Father Patrick McPartland, seated right, joins with young adults from St. Catharine Parish, Holmdel, who participated in the Spiritual Boot Camp events that were held in late July. Courtesy photo
Father Patrick McPartland, seated right, joins with young adults from St. Catharine Parish, Holmdel, who participated in the Spiritual Boot Camp events that were held in late July. Courtesy photo

By Mary Stadnyk | Associate Editor

There’s a scene in the movie “Saving Private Ryan” that Father Patrick McPartland finds especially disturbing. It’s when the Marines arrive at the beach in Normandy in their amphibious landing craft and just as the vehicle’s large door opens, the Marines are met with a wall of German machine gun fire before they can even enter the fight.

What bothers Father McPartland, pastor of St. Catharine Parish, Holmdel, most about this terrible scene is that it captures what he sees happening with teenagers who are heading off to college and the challenges they are likely to face, especially when it comes to practicing their Catholic faith.

“Starting even before college, our young people are inundated with images and ideologies that are very secular, anti-religious, anti-Catholic and anti-institution,” he said. “They are being taught that faith doesn’t matter, religion is stupid and only the uneducated, unenlightened would believe in the teachings of the Church.”

As a way to motivate the parish’s young adult population to continue practicing their faith, especially those who are heading off to college for the first time, Father McPartland hosted two Spiritual Boot Camp events for high school graduates and college students with the goal of guiding them on how to have a faithful, balanced and healthy college experience.

The inspiration for the Spiritual Boot Camps, held July 25 and July 28, was based on his many years as a youth minister and high school chaplain, as well as having spent the past six years in the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md. During that time, he worked primarily with 18-to 25-year-olds, many of whom did not practice their faith.

“They date people without any criteria for faith, they may get married, perhaps in church or maybe without any idea of the Christian understanding of marriage,” he said. “Such families have children but may not have them baptized or choose not raise their family in the [Catholic] faith. Meanwhile, I hear form parents lamenting how their grown children are no longer involved in the faith.”

In response to this realization, Father McPartland developed the “Spiritual Boot Camp” as a last-ditch effort for preparing high school graduates for the battle they will face in college.

“Their faith will be challenged, tested, denigrated and basically destroyed if they are not ready for the battle,” said Father McPartland. He added that a second goal was to build a team of young adults to help with organizing the event and to lay the groundwork for developing a young adult ministry in St. Catharine Parish.

Useful Weapons

The turnout for the Spiritual Boot Camps drew about 24 participants ranging from recent high school graduates to those who just completed their college experience. Many have been active in the parish as religious education teachers and assistants, altar servers or as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. Most have also been active in the parish’s high school youth ministry.

The Boot Camps began with food and fellowship, followed by witness talks by current college students, small group discussions and a presentation on how to make a “survival plan” by Catie Kunkel, campus minister in Ramapo College of New Jersey, Mahwah. As a token, each participant received a backpack that contained copies of “Youcat,” “Catholic Youth Prayer Book,” a Rosary and a bookmark with prayer types. The event closed with 30 minutes Adoration in the parish chapel and the singing of “Here I Am Lord.”

In her two-fold presentation, Kunkel spoke about her conversion in college. After being befriended and challenged by a friend, she decided to make Jesus the center of her life and was eventually led to serve as a FOCUS missionary for two years at the U.S. Naval Academy. Kunkel spoke on the four things needed to survive – water (prayer), shelter (community), knife (intellectual formation) and fire (Sacraments) – and gave examples on how participants can develop their faith and locate resources.

Onward Catholic Christian Soldiers

Participant Gerald Sharpe, a 2018 graduate of Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft, and a rising sophomore in The Catholic University of America, Washington, found the camp to be a fruitful learning experience.

“At a time when young adults are leaving the Church, Father Pat and I agreed that it is so important for parishes to ensure they have an active and growing young adult ministry. A faithful young adult community in the Church provides a strong foundation for the future,” said Sharpe, a student leader for the event who was responsible for organizing, marketing and growing the young adult team.

Sharpe acknowledged the “battle” students are facing on college campuses, saying, “Whether it’s mental health issues, stress and anxiety or spiritual dryness, we hope that the Spiritual Boot Camp and the young adult ministry gave attendees the resources and foundation they need to help them in times of need when they are away in college.”

Sal Cardinale, an event leader and one of the key witness speakers, agreed.

“I think it’s very important that my fellow young adults know that there are people out there to talk to them and that they’re never alone,” said Cardinale, who recently graduated from Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, and is continuing his studies in the University of Maine at Augusta. He encouraged any young adults, kids or anyone who may be struggling to keep their focus. “Don’t give up, never stop trying to be the best you and pray.

“The only ‘uncool’ part about praying is not doing it,” he said.

Stefanie Geslak, a member of St. Catharine Parish since she was 2 and current business administration major at the University of Scranton, said she was honored she was to help lead the Spiritual Boot Camp, especially having the opportunity to share her experiences with first-year college students “whose shoes I remember being in not too long ago.

“After we go off to school, we lose that security of our home parish, so it is nice to come back together and reconnect on a deeper level, sharing each of our faith journeys while we were at school,” Geslak said. “We as young people in the Church need to stick together, be there for one another and encourage each other during this time when it’s a challenge to be confident in our religion in today’s world where there are constant questions why we believe in God. Through this Boot Camp, we wanted to equip students with resources to be confident in their faith so that they can go out and face the challenging world.”

Sharing how pleased he was with the first “Spiritual Boot Camp,” Father McPartland said, “We had some great discussions and started building a young adult network. I hope that more young adults will reach out and support each other in the battle of learning to live their faith in a challenging environment. I am encouraged by their energy and zeal.”