Pope John Paul II’s love for young people and nature was based on a profound understanding of the link that both bear to God, say organizers of a Colorado summer camp named after the late pontiff.
“John Paul II understood our connection with creation on a deep and profound level,” said Annie Powell, founder and director of Camp Wojtyla.
“He told us that ‘our very contact with creation has a deep, restorative power,’” she said, quoting the Pope’s 1990 World Day of Peace address.
As a young priest, then-Fr. Karol Wojtyla – the man who would later take the name Pope John Paul II – began leading wilderness excursions for young people while teaching them about the faith.
“The wilderness not only communicated God’s greatness, but it was also a haven of pure goodness, community and the best possible environment for catechesis,” Powell explained to CNA April 23.
Powell said that the future Pope had a deep love for young people as he “understood the fire within young people; their passion and potential for greatness.”
“He saw in communist Poland how the courage of the young brought down the oppression of a powerful, atheistic and corrupt government,” she explained.
Today, young people growing up in a “culture of death” still need to have a place of refuge in nature where they can reconnect with God, she suggested.
“Because the wilderness communicates the Glory of God, just like JPII, we see no better environment to catechize and challenge the youth who come to us. We believe in their path to holiness and know they are capable of greatness.”
For the past eight years, Powell – along with her family and a handful of full-time staff members and summer counselors – has ministered to young people through Camp Wojtyla, a weeklong Catholic summer camp in the mountains of Colorado that offers catechesis through outdoor adventures.
Camp Wojtyla has begun expanding to offer family and year-round excursions, but their summer camp remains the most popular option for teenagers seeking to connect with God through outdoor adventures.
“The wilderness itself is giving them a space where they can be themselves free from the anxieties and pressures of the demands of home life and the noise of the culture back home with all of the lies and the pressures that are being spoken,” said Camp Wojtyla staffer Keenan Fitzpatrick.
The 23-year-old realized the importance that nature held in John Paul II’s life while attending a talk by papal biographer George Weigel, who recalled something the Holy Father had told him when asked about his formation as a priest.
John Paul II simply said, “If you speak with most popes, they’ll say that they received their formation from seminary. I, however, received my formation by bringing young people into the wilderness.”
“I got chills when I heard (Weigel say) it,” Fitzpatrick said. “He wanted people to experience the freedom that Christ is and one of those ways to experience that freedom is being in the freedom of the wilderness.”
At Camp Wojtyla, Fitzpatrick said that young people are given the opportunity to experience that kind of freedom and then apply it to their relationship with God.
“We give them very solid and memorable experiences so that they can then transfer it into their faith life,” he explained.
Rather than go on adventures just for fun, the campers are encouraged to reflect and discuss how the activities relate to faith.
He shared how one girl said that rock climbing helped her realize that she needed to trust in God as much as she trusted the rope that kept her safe as she climbed.
“(God) is someone who will hold her up and not let her down even if she cannot feel him holding her,” Fitzpatrick said.
Brooke Horner, who was a summer counselor for the camp in 2012, said that when society was “giving up” on the next generation, “John Paul II saw how vital they would be in the life of the Church” and challenged them to a “greater understanding of their role as a member of the Body of Christ.”
In the wilderness, she said, young people are similarly challenged when they are removed from the conveniences of modern life.
While difficult at first, Horner acknowledged, by the end of the week, campers are filled with “joy that is centered on Christ and virtuous relationships.”
“Without the comforts of home, the youth are completely vulnerable and must rely on God to get them through trials,” she said. “Through vulnerability, our Lord works.”