‘Take Up and Read’

Cleveland’s Tolle Lege Summer Camp Nurtures Teens’ Intellectual, Spiritual Growth


Flanked by stained-glass windows depicting St. John Vianney, St. Pius X and other holy priests, 18 teenage boys and girls stand in Resurrection Chapel at the Center for Pastoral Leadership in Wickliffe, Ohio. They start their final day at the Tolle Lege Summer Institute by praying the Liturgy of the Hours with Father Damian Ference and three seminarians who assist him with the camp.

Seminarian Martin Dober predicted that some of the teens would continue praying the Divine Office when they returned home.

“The rhythm of it is so great, it works for the human soul,” he said. “They enter into it; they like doing it.”

The Liturgy of the Hours, Mass, Eucharistic adoration and a nightly review based on the “examen” of St. Ignatius help the teens nurture their faith during a week loaded with intellectual challenges.


‘AP Catholicism’

Father Ference launched Tolle Lege in 2012 to prepare bright young Catholics to live their faith in the wider culture.

“There are all sorts of camps: music camps, sports camps,” Father Ference said. “There are Catholic-service camps. ... What was missing was an opportunity for young people to study the faith formally.”

Father Ference likened Tolle Lege to advanced-placement classes offered in high schools, so he dubbed the program “AP Catholicism.”

Now an assistant professor of philosophy at Borromeo College, the college seminary of the Diocese of Cleveland, Father Ference previously served as a parish priest. Drawing on his experience leading a large, vibrant youth group, he designed Tolle Lege to appeal to teens while reinforcing the intellectual foundation of their faith.

“There is this terrible lie in the culture that if you are a person of faith, then obviously you are not a person of reason or science,” Father Ference said.

“We try to show there is a harmony between faith and reason. You can be intelligent and be Catholic. Actually, those two should go together.”

Tolle Lege, Latin for “Take Up and Read,” borrows its name from the Confessions of St. Augustine, hinting at the intense intellectual and spiritual experience the camp offers.

Because of its demanding subjects and heavy required reading, Tolle Lege is open to students beginning their senior year of high school, with a minimum grade-point average of 3.0. In addition, their pastor or youth minister must recommend them for the program, ensuring they already have a serious relationship with Christ.

At the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis exhorted young people to “make disciples of all nations.”

Tolle Lege assists teens with this mission, equipping them to articulate their faith to family, friends and nonbelievers.


A Rigorous Schedule

Tolle Lege campers stay at the seminary, whose professors instruct them in daily 75-minute philosophy and theology classes.

The weighty subjects range from the theology of the body to the age-old question of “How can God exist when there is so much evil in the world?”

Students like Edward Miller, 18, welcomed the crash course. Although Miller cherished his parish youth group for improving his prayer life, he was hungry for more.

“I wanted to go deeper in my faith,” he said. “I wanted to learn more about the Church and her teachings.”

Mornings of concentrated study lead to active afternoons that include a cathedral tour and a visit to a food bank.

At the Cleveland Museum of Art, Father Ference directed the teens to find a piece in its galleries that illustrated where they had been in their spiritual lives, where they were now or where they wanted to be. One girl felt drawn to a medieval statue of the Madonna and Child, for example, because her devotion to Mary had grown since her own mother’s death.

Another camper chose Ruins of an Ancient City by John Martin. For him, the painting’s gloomy scene represented his shaken faith when his parish closed. He interpreted light breaking on the horizon behind the ruins as “God’s light shining in.”


Vocation Discernment

Of the seven men who will enter the seminary in Cleveland this fall, four attended the Tolle Lege Summer Institute during its first three years.    

“If they are able to live here for a week, get to know seminarians and see that they’re pretty normal and get to hang out with the priests, study with our professors, eat our food, live in our rooms, it’s kind of a soft sell,” Father Ference said. “They live what we live, and they say, ‘I can do this.’”

At least half of Tolle Lege campers are girls, however. Since vocation discernment is a component of the program, Father Ference invites young sisters to address the group.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have many 20-year-old sisters in our diocese,” Father Ference said.

For one of this summer’s sessions, four Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, traveled from their home in Michigan to share their vocation stories.

With flashes of humor, the sisters related their individual paths to the convent. Some candidly described initially resisting their vocations, as well as the peace they felt upon eventually accepting God’s call. Accustomed to an independent lifestyle, one sister admitted she struggled sometimes with the vow of obedience.

“I’ve never owned so little but been so rich,” another sister said when asked about her vow of poverty.

The sisters’ presentation impressed 17-year-old Clare Swinerton.

“It was beautiful to see such young sisters,” Swinerton said. “They were so joyful and spirit-filled.”

Although she does not feel called to religious life, Swinerton said the sisters increased her determination to uncover God’s will for her.


Catholic Identity

Friendships forged during Tolle Lege seem to endure. Some campers regularly reunite at the seminary at XLT! (“Exalt”) meetings filled with praise and worship.

And participants in a 2014 camp continue their nightly examen — on Facebook.

This year, several teens expressed gratitude for meeting other young Catholics committed to their faith.

“We’re all at a time in our lives where we’re kind of making an identity for ourselves,” Edward Miller said. “It’s really good to be with like-minded people to strengthen that identity.”

Jerri Donohue writes from Brecksville, Ohio.


Tolle Lege Summer Institute

Two sessions take place each year.

Participants are closely divided between parochial and public high-school students. No more than 20 teens attend each session.

Three seminarians coordinate communications, speakers and outings and perform other necessary tasks. In addition, they join the campers for non-classroom activities. A young woman chaperone also assists.

At Bishop Richard Lennon’s suggestion, the challenging camp includes fun, such as going to a Cleveland Indians game or other sports event.

Cost of the five-day camp is $250.

To date, 120 teens have attended Tolle Lege, representing all eight counties in the Cleveland Diocese.

Visit BorromeoSeminary.org/tolle-lege/ for more information.