For the past three years now, Catholic families in the Diocese of Green Bay and beyond have been marking their calendars for July 4th, and not just because it’s Independence Day.
Since 2012, families have camped out by Kangaroo Lake near Bailey’s Harbor, Wisc., for CatholicFest, an event over the holiday weekend that offers a chance to pray, meet other Catholic families, and experience truth, beauty and goodness in the arts.
“Our society is attacking the family, it’s under attack,” CatholicFest director Jen Lowery told CNA.
“But I think CatholicFest seeks to really minister to families….it’s just to come up and experience the good, the true and the beautiful through those mediums and to be together.”
Families register online for a camping spot on the grounds of the St. Joseph formation center. Once they arrive, their schedule includes prayer and Mass, as well as presentations by Catholic artists on film, art or literature. In the evening, up-and-coming Catholic artists give concerts on the back lawn.
Lowery, 31, helped direct the first CatholicFest as well as the most recent one. The event is an outreach of Catholic Youth Expeditions (CYE), founded in 2002 as a part-summer camp, part-retreat ministry that brings young adult staff members together to live in community and host various high school and young adult expeditions of prayer, community life, camping and outdoor activities.
Simplicity and prayer are the bread and butter of CYE and all its apostolates, including CatholicFest.
“You’re up here, you’re away from the world, and the three constants are morning and evening prayer, Eucharistic adoration and Mass,” Lowery said. “Everything else is icing on the cake.”
CatholicFest was started as a way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the CYE ministry. Instead of high schoolers or young adults, Fr. Quinn wanted to serve the families of the Green Bay Diocese while promoting Catholic culture through the arts.
Because the call to simplicity is so foundational to CYE, there is a minimum of advertisement and publicity for their events. Lowery made a few amateur YouTube videos on her laptop for CatholicFest. Beyond that, it’s mostly person invitation.
“Basically CYE has been around for 12 years because of personal invitation,” Lowery said. “It’s all about the invitation and the encounter. The first two words of our mission statement are ‘to encounter’ so there’s already an invitation there for action.”
Personal invitation is why Carlene and Christopher Martens have been bringing their still-growing family of five up to CatholicFest since its beginning.
“Father Quinn said Mass at the Cathedral and afterwards my husband decided to take our son up to meet him,” Carlene said, “And as David was shaking Fr. Quinn's hand, Father was like, ‘Do you like fishing? Do you like camping? Then you gotta come to CatholicFest!’”
When Carlene sat down to talk with CNA at the event, the kids were nowhere in sight.
“I have five kids running around right now, I don't see a single one of them and I am totally at peace with that, and not in a bad way,” Martens said. “There are so many families here, I know that the moms are always looking out for kids no matter what. Everybody’s looking out for everybody else. It's just such a family community here.”
Carlene’s oldest son David, almost 9, likes the freedom he has at CatholicFest to roam around with his friends and play soccer. Her daughters love the concerts.
“They are looking forward to the band tonight, being able to get up and dance, that's their favorite part,” Martens said.
Martens said she and her husband enjoy the family atmosphere and being around other Catholic parents with similar experiences to theirs.
Steve and Lily Simmons are converts to the Catholic faith who brought their family up to CatholicFest for the second time this year. The fellowship and community at CatholicFest is what keeps them coming back.
“With us being converts, we have felt alone a lot in that because some people have been part of the Church for so long that it’s just what they do,” Lily said. “So coming from the Protestant background, so much of our experience was community and fellowship, and that’s been something that we’ve been so hungry for so this is something that’s been an awesome blessing for that reason.”
The ability to get to know people on a deeper level is something that CatholicFest offers that parish life often does not, Steve said.
“We like coming up here, camping for a few days, having it surround around the Mass, coupled with a social environment where we just spend time with each other and get to know each other more on a more profound level than just coffee and a donut and fundraising and banquets at church,” Steve said.
The perpetual adoration available in the chapel all weekend also blesses the families present and creates a palpable presence of grace, Steve said.
“It definitely lays a spiritual cover,” he said. “It’s not just when you’re in the chapel, it’s on the whole grounds, along with Mass.”
Hannah Rathsack, a CYE summer staff member for the past two years, said she would encourage Catholics and non-Catholics alike to come to CatholicFest.
“This event looks entertaining to others because of the events that take place but it is so much more than that,” Rathsack said. “God is working through the entire event and can change hearts.”
This year’s speakers and entertainers included authors Dr. Mark and Dr. Adrianne Adderly, Catholic comedian Tony Bonse, keynote speaker Jimmy Mitchell and several musicians from the Love Good Music tour.
Lowery said she finds most of the speakers and musicians through recommendations from friends, or because they have somehow heard about CYE.
“I think the thing we want to promote is a retreat for Catholic artists up here,” Lowery said. “Its really like a grassroots movement, we don’t want to get really big bands or famous names, we want to get people who are an unknown and help them grow in their ministry.”
The musicians and artists are invited to stay for the whole weekend, and often stay even longer at the formation center as a kind of retreat.
“We are able to minister to them, and they are able to minister to us, it’s cyclical, it’s relational ministry,” Lowery said. “We don’t just hire someone to come sing to us and then they leave.”
Lowery also emphasized that CatholicFest provides so much more than just entertainment.
“It’s formative,” Lowery said. “We’re not entertaining, we’re encountering. An entertainer can entertain you, but you’re not really going to be changed too much…but when you have an encounter with something, you’re changed.”
The encounter that CYE most hopes to foster is one with Jesus Christ.
“To encounter Jesus Christ – Jesus Christ is alive and well and He’s a person, and CYE seeks to foster that personal relationship with Jesus Christ for whoever walks through their doors on this campus,” Lowery said.