“The level of our faith we have determines the degree to which God’s power can be activated in people’s lives,” said DeMatte.
“With the new evangelization, technology is really something that the Church needs to look into,” said Wilcox. While he was quarantined at home due to the coronavirus, Wilcox broadcast videos of himself singing praise and worship music over Facebook Live and was overwhelmed by the response.
He sees technology as “a tool for the Church.”
“The Catholic Church has stepped up to meet people in the digital age,” said Grace Theoret, an 18 year old Totus Tuus missionary in the Diocese of Marquette. She described a plethora of digital Catholic conferences that were made available this spring.
The digital platform will allow many summer camps to reach a much wider audience than ever before.
In just eight weeks of virtual ministry this spring, DeMatte said that Damascus Catholic Mission Campus, the organization overarching CYSC, reached over 150,000 people. At Camp Wojtyla, Eby said she has seen a lot of families sign up for the virtual camp who had initially been waitlisted.
Emma Kate Callahan, a 21-year-old Totus Tuus missionary in the Diocese of Pueblo, CO, said that Totus Tuus is now able to virtually minister to four more parishes than it had originally planned for this summer.
Despite the potential for a wider reach of their ministry, some worry that the camps’ reliance on technology will compromise their potential for meaningful relationships.
“You don't really have the same interactions online,” said Callahan. “You just can't beat being face to face with a child and looking into their eyes and seeing the face of Jesus.”
This concern is shared by many parents, who wonder if online Catholic summer camp is a worthy investment.
“It's hard to replace being in person with people, no matter how creative we are with content,” said Anna Witham, an early-childhood educator in Minnesota. “As an educator and a parent and a Catholic, it's important for me to give my kids real experiences.”
“I’m a hard no on virtual summer camp,” Mary Walker, a youth minister in the Diocese of Arlington, VA, told CNA.
“Me and a few of my friends have decided that because we’re probably going back to virtual learning in the fall, that we need to have as few screens as possible during summer as possible to kind of reset and reboot,” she said.
“I’ve always been a parent who tries to limit screen time,” said Witham. “I hadn't even thought to sign my kids up for anything like that because I feel like they needed a break from structured activities delivered via screen.”
Walker described how gross-motor skills, such as climbing a jungle gym or playing outside, facilitate learning fine motor skills, such as holding a pencil. Both she and Witham said that their kids’ summers will be full of bike-riding, hiking, playing outside, and imaginative play.
But Walker said that there’s a reason beyond spurning technology to opt out of Catholic summer camps.
“Parents are the primary educators of their children in matters of faith,” she told CNA. “And I think it’s prime time for parents to stand up and take ownership of that.”
In fact, many Catholic summer camps are embracing the fact that parents will be able to engage in the material alongside their children.
DeMatte said that Catholic Youth Summer Camp’s goal is “not to do the ministry for parents, but to facilitate the ministry for parents.”
“We were getting messages from families saying, this is the first time we’ve ever played together, or, this is the first time that dad has ever goofed off with the kids,” DeMatte told CNA. “And that’s revolutionary in a family.”
“What do we have? Families,” said Zimmer, who leads her six-person Totus Tuus team. “We can build up the family unit. We are gearing this towards hopefully being able to help the parents teach the kids.”
“There's opportunity there to have the parents involved in the mission just as much as the kids are,” said 22 year old Ben Gregory, who is part of Zimmer’s team. “(It’s) likely there will be conversations happening amongst the families.”
By engaging the whole family, moreover, Catholic summer camps hope to simply stay afloat themselves. One summer without camp could threaten the existence of many programs.
“The summer camp industry, as a whole, is really in danger right now,” said DeMatte. “I think you’ll see a lot of camps close.” He described that 60%-75% or more of a summer camp’s revenue is generated over the summer. One summer’s campers, moreover, fuel the next year’s admissions.
“I hope that being in this environment with other Catholics, that for our campers and our families and all who are part of our mission, we can come together and say, ‘this isn't going to be forever,’” said Eby. “We’ve got to keep the hunger, the desire, the flame.”
Regardless of how their camp is delivered, many Catholic summer camps share the determination to remain steadfast to their mission of sharing Christ.
“We don't exist to run summer camps, we exist to proclaim the name of Jesus,” said DeMatte. “If we think of this from heaven’s perspective, God is like, ‘are you kidding me, you don’t think I can’t change kids’ lives through an online platform?’”