Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
When I first heard about the Envoy Institute's Catholic Apologetics Summer Camp, I immediately wanted to know more. It sounded like a unique opportunity for teens to strengthen their knowledge of the Faith before the tumultuous college years, but a bunch of questions came to mind, too: Do kids do anything else at the camp other than learn theology? Are modern teens even interested in this kind of thing? Fortunately I had the opportunity to post these questions to author, speaker, and apologist extraordinaire Patrick Madrid, who is also one of the camp's organizers.
Q: Walk us through a typical day at the Envoy Institute's Catholic Apologetics Summer Camp. What kind of activities do the kids do?
I'll start by saying that each day is a full day for the young people. Full of God, full of fellowship with their peers, full of great teaching, and full of good, old-fashion summer fun.
We start each morning with Holy Mass celebrated in the camp chapel (this happens to be a Catholic-owned camp, so we're delighted to have Mass together each day in a thoroughly Catholic chapel), then a hearty breakfast followed by our morning session of an apologetics talk followed by a lively Q&A session. Everyone gets involved. It's great to see the young people open up and get excited as the Catholic Faith is systematically unfolded for them at a level they can understand.
Then, after the morning apologetics session, they split into groups for any of a variety of outdoor activities: the high-ropes course, hiking, archery, swimming, etc., and on one of the days, we all head for the river for an exhilarating day-long whitewater rafting expedition. Most everyone says that (apart from the apologetics courses), the rafting is the fun-activity pinnacle of the week.
Depending on what activities the campers have decided to take part in on any given day, lunch will be served in the dining hall or picnic-style, out in a picturesque meadow or clearing in the surrounding Pisgah National Forest. The scenery is truly spectacular.
Then, in the evening, after dinner, there is another dynamic apologetics session involving another talk by myself or one of our other speakers followed by another extended Q&A session. We've noticed that the young people tend to ask a bit fewer questions during the morning session because they're anxious to get out of doors! But during the evening sessions, it's like the floodgates open and they ask many excellent questions. Needless to say, our evening group discussions and occasional apologetics role-play activities are very popular with them.
Immediately following the evening session, we have our night prayer devotions and a blessing from the priest, if one is present.
When the evening apologetics session wraps up, the night is still (somewhat) young, and the campers usually head up the hill to the gym for a high-energy team game of "bombardment" (a close cousin to Dodge Ball) or over to the campfire for songs, Smores, and conversation. Some decide to relax in the dining hall over a game of ping pong, or checkers, or just hanging out in small groups until it's time to head to bed.
Q: How did your own experience as a father of 11 (and grandfather of many more) inspire you to start this camp?
Actually, Jen, rather well, in that raising all those teenagers (not all at once, of course!) gave me a lot of trial-and-error insights into teen psychology: what's important to them, both boys and girls, what they are thinking and wondering about, and what kinds of societal pressures and challenges they face -- and will face, once they leave home for college or the working world. Teens this age are about to go out on their own, so:
- A) They need to be well-prepared to understand and cope with the real and often dangerous ideological, spiritual, and moral challenges to their Faith which they'll certainly encounter out in "the real world." These take the form of everything from the secular expectations and pressures rampant in American culture today to questioning from their peers and even from antagonistic adults, such as some college professors; and
- B) They need to be equipped to live their Catholic Faith in the face of challenges. But in order to do that, they need to really understand the Faith, to be able to explain and shar and, yes, when necessary, to defend it. Where are our Catholic young people going to find that kind of comprehensive preparation these days? Truth is, most of them won't. Which is why I started the Envoy Institute in the first place: To help equip Catholics of all ages to explain their beliefs more intelligently, defend them more charitably, and share them more effectively.
Those three things are, in a nutshell, what the Envoy Institute Apologetics Summer Camps are all about. That, and trying to show the young people the solid reasons why they should claim the Catholic Faith for their own, and not just passively receive it without truly understanding and loving it.
Through these camps we strive to do this for them, plus we aim to do something else very important: to help them see that, as Catholic young people, they are not alone, that there are other like-minded teens out there, just like themselves, and that there are people who are ready, willing, and able to assist their parents in providing good, solid reasons for their Faith. In other words, good solid, biblical, historical, and logical apologetics. Believe me. When they get to college, they are going to need that.
