Throughout its two-thousand-year existence, the Church has enjoyed a rich history and tradition. Undeniably, God’s Holy Spirit has moved and inspired the Christian faithful throughout this time in countless ways to encounter and proclaim the profound goodness of the Gospel—Jesus Christ risen from the dead. Yet it could be said that the Church is currently in a state of crisis, particularly amongst her youth.
According to the National Study on Youth & Religion, 63% of US Catholic youth say that they have never experienced the love of Jesus. According to that same study, 92% of US Catholic youth say the Bible and Church teaching does not impact their daily moral decision-making. Further, 5 out of 6 young people confirmed in our parishes today will no longer be practicing their Catholic faith within 10 years of their Confirmation. Without question, these are hard facts to read.
On one hand, there are strong forces at work against Christianity in our culture today adding to these figures. On the other hand, much heroic work is being done—amongst clergy and laity, in parishes and schools—to combat what the Church, especially the young Church, is up against. Yet, these figures cannot be found daunting and ignored and furthermore they are not set in stone. These figures should inspire some serious prayer and reflection on the root and impact of Christian evangelization today: How really are we reaching people in our world, especially young people? How are we remaining relevant in a world that proclaims the Church utterly irrelevant?
Over this summer, more than 2,300 middle school and high school youth will attend Catholic Youth Summer Camp (CYSC) at Damascus Catholic Mission Campus. CYSC is a high adventure Catholic summer camp in Centerburg, Ohio that has tripled in size over the past three years with plans of doubling capacity in the next year. These youth come all across Ohio, and even 35 different states. I myself had a chance to attend the camp with a youth group from my transitional diaconate parish assignment.
CYSC’s website presents a camp that promises adventure, something for which every teenager thirsts. From the outside, this week of adventure involves of rock climbing, paint balling, jet skiing, zip lining, water blobbing, dance parties, a high ropes course, and many other exciting activities. Within 24 hours, however, I realized that the adventure Damascus was drawing these kids into was much deeper than a few high adventure activities. This “Mission Campus” was absolutely focused on the adventure of spiritual conversion and transformation—namely, a radical encounter with the person of Jesus Christ that gives life a renewed purpose and direction.
The Catholic faith was made relevant at CYSC not because of its high adventure activities, its pop culture references, its young and energetic team of camp administration and staffers, or its well designed website and materials (even though those aspects were important), but because the camp ultimately focused on the issues of the heart and its palpable determination to create missionary disciples. While culture ebbs and flows, the issues of the human heart remain the same.
Damascus’ website proclaims, “Our mission is to empower a generation of Catholics by establishing a faith-awakening campus that fosters faith that is deep, contagious, and joy-filled.” Pope Francis has repeatedly reminded us, especially in Evangelii Gaudium, of the importance of living a missionary discipleship, as one who both radically encounters and reveals Jesus Christ, God’s love incarnated in the world. When the world seems to be filled with so much darkness, the constant witness of joy-filled missionary disciples is absolutely necessary.
What makes for a strong, relevant middle and high school youth ministry, especially in an age where so many forces of the secular culture seem overpowering? Sometimes for youth ministers the answer to this question can seem like a mystery. Yet this missionary campus proved to me that relevance does not come just through high adventure activities, pop culture references, a youthful and energetic team of camp administration and staffers, or a well designed website and materials.
Real Catholic ministry, youth ministry particularly, is about answering the real questions of life and interpreting the movements of the human heart through a transformative encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. Having a personal relationship with Jesus is not just a characteristic aspect of the faith of our Protestant brothers and sisters. It is absolutely foundational to our Catholic faith. Without it, our faith is a lie.
One very prominent and outward sign of the Damascus’ focus is the Adoration chapel that greets each person who walks through the door. Jesus Christ is literally front and center. Further, I noticed immediately the reverence each staff member displayed each time they passed in front of the chapel. Their constant genuflection was a statement that the Eucharist was not just a nice fixture, but was literally the source of life for the camp. This prominent display of belief was communicated effectively. Throughout the week the kids themselves began to genuflect each time they passed in front of Jesus.
At the end of the week, the teens were given a chance to give a short witness of how they were impacted during the week. One girl from our group said this: “I came here wanting fun, but realized that there was something more I wanted. So I found myself asking God, ‘Where are you?’ As I opened my eyes the monstrance was before me…”
The culture that surrounds our youth promises adventure, fulfillment, and happiness in so many ways, but hardly delivers. The real adventure which brings eternal excitement and fulfillment to life is the lived encounter with Jesus Christ through his Mystical Body, his Church.
Even though many of the statistics on young people and religion reflect a turbulent and even troublesome time ahead for the Church, God and his people are not done proclaiming the transformative power of Jesus Christ and his Gospel. The Church’s openness and being attune to the Spirit’s action is absolutely vital for the future. Despite the statistics, CYSC filled me with hope and solidly affirmed the tangible desire young people have for living the adventure of Christianity, and I know I encountered a spark of the Holy Spirit at Damascus Catholic Mission Campus.
The vision of Damascus is to plant life-changing Mission Campuses all across the United States so that no matter where young people are located, the missionaries of Damascus will be able to plant a high adventure faith in their hearts, their minds, and their lives.
In addition to offering CYSC, the missionaries at Damascus run retreats and conferences all year round for Catholic schools and parishes. Last year, over 6,000 youth encountered the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist because of the school and parish retreats offered at Damascus. This number continues to grow year after year.
Admittedly, I was not personally anticipating a great deal spiritually from this camp. Being comfortably familiar with youth ministry, with the same general flow of topics and talks, I anticipated a fun week with some high adventure activities with some good prayer time, but nothing really beyond that, nothing really life-changing. I suppose my sin was not expecting the Spirit to show up at any point in life and bring an inner transformation beyond my comprehension.
Catholic Youth Summer Camp promised adventure. However, the adventure into which the campers and myself were drawn went so much deeper and so much more real than we expected.