by Jessica Langdon
WILLIAMSBURG — It’s not every day you get to play ninja with an archbishop.
But Camp Kateri here in Williamsburg isn’t your everyday camp. Some pretty extraordinary things happen here.
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, for example, displayed some hidden talents that impressed this summer’s campers during a recent visit to Prairie Star Ranch.
“So many people look at priests like, ‘Oh, they’re so holy; they’re so perfect,’” said 11-year-old Madisen Hane of Church of the Ascension in Overland Park. “But they’re really just normal people. Archbishop Naumann was out here and he was just out playing with us after dinner. He ate dinner with us.”
And 11-year-old Church of the Nativity, Leawood, parishioner Mary Clare Halpin especially noticed his surprise participation in the after-dinner activity.
“He played ninja!” she said with a laugh.
Something as simple as his use of a smart phone, in fact, made a connection with the young campers in an unexpected way.
And this camp is all about connecting — especially when it comes to linking faith lessons campers learn here to their own lives.
Hundreds of kids from fifth-grade through high school come here to camp every summer, and go home with new confidence as Catholics.
Connecting with kids, Catholicism
A staff that includes five seminarians for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas guides the experience of all the sessions of camp. Kids in fifth and sixth grades go to Camp Kateri. Camp Tekakwitha is for junior high and high school students. And a special session called Camp Tekakwitha Extreme is open to high school ages.
All 11 camp sessions give campers a chance to see seminarians — who are, it turns out, a lot like them — upclose and personal.
“I think it’s cool, because people that are becoming a priest are talking to me, and they’re letting us have fun and messing around with us,” said Drew Hicks, 11, of Church of the Ascension.
“They can mess around and have fun with you, and then they can get really close to God, like in church and reconciliation,” agreed Kyle Funke, 11, of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa.
Luke Doyle, going into his senior year of college seminary at Cardinal Glennon College in St. Louis, said he loves the opportunity kids have at camp to see guys preparing to be priests “doing crazy things” like soaring across the zip lines.
“I think the more exposed kids are to vocations, the greater their openness becomes to vocations,” Doyle said.
When asked to boil the camp experience down to five key components, camp leaders chose the following: activities, Catholic formation sessions, liturgy, the staff, and how kids incorporate camp into their lives when they go home.
You can’t have summer camp without summer fun, and Camp Tekakwitha goes above and beyond in that department.
Kids jump on giant inflatables in the lake. They fly through the air on the zip line. They ride horses and try their hand at archery.
“All the activities we have here are pretty extraordinary, which helps so much in relating back to God,” said seminarian Thomas Maddock, who will be a freshman at Conception Seminary College in Conception, Mo. “[God] is extraordinary. He made this wonderful place.”
If kids felt the activities and location were “lame,” he said, it would be harder to connect them to God.
“We always start off in prayer, and we end in prayer. We want to keep God as our focus, always ask him to be with us, protect us, open us to what he wants us to experience,” Maddock said. “We try to bring it back to God and how we can apply it in our lives.”
Will Eldridge, who celebrated his 11th birthday at camp this summer, belongs to Queen of the Holy Rosary Parish in Bucyrus.
“There’s so much stuff to do here,” he said. “It’s pretty awesome.”
Waiting with Will and Drew to give the zip line a go, Kyle said he liked horseback riding best so far. But the camp also opened his eyes to mountain boarding.
That, explained Maddock, is “kind of like snowboarding with wheels.” It’s just one example of things you don’t find everywhere.
“I think it’s really fun because we get to learn about God,” said Caroline Wilkus, 11, of Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee, “and we get to do things we wouldn’t get to do other times. I like doing canoeing. And the challenge course is really fun — so is archery.”
The challenge course emphasized teamwork, especially when the campers had to make it through one of the exercises without talking.
“A lot of these things, it’s like once-in-a-lifetime,” said Caroline. “You get to learn to be closer to God. You have experiences hanging out with your friends. You have a lot of fun at the campfire.”
Catholic formation sessions
Given just a few minutes to throw on costumes and rehearse, small groups of girls got into character.
They performed skits including “Brothers leave boy for dead over a coat” and “Jose and the party girl.”
The scenes are based on stories in the Bible.
“But they don’t know that yet,” explained Justin Hamilton, a graduate of Conception Seminary College who will start his first year of theological studies at Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Ill.
The kids then gathered as a big group to break down what it all meant. The bottom line in these lessons: God’s love.
Leaders read the relevant Bible passages. They discuss what the scenarios mean in their own lives.
This session focuses on catechesis, and it’s one of eight Catholic formation sessions based on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ vision for youth evangelization.
“We draw on the rich Catholic faith,” Hamilton said. “The cool part about these is that you really have a hands-on experience.”
Evan Tinker, a seminarian entering his second year of pre-theology at Kenrick Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, makes it clear — this is not your ordinary summer camp.
Each session starts and ends with Mass. Priests give of their own time to come here to celebrate Mass and the reconciliation. It’s amazing to see 200 kids lined up for reconciliation.
The campers who return year after year come to know this as a place to have a ton of fun — and grow in faith.
It’s a place, said Tinker, where “it’s OK to express our Catholic faith.”
“Every morning here at camp, we have the opportunity to spend an hour in prayer,” he said. There is adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The campers can light candles and ask for saints’ intercession.
Comparing his last day at camp to his first, Drew said, “I’m a lot closer to God.”
That’s not surprising. Every activity and Catholic formation session starts and ends with prayer.
And every night closes with the singing of “Salve Regina,” which Tinker says is a beautiful way to wrap up the day.
“When you go to church, it’s so easy to understand because they say everything from a kid’s perspective,” said Madisen.
“They explain everything to us,” agreed Mary Clare.
“I’ve never heard a church so loud with so many children’s voices just singing at the top at their lungs,” said Tinker. “It’s just amazing and heartwarming to hear every session just how on fire these kids are.”
To Hunter Hamilton, a seminarian who will be a junior at Conception Seminary College this fall, there’s just one way to think of the camp staff.
“The best way to describe it is ‘camp family,’” he said. “The things we do really pour onto the kids.”
The camp counselors lead activities and cheer campers on as they tackle the rock-climbing wall. They answer questions about the faith they are trying to nurture in their young campers. They sometimes serve as a mom or dad substitute for kids away from home for the first time. And they make a world of difference.
They arrive before camp begins.
“We pray over each other. We pray together. We talk through things,” Hamilton said.
Staff members meet in the mornings, and “props” go to those who did something that stood out. It’s a way to let the whole staff know the good that’s going on.
“Through our love for each other we show our love for Christ, and we show that love to [the campers],” he said.
Taking camp home
The experience doesn’t fade as campers head home.
“It’s just beginning when they leave,” Luke Doyle said.
He pointed to the church’s mission of evangelization — sharing faith with people who don’t know the Lord.
Jesus already reigns in the hearts of many of the kids and staff members, but some of the campers come from places “where Christ may not come first and foremost — or at all — in their lives,” Doyle said.
Camp puts everyone in a different world for a few days.
“This is a tremendous place for these kids to experience an awakening to their faith, to come to know the Lord more fully — and in very simple ways,” he added, “from serving each other at mealtime to swimming together and having a blast out at the lake to the Bible studies we have.”
The return home is rewarding, but isn’t always easy.
“It can very much be a struggle for the kids as they return home, taking the fire of Christ within their hearts back into a world that is not necessarily on fire for the Lord,” said Doyle. “But this is a tremendous tool that we have here in the diocese to truly build up the young church.”