Look no further – your family belongs at Annunciation Heights


Darilyn Bixenman just wanted to reconnect with her teenage kids when she told her family they were all going to stay at Annunciation Heights near Estes Park for a family camp weekend.

The mom faced the usual adolescent pushback from her kids who expected a “cheesy”  family camp experience, but the weekend became transformative for the family of five, she said.

“My husband and I felt like we hadn’t seen our teens all summer, so I just said, ‘we’re going,’” Bixenman said.

Annunciation Heights is an adventure camp for both families and youth located outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. It is one of the 40 ministries supported by the Archdiocese of Denver and the annual Archbishop’s Catholic Appeal.

The camp offers numerous outdoor activities where youth groups and families can reconnect with God, nature and each other.

“Camp allows families to step away from the busy-ness of life,” said Luke Hlavin, Assistant Camp Director, Annunciation Heights Youth and Family Camp. “With the sacraments and prayer as foundations to our outdoor camp experience, individuals and families can walk away refilled by the abundance of God’s love visible all around them.”

Like her teenagers, even Bixenman had a moment of doubt when they arrived at Annunciation Heights. The camp leaders immediately had each family break out into groups to try a family reconciliation activity.

Her husband John was told to kick off the exercise and everyone in her family had uncertainty about how it would go. As each member took his or her turn, Bixenman noticed a change happening in her family and in the families around her.

“Shortly, people all over the camp were hugging each other and crying and you could feel a sense of unexpected healing going on,” she said. “It felt so good, it became a tool and skill that we brought back from camp with us and we continue to use as a family at home.”

The spiritual activities are only part of the family experience, there are many outdoor activities for families to build their own adventure with zip lining, ropes courses, hiking, boating, fishing and archery.

“Here at Annunciation Heights, families can learn and grow, and have a blast doing it,” Hlavin said.

Many of the staff are full-time missionaries who have dedicated a year or more to life at Annunciation Heights. Missionaries, like Becca, who heard God’s call, feels like she gets as much or more from camp as the families.

Meet the Missionaries

Missionary Becca Haven was only in middle school when she felt God’s first call, but she wasn’t sure what direction her faith would take her.

Toward the end of her college education she began looking for work. Her spiritual director suggested she follow a religious-based path, but she continually said “no thank you, I want a real job.”

But then a job posting for Annunciation Heights surfaced and when she showed it to a friend, her friend questioned whether it was a real because it suited Haven so well. Other signs came along the way, even while she was laid up with knee surgery. She applied, not sure what would happen, and was accepted.

Now she works at the foot of Rocky Mountain National Park and she’s able to witness young people’s faith formation in a way she never imagined.

“When I watch families and their desire to grow in their Catholic faith it gives me hope in the future of families and the future of the Catholic church,” Haven said.

Missionary Eric Frederick called himself a staunch atheist when he first felt the distinct call of God in his life.

“My life was morally based on how I felt at any moment,” Frederick said.

He was drawn to the blending of reason and faith of the Catholic church and what he calls the “objective truth” of the religion and its teachings.

Frederick had a background in outdoor guiding when he came upon the web site for Annunciation Heights. There are always ways to serve at the camp — sometimes even in the middle of the night, he said. But he enjoys the living Catholic community where he belongs.

His faith has blossomed at Annunciation Heights and he felt compelled to sign on for a second year before completing his first.

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COMING UP: The Next Pope and Vatican II

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Polemics about the Second Vatican Council continue to bedevil the global Catholic conversation.

Some Catholics, often found in the moribund local Churches of western Europe, claim that the Council’s “spirit” has never been implemented (although the Catholic Lite implementation they propose seems more akin to liberal Protestantism than Catholicism). Other voices claim that the Council was a terrible mistake and that its teaching should be quietly forgotten, consigned to the dustbin of history. In The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (just published by Ignatius Press), I suggest that some clarifying papal interventions are needed to address these confusions.

To begin: the next pope should remind Catholics what Pope John XXIII intended for the Council, thereby challenging both the Catholic Lite Brigade and the Forget Vatican II Platoon.

The pope’s opening address to Vatican II on October 11, 1962, made his intention clear: The Church, he said, must re-focus on Jesus Christ, from whom she “takes her name, her grace, and her total meaning.” The Church must put the Gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ, the answer to the question that is every human life, at the center of her self-understanding. The Church must make that proclamation by proposing, “whole and entire and without distortion” the truths Christ gave the Church. And the Church must transmit those truths in ways that invite skeptical contemporary men and women into friendship with the Lord Jesus.

John XXIII did not imagine Vatican II to be a Council of deconstruction. Nor did he imagine it to be a Council that froze the Church in amber. Rather, Pope John’s opening address to Vatican II called the entire Church to take up the task of Christian mission: the mission to offer humanity the truth about God and us, both of which are revealed in Jesus Christ.  The next pope should forcefully remind the Church of this.

The next pope might also engage – and settle – a parallel debate that began during Vatican II and continues today: Did the Catholic Church reinvent itself between October 11, 1962, and December 8, 1965, the day the Council solemnly closed? Or must the documents of Vatican II be read in continuity with revelation and tradition? Curiously, the “progressive” Catholic Lite Brigade and the ultra-traditionalist Forget Vatican II Platoon promote the same answer: Vatican II was indeed a Council of discontinuity. But that is the wrong answer. It is a mistaken reading of John XXIII’s intention for Vatican II. It is a mistaken reading of Paul VI’s guidance of the Council. And It is a mistaken reading of the Council’s texts.

Three canonized popes – John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II – plus the great theologian-pope Benedict XVI have insisted that Vatican II can and must be read in continuity with settled Catholic doctrine. To claim that Vatican II was a Council of rupture and reinvention is to say, in effect, that these great men were either duplicitous, anti-conciliar reactionaries (the tacit indictment of the progressives) or material heretics (the tacit indictment from the far right-field bleachers). Neither indictment has any merit, although the latter has recently gotten undeserved attention, thanks to ill-considered commentaries reverberating through the echo chambers of social media and the ultra-traditionalist blogosphere.

Thus the next pope ought to insist that the Catholic Church does not do rupture, reinvention, or “paradigm shifts.” Why? Because Jesus Christ – “the same yesterday and today and forever” [Hebrews 13.8] – is always the center of the Church. That conviction is the beginning of any authentic evangelization, any authentically Catholic development of doctrine, and any proper implementation of Vatican II.

The next pope should also lift up the Council’s genuine achievements: its vigorous  affirmation of the reality and binding authority of divine revelation; its biblical enrichment of the Church’s self-understanding as a communion of disciples in mission; its insistence that everyone in the Church is called to holiness, especially through the liturgy; its defense of basic human rights, including the first of civil rights, religious freedom; its commitment to truth-centered ecumenical and interreligious dialogues. Yes, there have been distortions of these teachings; but to blame the distortions on the teachings themselves is a serious analytical error.

A Catholicism indistinguishable from liberal Protestantism has no future. Neither does a Catholicism that attempts to recreate a largely imaginary past. The Catholicism with a future is the Catholicism of the Second Vatican Council, rightly understood and properly implemented. That happens to be the living Catholicism of today, and the next pope should recognize that, too.