This past weekend, I accompanied my eight year old grandson and his father on a weekend retreat at Camp Brebeuf, situated in the rolling hills, about twenty-five minutes north of Milton, Ontario. The event was sponsored by the Conquest Boys Club, which in turn is sponsored by Regnum Christi, a Catholic organization whose motto is: Love Christ, Serve People, Build the Church.
There were approximately 30 boys in attendance, ranging in ages from six years old to 15, and the weekend was led by Carl Pinto who runs the Milton Conquest Boys Club, Father Thomas Murphy and Brother John Choi, both Legionaries of Christ out of Cornwall, and Oakville.
Supporting the leaders were a group of fathers who had accompanied their sons to the camp, the camp supervisor, and several camp workers who made certain that everything was kept running as smoothly as a well oiled machine.
All meals began with the saying of grace, and the group prayed the rosary together in the chapel each evening. The chapel is a rustic, wooden structure hidden deep in the woods, and connected to other areas by a system of paths which wind their way through the forest, offering safety, security and peace to anyone who is fortunate enough to tread there.
A group of young boys is a magical, energetic microcosm of humanity. They eat lots and often, they climb, they run, they shout and they push each other, sometimes to their limits.
The Conquest Boys Club motivates the members by offering points for different activities, all tied in to their Catholic faith. The boys are divided into groups and by the end of the evening or weekend, prizes are awarded, based on the number of points attained. It works and it works well. Boys love to be challenged, especially in aggressive physical activity. So this weekend, they left the dodgeball and lacrosse behind and began climbing rocks and rope ladders, all punctuated by decades of the rosary.
Little Matteo, who is about eight, attacked the rock wall and made it all the way to the top as if his life depended on it. Once at the summit, he finally turned around and took in the vista that lay before him and was obviously astounded at his feat, crying "Wow!" deep into the forest, "I made it dad!" There was no sun that morning, but the glow on Matteo's face more than made up for it.
Down in the valley, my grandson worked his way to the top of the rope ladders and car tires and once at the top beam, started to cry as he held on for dear life, realizing just how high and far he had come on that misty, cold morning in the bushes of southern Ontario. Sometimes pride of accomplishment comes in the form of a little boy's tears, not to mention the ones rolling down his grandfather's face.
Saturday night, the groups put on skits on a stage set up before a roaring pit fire and later, they roasted marshmallows and generally rubbed shoulders and enjoyed just being boys on a cool, drizzly night, deep in the recesses of the black bush. By the time they hit the bunk beds, their eyes were mere slits, and sleep fell on them as soon as they curled up in their sleeping bags.
During the retreat, Father Thomas and Brother John walked among the boys, dressed in Roman collars, and the traditional black suit, and somehow managed to keep their black shoes clean and shiny for most of the weekend. They answered questions and gave gentle advice, they laughed and they did a bit of teasing along the way, and the boys were obviously at peace with their presence and their leadership. What a gift for a boy to enjoy in this secular age in which few priests are ever seen on the street and a boy has few opportunities to speak one on one with someone as talented, pious and devoted as Brother John or Father Thomas.
Saturday evening, Father Thomas and Brother John held a one hour adoration in the chapel, along with confession. It was a cold night, with a chilly drizzle rolling in from the east, so we lit a fire in the woodstove, and prayed to Jesus who was right there in front of us on the altar, under the pine beams and wooden ceiling. It was pure magic, and I said to myself, "Thank you God for making me a Catholic."
Father Thomas heard my confession in the little alcove which serves as an entrance to the chapel. We could hear a raccoon chastizing us from somewhere up in the rafters just above our heads, and we smiled.
So somewhere out there at Camp Brebeuf, a raccoon has heard all my sins, but being Catholic, I have no fear. For we believe that our sins are forgiven and like the glowing sparks that flew up through the trees from the pit fire that night, they are sent into the darkness and extinguished, only to fall back to earth as lifeless black ash.
It was a weekend of learning and spiritual growth for all of us, but it was the boys who really came out on top. As little Ryan warned me in the canoe, as we headed up the pond, trying to catch the others, "Don't get too close to those rapids."
Partly because of the Conquest Boys Club, and the dedicated Catholics who are behind it, these are boys who will make a mark in the world, a world which they love and respect, a world which will hold joy but also danger, and a world in which Christ will protect and love them, notwithstanding the perils of the dark forest and the roar of the rapids which are always close by.