At a time in their lives when influences are at work to pull them away from the Lord, hundreds of middle school students encountered him face-to-face during a mountaintop experience Feb. 14-16 in stunning and snowy Rocky Mountain National Park.
“You’re hearing about God inside, then you go outside and see him,” John Dowling, 13, an eighth-grader at Our Lady of Lourdes School and youth group member, said of the surrounding mountain landscape.
The annual Mountain Madness retreat drew nearly 700 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, combining peaceful prayer time with “high energy speakers, dynamic worship, fellowship and adoration to help ignite a passion for Jesus in young people,” according to Michelle Peters, director of Youth, Youth Adult and Campus Ministry for the archdiocese, “that encourages them to live their faith in everyday life.”
“It was really cool to see everybody in the auditorium,” Dowling said of his impression when he entered Friday night’s opening session with Popple, a two-man acoustic rock band comprised of Dan Harms and Kyle Heimann.
Popple has been touring the country sharing a ministry that combines fun-loving music, humor and passion for the faith since they formed at Purdue University in 2004.
“In our culture, music is everything,” Dowling said. “They showed how ‘God’s music’ can be awesome, too.”
“They were hilarious,” according to Noah Kline, 14, a ninth-grader from the youth group at St. John the Evangelist in Loveland. “With songs and funny jokes (they talked about) how God created all of us even if we’re different; how we’re each like a fingerprint, everyone is unique.”
This year’s Mountain Madness theme, Imago Dei (Image of God) based on 1 Corinthians 15:10 “But by the grace of God I am what I am, And his grace toward me was not in vain,” was designed to empower the youth to understand all human beings are created in God’s image. It was the first year a musical group has been featured as keynote speakers. Popple also gave a concert Saturday afternoon.
“They were really funny and great to be around,” Dowling said. “They talked about putting God above everything, and everything else below his feet. … The devil hints around that you can do all these things you’d like to do, you just need a little God.”
It’s a common message youth encounter in today’s society. Kids definitely feel the culture is trying to penetrate their souls with bad information, Dowling said, but he found support and fellowship at Mountain Madness, particularly during Saturday night’s eucharistic adoration.
At 9 p.m. following a day filled with talks, small group discussion, outdoor free time, a concert, and Mass celebrated by Father Jim Crisman, director of Priestly Vocations for the archdiocese; Father Randy Dollins, pastor of Our Lady of Peace in Silverthorne and St. Mary in Breckenridge; led the group in an adoration procession.
“Adoration was the most moving part,” Dowling said. “To see all the youth reaching out toward God when he passed by. It just hit me: How could all these rowdy middle-schoolers just calm down in that second? Jesus was in the room and he was working with us.”
“It was extraordinary,” Klein added.
Also new this year: the opportunity for confession. For the first time 20 priests from around the archdiocese traveled to the YMCA venue to make the sacrament of reconciliation available to the youth on Friday night.
“We were really excited to offer them reconciliation,” Peters said. “About 400 confessions were heard.”
To help the kids understand service work and share the social ministry of the Church, each was asked to bring a new pair of socks to donate to the Office of Hispanic Ministry’s annual underwear collection for migrant ministry. The goal was to collect undergarments, in particular socks, for seasonal, male migrant workers.
Mountain Madness has transformed over the years, beginning in the late 1990s in the Denver metro area. Originally it was a one-day rally for teens and tweens, organized by Blessed Sacrament and St. James’ parishes, followed up with a ski trip in the mountains the next day.
“It continued at the parishes for about three years,” Peters said. “After attendance grew to about 500-600, the archdiocese took over.”
In 2001, it moved to the YMCA of the Rockies where the students stay in dorms for two nights.
“The conference wasn’t named ‘Mountain Madness’ until the archdiocese took it over,” Peters said. “I’d say the title applies: it’s held in the mountains and when you have that many junior high students together, there can be a little madness—but all in a good way.”
The students agreed.
“It was an amazing experience, to be with God and be talking about who he is,” Klein said. “I will always remember how much fun it was.
“And the snowball fights!”
Mountain Madness 2014
Youth attending: 680
Chaperones attending: 120
Priests attending: 20
Confessions heard: 400