NEW ORLEANS — It's 2 o'clock in the morning. Fourteen-year-old Chris LaFleur kneels beside his father, Andrew, and a dozen other fathers and their sons, all dressed in purple T-shirts as they kneel before the Son of God.
All of the men are tired, but fatigue is a price they're willing to pay for what they get in return. They're taking part in overnight Eucharistic adoration, otherwise described by the men as “Yawns for Christ.” It's only one of the activities that characterize the growing father-son New Orleans-based Catholic apostolate, Kepha. The group's motto: “Play hard, pray hard!”
The apostolate has sparked an interest among fathers looking for a way to bond with their sons. With members in six states — and interest in several others — the organization appears poised for growth. Its leaders see promise in the fact that it has achieved its gains mainly by word-of-mouth, with very little active recruiting or promotion.
Kepha was hatched six years ago in the mind of Brent Zeringue of Destrehan, La.
“It was a one-year experiment,” said Zeringue, a former educator and hardware-store owner. “I challenged a group of eight boys to learn Bible verses that defended specific Catholic doctrines each month. They also had to raise money for the pro-life movement, say morning prayers and the Divine Mercy chaplet every day, and practice acts of self-mortification such as giving up sweets or taking a cold shower.”
In exchange for their sacrifices, Zeringue promised the original group a retreat to Colorado at the end of the year.
The eight boys met the challenge and then some.
Today Kepha has approximately 80 active fathers and sons in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Mississippi and New York.
Zeringue said fathers in North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Minnesota have also expressed an interest in starting chapters.
Kepha is defined by five charisms — apologetics, brotherhood, charity, mortification and prayer. These are modeled after the lives of the group's three patrons, Venerable Mother Teresa of Calcutta, St. John Bosco and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati.
In fact, Blessed Frassati in particular inspired several of the group's mottos. These include “dynamic orthodoxy, infectious joy,” “verso l'alto” (to the top) and the group's slogan, “The Brotherhood of the Iron Will.” This is taken from a quote popularly attributed to Blessed Frassati: “I beg you to pray for me a little so that God may give me an iron will that does not bend and does not fail in his projects.”
Scouts of the Spirit
The group hosts monthly father-son retreats that are often combined with First Saturday Eucharistic adoration. In May, 23 fathers and their sons held a retreat at St. Peter's Catholic Church on Staten Island, thanks to Andrew Smith, a staff member of Priests for Life, who is establishing a chapter in New York. In addition to “Yawns for Christ,” the members picketed an abortion clinic with the Franciscan Friars of Renewal, carried a cross in a silent procession to “The Grunt Padre” (Father Vincent Capadanno) monument and played games such as egg toss and dodge ball.
“It's something like Catholic Boy Scouts, but the emphasis is spiritual,” Zeringue said.
The boys, ranging in age from 8 to 16, pledge to make morning prayer and either the Divine Mercy chaplet or the rosary part of their daily routine. The average age is 13. Younger boys, the ones age 6 to 8, are active in the pre-Kepha group, Saints Squad.
Members routinely raise money for charitable causes and perform good deeds, such as serving meals at the soup kitchen run by the Missionaries of Charity in Baton Rouge. The group's constitution mandates that half the money the boys collect for their retreats must be donated to charity. In five years, the Kepha members have donated more than $20,000 to various charitable organizations.
In addition, the group is characterized by a love for the Holy Father. Its trademark shirts read, “Where Peter is, there is the Church” and also “Roma locuta, causa finita est” (When Rome speaks, the matter is settled). They recently held a Proud of the Priesthood banquet that drew 170 lay people and more than 30 priests and seminarians.
In recent years, group members have made pilgrimages with the pro-life Crossroads team, attended World Youth Day and traveled to Rome.
Kepha sometimes takes Zeringue and his sons away from home. But Karen Zeringue isn't complaining.
“I remember the times when Brent didn't have friends,” explained the mother of nine. “Now Brent has brothers. With these men, he can go and talk with any of them. They are all spiritually connected through prayer.”
Some members travel great distances to participate. Brandon White, 16, regularly travels nine hours from McKinney, Texas, to New Orleans to participate in the retreats.
“Before Kepha I never really thought about my faith or had a reason to think about it,” he said. “Now I find that daily morning prayer and the Divine Mercy chap-let have caused me to grow deeper in my relationship with God.”
Before the chapter was started in Oklahoma, Father M. Price Oswalt brought information about the group to Oklahoma City Archbishop Eusebius Beltran. His response?
“He said, ‘You not only have my permission, but you [also] have my blessing and prayers,’” recalled Father Oswalt, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Kingfisher, Okla.
Father Oswalt first met the group at a convention of the Couple to Couple League in June 2002.
“They were all wearing purple T-shirts,” Father Oswalt said, “and the more they spoke, the more I was impressed with what they were doing.” The young men's commitment impressed Father Oswalt even more than their words.
“We had a couple of meals at a restaurant together,” Father Oswalt explained. “While we were eating chips and salsa, one of the teen boys mentioned that he had given up chips that week. Another one had given up soda. And it wasn't even Lent. I wondered what possessed these young men to do this when no one is doing this. It was interesting and I wanted to learn more.”
Last October, the Oklahoma chapter held its first retreat.
“We hoped to get at least 25 fathers and sons,” Father Oswalt said. “We had 87.”
Father Oswalt served as the spiritual director for Kepha's Rome retreat and has been asked to become the program's national spiritual director.
“These men are highly dedicated to the gospel of life and the Eucharist,” Father Oswalt said. “One of the fruits we will see from Kepha is vocations.”
Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.