C.J. Keilly was looking forward to joining other Catholic teens in a week-long wilderness adventure, but admitted he wasn’t totally ready for the reality of “roughing it.”
“When we got there I learned there would be no showering until the end of the week,” said Keilly, a 2019 graduate of Pine-Richland High School and member of St. Richard Parish’s youth group. “But stepping out of our comfort zone was a big part of the experience.”
More than two dozen young men and women took part in Camp Lajas during separate weeks in July, unplugging from their busy lives to encounter God in nature, the sacraments, and in one another. They went rock-climbing, whitewater rafting, kayaking, hiking and learned archery. Based at Moraine State Park, campers took excursions to McConnell’s Mill State Park and Ohiopyle.
“On the river we had to work together,” said Patrick Gormley, a North Allegheny High School graduate and member of St. Kilian Parish. “You need to keep the raft moving forward, and you can’t do it on your own.”
Mornings began with prayer and Mass, then preparing for the day with scripture readings related to each activity. Afterwards, campers connected their outdoor challenges to living a life in Christ and listened to dynamic spiritual talks. They also took part in reconciliation and adoration. Bishop David Zubik visited, hearing confessions and blessing each person.
“The Lord is really working. Young people are coming alive in their faith,” said Emily Cunningham, camp director. “They embraced the physical challenges, grew in prayer and returned home on fire, excited to live out the Christian adventure.”
Cunningham and Keilly spoke about Camp Lajas in an interview with Father Tom Burke for the diocesan radio program Catholic Education Plus.
“As we were hiking, I thought about how we’re all on the same path together through the wilderness,” said Keilly, who is discerning a possible vocation to the priesthood. “We didn’t take the same steps, but we all have the same goal — to get to heaven and bring as many people as we can with us.”
“Our lives can be very complex, with a lot of noise and distraction,” said Father Mike Ackerman, diocesan director of vocations, who was one of several speakers. “This kind of experience helps us simplify, making time to pray, relax and build fraternity. It’s in these moments that you encounter God.”
Mary-Kate Schratz, a graduate of St. Joseph High School and a Holy Sepulcher parishioner, returned to Camp Lajas for a second summer.
“I loved going on retreats but had never gone camping before,” she said. “Every day was a completely new adventure, trying to see the beauty of creation everywhere. I’ve grown spiritually, learning who I am as a beloved daughter of God.”
Camp Lajas is named for Our Lady of Las Lajas, an 18th century Marian apparition in Colombia where the Blessed Mother’s intercession is credited with bringing a young girl back to life.
“Doing without technology and the comforts of home makes you rely on others,” said Father Nick Vaskov, who serves on the camp’s board of advisors. “It’s in opening up one’s heart to another that trusting relationships are formed.”
“The camp has made a big difference in my prayer life,” Gormley said. “I realized my heart needs to be fixed on God more.”
The Catholic Education Plus interview on Camp Lajas airs 6:30 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 15, on KDKA-AM 1020. Following the broadcast, the program will be available online at: https://kdkaradio.radio.com/media/podcast/catholic-education-plus.