One of the most common questions we are hear from Catholic leaders across the United States is “how can we keep our young people involved and excited about the Church?” Parishes and dioceses alike are focusing on building youth ministry programs geared to providing youth with spiritual and personal growth alongside Jesus and in their faith communities. On a recent trip to the Diocese of Helena, I was able to witness a robust youth ministry program that is “connecting the dots” between the parish, diocese and universal Church.
Our first stop, often referred to by locals as “the jewel of the diocese,” was Legendary Lodge. Legendary Lodge is a beautiful campground located on a pristine river valley nestled between seemingly mile-high Montana mountains. Each summer, nearly 900 youth from the Diocese of Helena travel to the campsite for a unique Catholic experience, unrivaled by most. The camp is run all summer long with week-long sessions divided by age group. “It’s a family tradition—many campers have been coming for nine years, just as their siblings did,” said Dan Bartleson, Seasonal Director of Legendary Lodge.
As we were ferried across the river by the head camp cook, sounds of high-school students laughing echoed through the trees. The evening’s main activity was a game in which camp counselors assumed the personas of characters from various fairy tales, each exemplifying specific virtues and vices. Campers raced around the grounds in teams working to identify each virtue or vice and complete a task designed to build teamwork. In fact, this summer’s theme for all Legendary Lodge camp sessions is “virtues,” and the kids love learning about them, no matter what their age.
While the sun set behind the mountains, a campfire was carefully lit by the water’s edge. Bleachers circled the fire pit and were quickly filled with campers excitedly laughing and talking amongst themselves. Each night, a camp counselor tells an interesting story or a testimony about their personal faith. After a few ice-breaking campfire songs, we learned it was Oliver’s night to share his faith testimony, and everyone hushed to listen.
Oliver explained his personal journey and ultimate decision to attend seminary school in the fall at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary. He said that he felt a natural calling to the priesthood during his youth, but “didn’t have friends interested in discussing their faith,” and he put those thoughts on shelf. When Oliver attended a small Catholic college in Helena, he became immersed in campus ministry, and found many other youths interested and engaged in their Catholic faith. During this time, Oliver was pursuing a career path in medicine; he also hoped to have a family some day. Throughout this time, he knew he was still interested in the priesthood, but “I was always waiting for my big sign,” he said.
Then, while visiting the Vatican with classmates from college, it happened. While his close friends knelt down and prayed at St. Peter’s tomb, Oliver stood quietly in the back and felt a great love open from deep within him. “At that moment, I was overwhelmed with my love for the Eucharist,” he explained through tears. “It still chokes me up today—I’m getting used to being this emotional when I speak about it.” Oliver’s overwhelming experience led him to contact Fr. Marc Lenneman, a trusted priest and mentor with whom he spoke with often. Fr. Marc, who was present at the fire that night, knew Oliver from his college campus ministry and is also the Chaplain at Legendary Lodge. After prayer and reflection, Oliver fully realized and “opened himself up” to his true calling, the priesthood. It was not an easy process, but he now feels God’s plan has been fully revealed to him.
After Oliver’s heartfelt story, many others opened up around that very fire and spoke about their hopes, dreams, fears and faith. Humorous stories and laugher intertwined with the deeply personal and profound.
For the counselors and leaders at Legendary Lodge, it’s their goal that this experience does not leave when camp is over. They work closely with the Bishop, area priests, youth ministers and parents to ensure the themes and ideas discussed are built upon throughout the year. Based on the impactful camp experience, parishes are seeing their youth continue church involvement year-round.
The Diocese of Helena’s youth ministry program is truly connecting the dots between small, rural faith communities and the universal Church. As I drove away from Legendary Lodge in the morning, I could feel the powerful momentum built throughout the diocese by their youth programs. It seems to me very likely that tomorrow’s leaders of the Church are being cultivated in Montana. And those young leaders, are the true jewels of the diocese.
— John Bannon, Manager of Digital Communications