As one of the speakers at our first camp put it, "There is no one so alone as a college freshman."
We don't want them to feel like they are stepping out alone into life. We show them that they have abundant, ready resources and friends and mentors they can reach out to for help when challenges arise.
Q: Do you find that kids respond well to the idea, or does a camp where you learn about religion sound boring to modern teens?
It might sound counter-intuitive, but I'm here to tell you, they love it! We have had some kids come back every single year since we've started the Envoy Institute Apologetics Summer Camps. Some, of course, have come with reservations, but the experience is so fun, so relaxing, and so spiritually energizing that more than a few parents have e-mailed us afterward to say that their children might have been dropped off at camp knowing or apparently caring little about their Faith, but they came home on fire with enthusiasm, ready to engage in discussions with their peers, sibling, and teachers. That's what we mean about the camps being "life-changing." That really does happen.
Q: The 2013 Envoy Institute Camp features an impressive list of speakers: Fr. Mitchell Pacwa, Jim Burnham, Melanie Pritchard, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, Ken Davidson, and yourself. What kinds of subjects will you all be addressing?
Thanks. The presentations are designed to span a wide spectrum of potential challenges. We teach them standard biblical apologetics topics, such as showing Catholic doctrines from the Bible, answering common Protestant objections, plus responding to the culture of militant atheism that is growing more aggressive all around us. We teach them how to think more critically and recognize the errors when someone comes along pushing an ideology, world-view, or religious agenda that is at odds with authentic Catholic teaching.
The camp teaches them how to analyze and critique the many subtle (and not-so-subtle) forms of moral relativism inherent in most secular arguments and catch-phrases today, and we show them how to deal with and navigate through the primary cultural challenges all young people face today: peer pressure to be sexually promiscuous, the drug and alcohol binging sub-culture that is everywhere these days, the "pro-choice" anti-life agendas pushing abortion and contraception, the challenges posed by militant Islam, and so on.
Q: This is the camp's fourth year. What are some changes you've made based on lessons you learned in previous years?
Several things, in fact. First, we launched CatholicApologeticsCamp.com as a way to get the maximum amount of pre-camp information out to parents and prospective campers. The intro video really helps us share the vibe of the experience with families who are interested.
Also, we've extended the length of the camp by a couple of days, both to add more time for talks and discussion and also to help the campers get away from the pressures and expectations of their day-to-day lives so they can become more open to thoughtful discussions, thinking about Christ and His Church, and especially having a peaceful environment in which to hear the Lord speaking to them.
We've also added a wider variety of activities (such as apologetics role-plays and skits — which they really enjoy planning and participating in) that will help carry them beyond just listening to lectures and enable them to apply what they've learned at the Envoy Institute Apologetics Camp.
Q: What about families who might be interested in such a camp but don't have a way to pay? Is assistance available?
Depending on the donations we receive (we ask that pastors, grandparents, aunts & uncles, and other concerned folks who would like to help sponsor part or all of a young person's camp experience please go to catholicapologeticscamp.com/donations). We hope to be able to provide as much scholarship assistance as possible. Individuals and some Catholic organizations have stepped up in the past to provide such tuition assistance in the form of "scholarships" of all amounts, small and large. Those made a huge difference.
Q: Do you have any favorite "success stories" from kids who have attended the camp?
Yes, several pretty spectacular ones and many that, while not necessarily "spectacular," still really encouraged us when the parents shared with us afterward what a deeply positive the camp experience was for their kids.
Happily, and for this we must give all the credit to God and the grace of His loving providence, we've even had two campers (that we know of) who told us they discovered that they might have vocations, though they had never previously imagined that. One, a young man, has entered the seminary, and the other, a young lady, is now a postulant at a convent, exploring religious life.
Another camper had to miss the 2nd camp because she decided (much to her mother's surprise) after the first camp that God was calling her to do some missionary pro-life work! Another began engaging in online apologetics discussions with high school classmates.
Perhaps the thing that most indicates that we're on the right track with these Envoy Institute Catholic Apologetics Summer Camps is that many campers from previous summers return — with their siblings and friends with them, as well.
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Thanks to Patrick Madrid for taking the time to answer these questions. Below is a video that offers more information, and you can visit the camp's website as well.