Each summer, for the past ten years, young men from across the archdiocese have gathered at St. Francis de Sales Seminary for one simple reason: the powerful call of Jesus Christ, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” This call brings them to “De Sales Days,” the summer vocation camps sponsored by the Vocation Office of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. This year, Vocation Director Fr. Luke Strand, Vocation Promoter Fr. Enrique Hernandez and a handful of seminarians will lead one high school overnight camp (June 18-21) and two middle school day camps (June 17 and July 20). Are all who gather for these camps called to be priests? Of course not. Are all, or even any, of these young men sure where God is calling them in their life? Once again, of course not. And yet, this is precisely the purpose and goal of these camps. Bringing together a rich diversity of young men from all over the archdiocese, the camps offer an opportunity to share in prayer, recreation, and fellowship, and perhaps more importantly, they afford these men the ability to meet others who are discerning God’s call, grappling with similar questions, and filled with a desire to encounter the Lord in a new and profound way.
As a seminarian for the archdiocese soon to be entering my fourth year of formation as a senior at St. Joseph College Seminary in Chicago, I honestly believe these camps were crucial to my discernment. I think discerning would have been much more difficult for me without involvement in these camps as a middle and high school student. The call of the Lord in my life was and is slow and methodical, yet extremely persistent. For most of us, the voice of the Lord is often difficult to recognize. Yes, some are blessed with clear and immediately obvious signs, but for many of us his voice is quiet, and it requires all our effort to hear it. Especially as a younger student in middle and high school, I recall being beset with doubt, asking myself, “Is this really his voice? What is the difference between my mind’s voice and the Lord’s voice?” Even with a significant portion of my life spent in seminary formation now, I am still not an expert at this discernment of inner voices. However, I most definitely attribute much of my early growth in this ability to my time spent at these vocation camps. The opportunity to meet and interact with others who were wrestling with these same questions was critical for me.
Much of my discernment before entering seminary, revolved around my struggle to be truly open to the Lord’s call. Thinking, “I’m open to the Lord’s call,” and actually doing something about it are two radically different things; a truth I came slowly to realize throughout my high school career. I thought I was open to God’s call, but I was afraid and unsure about what my next step should be. These camps were a perfect first step, a perfect opportunity for me to show the Lord that I was actually open to where he was calling me. The Lord used this step and my openness to draw me closer to himself, and eventually, he led me to the seminary.
To be clear, though, these camps are not a commitment to enter seminary. Many young men who come do not even identify themselves as feeling particularly drawn to the vocation of priesthood. The students who attend these camps find themselves at different points in their own spiritual journey. I would earnestly encourage any young man who may be beset by the worries of: “I’m not holy enough,” or, “I’ve never really developed my prayer life beyond Mass or a desperate plea for help before a difficult test,” to simply consider attending a camp this year. They truly are a “no experience required” opportunity, and more than anything, provide a chance to grow in holiness, discipleship, and prayer.
As a participant in these camps during their earliest days, I am constantly impressed by their growth in number of participants and the richness of experiences. The camps are centered around prayer, spiritual talks and recreation. The camps offer many opportunities for prayer and growth in one’s interior life. With opportunities to experience the Divine Office (a set of prayers prayed daily by all priests, deacons, and religious), adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Reconciliation, guided meditations, Benediction, and the Mass, prayer is the foundation of the camps. The various large group talks are presented by priests and seminarians of the archdiocese, with topics ranging from what a vocation even is, to how to respond to the voice of the Lord, to explanations of different forms of prayer. A favorite talk of mine, and of many other camp participants as well, is the chance to participate in a
candid question and answer session about the daily life of a priest. Learning in middle and high school what a priest does all day in a very casual and real setting is not an opportunity that every student has. I am confident the camps helped to demystify the parish priesthood for myself and many of my peers. Intermixed throughout the rest of the camps are times of relaxation, recreation, and fellowship, including sports, the ever intense late-night game of capture the flag, phenomenal meals, and a beautiful hike along Lake Michigan.
This step in a young man’s spiritual journey can occur at any point along the way of this path which Jesus, the Light of the World, illumines. Certainty is not required, and dare I say, not even recommended on camps such as these. Discernment is a rich and complex process which draws us ever closer to Christ, and to do this properly and authentically, we must be open to be led down paths which we are unsure of their destination. The Psalmist writes: “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path.” As was astutely noted by a priest I know, a lamp for your feet truly is not all that useful if you’re looking far into the future. A lamp at foot level will light up the path just in front of the traveler, yet offers little visibility in the distance. The Lord knows where the path leads; we are only called to follow his quiet, patient voice, his light in the darkness. Perhaps his voice is calling you to trust him and step onto the path which leads to a “De Sales Days” camp.
(Benjamin Grey is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. For more information or to sign up for a vocation camp, visit thinkpriest.org)