By late June, school was not in session at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. However, the seminary’s Memorial Gym was abuzz as 90 young men chatted over lunch, and a dozen Knights went table to table making sure they had plenty to eat.
Here, early summer brings with it hot and humid days. But it also ushers in another climate: one of vocation discernment.
For the past decade, the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., has annually held the Quo Vadis Days discernment camp at the seminary. The five-day experience offers young men ages 15-25 a chance to listen to God’s call while immersed in a schedule of prayer, sports and recreation, and presentations from priests and seminarians.
“This time gives me a chance to listen to where God wants me to go with my life,” said first-time participant Joseph Tokar, 19, a member of Monsignor George V. Lentocha Council 3501 in Middletown, Pa.
“I want to keep myself open to the possibility of the priesthood and look for where God wants me to be,” added Tokar, who will head to St. Joseph University in Philadelphia in the fall.
First launched in the Archdiocese of Portland in the Jubilee Year 2000, Quo Vadis Days discernment camps have
expanded to dioceses throughout the United States. In many cases, local
K of C councils have supported the program and similar discernment initiatives, helping to provide young men and women opportunities to explore and potentially embrace a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF CHRIST
Legend has it that as St. Peter fled the persecution of Nero, he encountered Jesus on the outskirts of Rome. “Lord, where are you going?” (in Latin, “Quo vadis, Domine?”), Peter asked. “To Rome, to be crucified again,” came the reply. Humiliated, Peter returned to the city, where, feeling unworthy of being crucified in the same way as Christ, he asked to be crucified upside down.
For more than a decade, U.S. dioceses have been asking young Catholic men the same question: “Quo vadis?” “Where are you going?”
The co-founders of Quo Vadis Days, Father John Cihak of the Archdiocese of Portland and Father William Dillard of the Diocese of San Diego, first developed the program in 2000 in response to Pope John Paul II’s call for a new evangelization. It has since spread to more than a dozen dioceses across the country, with local councils supporting discernment camps in places such as Spokane, Charlotte, Allentown and Philadelphia.
The Portland camp balances recreation, prayer and presentations from priests and seminarians to include a full spectrum of activities for participants, ages 13-18. A bonfire at the conclusion of each day gives campers time to talk to priests and seminarians in a relaxed environment.
This year’s event, held June 23-26, included a presentation by Archbishop Alexander Sample, hiking, fishing and a talent show. Campers also prayed an international rosary together at the bonfire, with each decade in a different language to celebrate their families’ countries of origin.
The program consistently draws 50-70 young men each year, and more than half of them are repeat participants.
Similarly, the inaugural Quo Vadis Days camp at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary drew 50 participants in 2005. Within two years, the program reached its current average of 90 young men. Approximately 70 percent of them are repeat campers each year, and 70 percent of the diocese’s nearly 40 seminarians have attended the program.
Campers and seminarians aren’t the only regulars though. Knights of Columbus have been supporting the initiative since it was introduced.
In Portland, councils donate food and snacks, facilitate daytime activities, and arrange carpools to take the boys to and from Camp Howard a Catholic camp situated on 240 acres of Oregon forests and meadows. Knights also sponsor some campers to cover the $50 cost.
“We have worked with the Knights from the beginning, so it has developed with their help, and it is dependent upon their help,” said Father Theodore Lange, a formation director and professor at Mount Angel Seminary and the current director of Quo Vadis Days in Portland.
“Having the Knights here has a great impact on the young men at the camp, regardless of their vocation in life,” added Father Lange, a member of St. Benedict Council 15595 who also serves as the Oregon state chaplain.
Mike Yakubick, a member of St. Joseph Council 12788 in Mechanicsburg, Pa., and the state Squires director, coordinates the efforts of the various councils that support the program in Harrisburg.
This year, Yakubick and fellow Knights were busy getting lunch ready while Bishop Ronald W. Gainer, who was appointed as bishop of Harrisburg in January, celebrated Mass for Quo Vadis Days participants.
By the time the hungry campers raced across the field from the chapel to the gym, the Knights had prepared a hearty menu that included 70 pounds of pulled pork and 60 pounds of marinated chicken, with an accompaniment of side dishes, drinks and desserts. The following day, the Knights were also on hand to man the grills for a cookout.
“We’ve become a well-oiled machine in providing these meals for the boys,” Yakubick said. “Everyone knows their role in making this happen.”
Each year, participating councils contribute funds for the purchase of food and supplies, which can cost up to $1,500. Surplus funds are presented to Father Raymond LaVoie, the diocese’s vocations director, for the purchase of prayer books, T-shirts and water bottles for campers.
“With so many returning campers each year, we get to know the boys and talk to them about their discernment, or how things are going in their lives,” Yakubick said. “We want them to see us as Catholic men serving and leading holy lives.”
Father LaVoie, who has directed Quo Vadis Days since it was introduced in the Diocese of Harrisburg, said that the Knights are an integral part of the atmosphere at the camp.
“One of the goals of Quo Vadis Days is to help form young men into good Catholic men,” said Father LaVoie, who is a member of Our Lady of Queenship Council 4068 in Camp Hill, Pa.
“The Knights of Columbus are one of the finest examples of men in the Church who are actively serving through their support of priests and seminarians, and their work to foster a culture of life,” Father LaVoie added.
FEEDING HEARTS AND MINDS
In addition to assisting Quo Vadis Days camps, Knights are fostering young vocations through various council events. One such example is the “Breakfast with the Sisters” and the “Breakfast with the Clergy” sessions that were launched this past winter by Sharpsburg Council 12862 in Newnan, Ga.
“The idea was to give young people the opportunity to hear about the choices that the sisters and priests made to embrace a religious vocation,” said Grand Knight Dino Cervone.
The two events offered young men and women in grades 8-12 an intimate yet informal setting to interact with religious sisters and priests four Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, a Jesuit priest and three priests of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
The council limited the number of attendees of each breakfast to 25 in order to foster one-on-one discussion. Knights set up the gathering in the parish hall; prepared pancakes, eggs and sausage; and served refills to allow the young people to continue conversation with the clergy and religious at their tables. After breakfast, the priests and sisters offered their individual vocation stories and then answered questions.
“Perhaps it planted a seed in a few of the kids who attended,” Cervone said. “Just by cooking the breakfast, serving the meal or cleaning tables, our Knights helped make that happen in some way.”
Whether it’s a vocations breakfast, Quo Vadis Days camp or a discernment retreat, the goal of each initiative is the same: to provide an environment where young people can seriously consider how God may be calling them.
“You’re given the opportunity to think and discern, to ask questions and to express your thoughts,” Joseph Tokar said, reflecting on his Quo Vadis Days experience.
“The highlight of the week for me is the overall atmosphere,” said 18-year-old Malachi Scripko, as he gestured to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, with the grotto’s renowned statue of the Blessed Mother towering above the campus.
“We’re being with priests, being able to have spiritual direction, and being with a group of peers who enjoy the same love for the Church,” added Scripko, a Columbian Squire with St. Joseph Circle 5102 in Mechanicsburg, Pa. “I feel that here, I can be myself.”
Indeed, young men commonly discover at Quo Vadis Days camps a unique perspective about their faith and future a perspective that speaks to the heart.
“Young men need to be supported, accepted and challenged in order to thrive. The challenge for them to grow in virtue is something that they long for,” explained Father Lange.
“One of the reasons why Quo Vadis Days is so attractive,” he added, “is because it’s a place where the hidden and often suppressed desire to be holy is awakened.”
JENNIFER REED is managing editor of The Catholic Witness, the newspaper of the Diocese of Harrisburg.