This summer Derek Aaron, a seminarian for our diocese from St. Joan of Arc Parish in Kokomo, is spending two months nestled in the mountains near Jamestown, Colorado. He is working at a Catholic summer camp named Camp Wojtyla. This trailblazing Catholic camp was launched in 2006 by FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) under the direction of former FOCUS missionaries Annie and Scott Powell. The vision for this camp is to create an experience that would help people know and love God in deep and profound ways within a wilderness setting.
Named after Blessed JohnPaul II, whose given name was Karol Wojtyla, the camp seeks to follow the late pope’s model of ministry. Blessed John Paul II believed that by taking young people into the outdoors, they could retreat from the confusing and troubled world around them (not to mention their cell phones and iPods in today’s culture) and take stock of their relationships with God, with themselves, with each other and with the world around them. At Camp Wojtyla the campers do exactly this as they hike mountain peaks, master their technique in archery, attend daily Mass, have faith conversations and more. Sleeping in a teepee each night, truly the only distractions available to them are the noises from nature itself!
Seminarian Derek Aaron has been greatly enjoying his time at the camp. Derek explained how this summer has given him an incredible opportunity to discern God’s will and what He has planned. Removed from worldly pleasures in the beautiful wilderness he said he has really been admiring the masterpiece of God’s plans, both in nature and in our lives. This summer he described how the team of 30 camp counselors has really come to be like family to one another as they work and play together.
The camp runs through June and July, with a 2.5 week prelude for the counselors to prepare themselves and the 1200 acre camp for the summer. The team works together to literally “build” the camp, setting up a base camp with the kitchen they will be using, assembling the eleven 24 x 22 ft. teepees, marking the trails, and setting up the high rope course and archery range. This year Derek worked with another seminarian to make a permanent mark on the camp by building the camp’s first-ever altar for the celebration of the Mass. This preparation time is also a time of bonding for the staff, an opportunity for growing spiritually before the middle school and high school teens arrive.
Once the camp moves into its five sessions, the men and women counselors begin rotating their working roles. At Camp Wojtyla the counselors form into a group called the “Sherpa Staff.” Sherpa is a term for someone who is renowned for their skill in mountaineering and helps others to reach the peak of a mountain. During weeks with girl campers, the men counselors are on the “Sherpa Staff,” and the reverse happens on weeks with boy campers. During these weeks the Sherpa Staff is behind the scenes setting up and tearing down the events, cooking the meals, and praying for the campers. This frees up the group leaders to be able to focus on their tribe of campers, giving them as much one-on-one interaction as possible. In this way the Sherpa Staff really does help everyone at the camp “reach the peak.”
The campers can expect a week full of hiking, leather stamping, fishing, rosary making, archery, daily Mass, reconciliation and night prayer. In addition to these events the high school teens also go whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and they make a three-day back packing trip. The activities are the same for both genders as they teach the students strong habits like perseverance, teamwork and the firsthand appreciation of God’s glorious creation amidst the breathtaking views surrounding them. Derek explained that the outdoor experience is very conducive to faith conversations because it provides real life metaphors to lead the campers in self-discovery, personal and spiritual growth. After each activity they reflect on the experience and how it relates to the Christian life. In archery, for example, it takes practice to get the correct form and technique. In the same way it takes diligent practice in our relationship with God, reading the Sacred Scripture and learning what the Church teaches so that we can “hit the target.”
As Derek described the week leading a tribe of middle-school boys (named Team Brébeuf!) he shared stories about how amazing it was to watch each boy experience this transformation during the week. The first several nights at camp the boys were very loud and rambunctious even when asked to be calm, but through the week they grew in their respect for one another and the staff. On their final night at camp Derek and his co-counselor Joe just sat and talked for 45 minutes with the very same boys, and he could tell they were so excited to just be able to speak with two men whom they had grown to admire. As Derek was about to leave he told the boys to “Make us proud!” and the Sherpa staff later reported that the boys behaved perfectly the rest of the night. The young men were delighted to be challenged and rose to the occasion.
As the middle school boys’ week was closing Derek turned to his coworker and said, “Joe, I never dreamed I would say this, but I truly feel like these young men are our spiritual sons. We will see the fruits of this experience in their lives in the years to come.” Indeed the Catholic Church can look forward to seeing the fruits which Camp Wojtyla will bear in the youth of our nation. As far as implementing the fundamentals of Camp Wojtyla in our diocese Derek said there are numerous ways to bring these lessons home, but most of all we should remember that the youth are up to the challenge. It is important that we creatively bring experiences they can relate to living the Catholic faith and always remind them that God is ready to have a relationship with them. He is ready to be the center of their lives right now, even throughout all of life’s “valleys and mountain peaks.”