’s website to see what their camp is like, and maybe glance at St. Joseph’s, which is starting a camp this summer modeled after St. John’s. Then go see what they’re really all about and send the info to your parish. All you have to do to have access to literally all of their resources is contact the camp director and ask for the password.
I’ll be honest: I’m not sure how this camp will translate under different leadership. I think a lot of the transformation of these kids comes from the fact that their pastor and their youth minister are holy men with hearts for youth and no apparent need for personal time. But if you’ve got godly leadership on board, this summer program could do more than use your space wisely. It can strengthen your parish and make saints of your youth all while putting your parish back in the black. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me.
And if you’re near Southern Maryland, check out the classes they have to offer: