Faith, fun and formation at Kenrick-Glennon Days

One week each summer, the green grounds and marble halls of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary echo with cheering, chanting and bursting water balloons during the annual Kenrick-Glennon Days camp for sixth- through ninth-graders. Often, the only quiet space is the Chapel of St. Joseph, even when packed with more than 100 campers, counselors and seminarians.

This is exactly the balance for which the camp aims in aiding boys in vocational discernment: an environment of both play and prayer as they get to know the seminary.

"In the midst of all the fun we have, there's that real serious element of faith," said Father Brian Fallon, archdiocesan assistant vocations director. Father Fallon will assume the full post of vocations director on June 26.

The camp began in 1999, marking 20 events of praying and playing.

"I think the core elements have stayed the same" over that time, Father Fallon said, pointing particularly to prayer and liturgy as well as Water Olympics "on the fun side."

The week is divided into two sessions, the first for rising sixth- and seventh-graders, and a second for rising eighth- and ninth-graders. The first session this year clocked a record attendance with 117 registered; 76 signed up for the second.

Each session began with a series of games ranging from handball to more pious (yet still playful) games such as the Candelabra Relay, in which campers raced to light candles as for Mass.

Catechetically oriented sessions filled the second day, with topics ranging from death and funerals to "How to be a man." Campers also took photos in liturgical garments at "Picture me a priest" and competed in Catholic Jeopardy, both traditional activities at Kenrick-Glennon Days.

The Water Olympics, the climactic aquatic showdown of each camp, took place that night. Teams of campers faced off and priests hurled water balloons for the Archbishop's Cup, a trophy brimming with candy. Bishop Robert J. Hermann presented the coveted prize.

Seminarian Chris Kennebeck, a Cardinal Glennon College sophomore, situated the games in the larger scheme of the week.

"We have a saying here at Kenrick-Glennon Days, and that's, 'Play hard, but also pray hard,'" he said. He linked this to the life of Jesus, who both spent time in prayer and with his followers.

Peter Hogan, an eighth-grader and parishioner at the newly formed St. John Paul II Parish in Affton, described the camp as "special time with God" in the midst of games. Camper Thomas Dittmer from St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Cape Girardeau said that "because I've always wanted to be a priest, it feels nice to be somewhere with a lot of other kids who, some of us feel the same."

Seminarian Mitch Baer, a third-year theology student, estimates that he has attended seven Kenrick-Glennon Days. The camp "strengthens our bond of brotherhood as seminarians, to be able to minister together, to be able to see each other providing service and just being goofballs," he said.

In addition to the seminarian staff, approximately 40 high school counselors formed the backbone of the camp. With a day of recollection before camp, the program is designed to help them in their discernment.

Counselor Matthew Davenport of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque Parish received his application to the seminary at the start of the week. The camp has helped him see that the seminary "wasn't just a place for 'Jesus freaks,' as people say, but for any man," he said. Davenport was among "a handful" of counselors who took an application, according to Father Fallon.

According to seminarian Joseph Esserman, a Cardinal Glennon College senior and camp director this year, the counselors' enthusiasm creates "a special encounter" with God for the campers.

"That energy is where God works the most," Esserman said.

Campgoers-turned-priests

As the camp marks its 20th session, many former campers now are archdiocesan priests, and some cite its importance in their discernment.

Father Fallon first attended as a camper in 2000 and estimates his attendance at 16 of the 20. At the camp, he "was able to find an outlet for my discernment, because I had been thinking about being a priest since sixth grade," he said. "I've just been really grateful for what the camp has given me in terms of my brothers and my friends. All the guys that have been on camps who are either priests now or who are in seminary or who are happily married and living their vocations too."

The camp also informs his work with vocations. As he put it, Kenrick-Glennon Days "helps me to see what vocation promotion is all about. It's just helping people to know Jesus' love first, so then they can know His plan."

After 20 years, "it's a great joy to see how this camp is still a great work," he said.

Among other former campers assisting this year was Father Tom Vordtriede, associate pastor of Holy Infant Parish, who led a catechetical session.

Father Vordtriede first attended in 2001 and went twice as a camper, but "never came wanting to be a priest." However, the camp did introduce him "not only to priests and seminarians," but also to the seminary building.

Father Vordtriede began pondering a priestly vocation in high school. He visited the seminary and viewed it with a "renewed sense of 'Oh my gosh, this could be my life.'"

He was a counselor at Kenrick-Glennon Days before his senior year and entered the seminary the following year.

Father Vordtriede's role has changed over the years from camper to priest.

"I'm not out there running around right now like I used to. In some ways, that's not the fun part for me. The fun part for me now is getting to hear confessions, is getting to teach and see these kids learn something," he said. He estimates his attendance to be least 12 camps.

Father Ryan Weber, associate pastor at St. Gabriel Parish, attended camp as a counselor the summer before his senior year of high school, and also estimates he has attended 12. He was thinking about seminary, but "it made it more personal."

"It would be hard to discern a vocation if you've never seen anyone or met anyone who's considering it," he said.

Since becoming a priest, Father Weber has run a session at each camp, this year teaching "How to be a man," intended to teach young boys responsibility and basic skills such as shaving and tying a tie. Father Weber assured campers that their parents "love that we're talking about this with you right now."

Another priest who has been consistently involved is Father John Schneier of St. Joseph in Cottleville, who first attended as a seminarian. This year, Father Schneier ran "Picture me a priest," a staple session in which participants dress in priestly garments and pose for pictures.

"What it helped me to do was to put into practice all the stuff that we had been taught throughout the year," Father Schneier said of that first year. "And because I enjoyed it so much, and because I grew from it, really helped me see, 'OK, I can do this. This is what I'm getting ordained for.'" 

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