The Diocese of Duluth in northeastern Minnesota has come up with a winner for vocation outreach — youth camps combining outdoor recreation with discernment of God's call.
The three-day camps for boys between 11 and 16 focus on a specific theme designed to help young men live out their call as disciples of Christ, whether as priests or laymen.
The camps attract an average of 30 to 40 boys from Minnesota and surrounding states. Deacon Mike Knuth, the diocese's vocations director, organized the first camp in 1994 and has developed five themes that alternate each year.
This year's theme, “Knights of the Holy Altar,” is centered on serving God through chivalry, living a moral code, practicing obedience, purity and courage, and showing special honor to women, including the boys' mothers and sisters. Each camp also has a sacramental focus, a saint model, a series of talks, Mass, special devotions and outdoor activities.
Directed by seminarians, priests and teen counselors, the boys gain exposure to the ordained ministry in a setting other than church.
“The whole focus is to provide young men an opportunity to gather with other Catholics in a sound Catholic environment to recreate, pray and grow in their faith,” says Deacon Knuth. “Our kids have fun, but at the same time they're learning their faith and getting an opportunity to be quiet and hear God's call. Whether they go on to become priests, that's God's work — but at least we're providing the environment.”
Because of the instant popularity of the boys' camp, Deacon Knuth developed a girls' camp in 1997, which is directed by women religious from a variety of orders around the country.
Deacon Knuth said the camps allow mentors to raise vocational possibilities early, so there's plenty of time to explore them as the years go by. A number of camp participants have either entered the priesthood or are currently discerning the call, and nine women campers have joined religious communities.
As in many other dioceses, Duluth has seen an increase in vocations to the priesthood in recent years.
“This fall we will have 19 in the seminary, and we already have a number of young men who want to enter next fall,” says Bishop Dennis Schnurr, who attends the camps each year and is actively involved in other vocation initiatives.
One of the wonderful things about the camps, he adds, is the exposure of the young people to priests and women religious.
“In the past, we had the presence of women religious and priests in our Catholic schools, and that played a very important role in promoting religious vocations,” explains Bishop Schnurr. “When young people see other young people not much older than they, bearing witness to the faith and openly talking about the importance of holiness in their lives, they see the peace, the joy and the fullness that is in their lives — and that's very attractive.”
Holy Role Models
Adam Isakson, of Cloquet, Minn., 17, began attending camp when he was 13. This year, he returned as a teen counselor. He is considering the priesthood.
“The camp has shown me how to discern my faith and I've grown because of it,” he says. “I had a great time with the priests and seminarians, and I could tell how much they loved God. I wanted to be close to God like that. Even if I'm not called to the priesthood, this camp has shown me what it is to be a Catholic man and a man of God.”
Carly McKeown attended her first camp eight years ago as a shy 10-year-old. She said it was the first time she had seen young nuns in full habits — and they were so happy.
“It was a very attractive thing to me,” she recalls. “I didn't see a lot of religious life in southwestern Minnesota, where I'm from, so it was amazing to see so many sisters who were vibrant and willing to share their faith.”
McKeown attended this year's camp as a postulant with the Sisters of Reparation to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Steubenville, Ohio. Her 21-year-old sister, Tessa, has also entered the order and several friends are discerning religious life.
Deacon Knuth says consumerism, fear of commitment, a lack of good role models and lack of knowledge of the faith all pose obstacles to religious vocations — but, often, it's the parents who present the biggest obstacle.
“I see vocations all the time but they get cut off by families,” he says. “You watch the person and find that they're not happy, but they don't want to upset their parents. Parents are not always in tune with what's going on with their child.”
Despite these hurdles, Bishop Schnurr remains optimistic. As chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' subcommittee on youth ministry, he has seen numerous sociological studies that show young people want more than what society is offering.
“They look at the world around them and they see the bad, the materialism, that it is morally bankrupting their lives and the lives of others,” he says. “They want to get back to a solid barometer. They're finding it in the Catholic faith.”
Two generations of poor catechetical instruction have also had an impact at all levels in the Church, he adds. “How can we approach young people with the concept of vocations when so little knowledge of the faith is coming through?” he says. “The catechesis has to take place before they ask the important question: ‘What does God have in mind for me?’”
Of his own five children, Deacon Knuth has four in religious vocations. They are part of what he calls “the John Paul II Generation.”
“Because of him, especially now that the seed has died,” he says, “we're going to see a growth in vocations, holy families and some real rebirth occurring in the Church.”
Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.