The old school bus was filled with teenagers talking, singing, and laughing. If the weather was warm, the windows were opened and arms went out. It usually took a few moments of gleeful shouting back and forth, but eventually the arms were organized and choreographed to a rhythmic flapping up and down in unison, making the bus look like a large, boxy yellow bird flying up the canyon.
We were on our way to Camp St. Malo, in Allenspark, Colorado. Driving up highway 7, we were going into the Rocky Mountains and were surrounded by breathtaking scenery. Those of us who actually stopped to take a breath now and then, looked out the windows and were in awe. I'll never forget my first time riding on the bus to Camp St. Malo. I was one of the quiet ones, a little anxious about a new experience, and I spent much of the ride looking out the window. Our family didn't travel much at all, even to go into the mountains for a day, so the idea of spending a weekend in the hills was attractive enough that I let my parents talk me into going on a Catholic retreat weekend for high school students. Not that I minded much, not really. I wasn't old enough to rebel and throw out family traditions and beliefs.
Catholic traditions permeated our lives, growing up in Wyoming and Colorado. We refrained from eating meat on Fridays and gave up candy for Lent. We went to Mass every week, said the rosary, and stood in line for the confessional at least once a month. The latter was often confusing for me as I couldn't always remember what I might have done wrong. However, as guilt flows as freely through a Catholic household as holy water at a shrine, I knew I had to have done something wrong and often made up my sins. I recited them solemnly to the priest, whom I could hear, but not see, and received a mild scolding and several Our Fathers and Hail Marys to say for penance.
The retreat was a totally new experience for me. We didn't have classes filled with rigid doctrine that we had to memorize. Instead, we had other teenagers and young adults talking to us about what it meant to them to be Catholic. These talks were funny, warm, and touching. We had discussion groups about topics that were relevant to us. We hugged a lot. We sang Kumbaya and enjoyed it.
The camp was run by a Catholic priest, Fr. Bob Jerrard. I recognized him at our first evening prayers as the man who drove the bus. He was a gentle man who always looked as though he had just woken up from a long winter's nap. His hair, gray streaks in brown, was left in whatever place the last breeze had arranged it. He didn't wear clerics, preferring blue work shirts or flannel shirts worn with blue jeans. He often had tools in his hands. His was a full time job, not only as the spiritual director, but as maintenance man as well. This was his camp and he took care of it.
Fr. Jerrard didn't talk a lot. I think he was too busy making sure everything was running right. His talk to us the first night had little to do with spirituality and a lot to do with what could and could not go down the toilets. He was the most unusual priest I had ever met. Fr. Jerrard gave one important talk on Saturday evening when we had a candlelight service at the Chapel on the Rock. This small church had been built on the rock and of the rock, in the 1930s. I've never yet seen a cathedral that could match its beauty.
There, in the cold stone church, we listened to Fr. Bob talk to us about just how much God loves and values us. After all, he would say, God made us and God doesn't make junk. It was a simple message. Lighting our candles at the end of the service and walking back across the valley in a long line of candles, in the dark, under the stars to the old lodge building, it was easy to believe.
On Sunday, after Mass, we hugged and cried and promised to keep in touch with our new friends. Then we boarded the bus again, put our arms out the windows, and the boxy yellow bird flew down the mountain.
That was nearly 40 years ago and much has changed. In the 1980s, the old lodge building was declared to be a fire hazard. Fr. Bob was transferred out of the camp and into a parish in Denver. The archdiocese had the old lodge torn down and a new retreat and conference center for adults was built to take its place.
The direction of the church has changed, too, from the progressive enthusiasm and ideals of Vatican II to become conservative, rigid, and dogmatic. There's not much I recognize in the church anymore. By the time Fr. Jerrard died from a brain tumor in 2004 at the age of 64, we had said our goodbyes to the Catholic church. Spirituality remains an important part of our lives, organized religion does not. Ironically, it was not the old lodge building that caught fire, but the new retreat center that burned to the ground this week.
I have struggled with my belief in God over the years, and it's hard to reconcile that image of a loving God with the realities of this world. I am sure I will continue to struggle with this and that's okay with me. I don't think any God would want a blind follower who didn't think and struggle with their beliefs.
There are times, however, when I am in the mountains, or outside under the stars, when I picture a gentle man with windblown hair and a flannel shirt, and I can hear him clearly, reminding me that “God doesn't make junk.”
Then, it's easy to believe.