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The Father William Most Collection

Retreats for Boy Scouts

[Journal of Religious Instruction 10 (1940) 829-37]

The Scout movement was brought to America through the influence of a good turn. A Boy Scout in London, when asked for directions by an American business man, not only gave the desired information to the stranger but took him to his destination. The boy might have been content to say: "Go two squares this way, and then three to the left, and you can't miss it," but he knew how hard it would be to follow oral directions in a London fog, and so he did what a Scout must do every day, he did a good turn, and as the Scout Law requires, refused to accept any pay for it. The business man was deeply impressed, and as a result, Scouting came to America.

The Scout Law prescribes that a Scout must not only perform the daily good turn but must be: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. Each of these virtues is the object of one of the twelve Scout Laws. The Scout Oath promises: "On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight."

In these principles we have an excellent ground on which to start character formation. If a Scout could be induced to live up to all these principles on a supernatural basis, he would not merely be a splendid American, but a saint in the making.

Many high ecclesiastical authorities have not merely approved but have highly praised the Boy Scouts as an instrument for character formation. To give but one quotation, from our late Holy Father, Pope Pius XI:

And the greater will be your vigor, your strength, and your nobility of character in later years, the more faithfully you attend now to your ideals and your duties as Catholic Boy Scouts, the more faithfully you continue to place the spiritual above the material and to subject the material to the spiritual, and the more completely you place the thought of God and the lessons of the Faith, above all other thoughts and above all other lessons.1

It is a commonplace in theology that the supernatural builds on the natural: grace does not supersede, but perfects nature. Hence the Scout movement offers an excellent basis of natural virtue on which we may build the supernatural.

Retreats for Boy Scouts, as conducted in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, would seem to have correlated ideally the supernatural with the natural and hence might serve as an object lesson to priests and teachers elsewhere.

The first Scout retreats in the Dubuque area were given in the summer of 1933 at the Trappist Monastery near Dubuque. Three retreats were given there with an enrollment of 98 boys. These first retreats were not deemed entirely successful, and hence at the suggestion of a Scoutmaster, the retreats of the following year were held in a regular Scout camp, at Camp Burton, located in a tract of virgin woodland, well off of the main roads and about fifteen miles north of Dubuque. The same summer, retreats were also given in three other Scout camps in the Archdiocese. It was found that more than 70 boys could not be handled satisfactorily, while from 40 to 50 boys was the ideal number. In accordance with the experience, the number is now limited to 50 boys for each three-day period. To date, in the Dubuque area, 43 retreats have been given, with a total attendance of 2,277 boys.

The advantages of holding such retreats in camps are obvious. The chance for an outing is an incentive for the boys to attend, and the moderated program is suited well to boys of Scout age (regularly from twelve to fifteen years of age). Just as a priest, when in a nervous mood, might find it much easier to say the office well while walking, so here the physical outlets for energy make for spiritual receptivity.

The staff required consists of a retreatmaster, two or three seminarians, and a regular camp staff, which includes a scoutmaster or executive, an engineer, a lifeguard for swimming, a cook, and her assistant.

The retreatmaster and the seminarians serve without any financial compensation. This rule is made to insure that only those who have a real interest in the work will take part. It is gratifying to report that priests are very eager to give these retreats, and there is a waiting list of available retreatmasters. During the forty-three retreats given to date, only ten different retreat-masters have served. One young priest, ordained but a year before, gave up a week's vacation in order to give a retreat and spent the first half of the week at the Trappist Monastery near Dubuque in preparation.

The fact that the retreat-master and seminarians serve without pay makes it possible to have these retreats at a very low cost to each boy making the retreat. The fee varies from $2.50 to $3.75 for each boy. It is barely enough to pay for the use of the camp, for food, and the small salaries asked by the Scout officials who make up the regular camp staff. Naturally, the smaller the group of boys, the higher must be the fee for each.

The retreat-master gives all conferences. There are two in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening. If weather permits, these are held out of doors, and boys are allowed to make themselves comfortable on the grass. The evening conference is always given at a campfire, either out of doors, or in a large cabin, depending on the weather. The conferences are given in informal style, stressing both the natural and the supernatural motives of conduct, and making full use of the inherent advantages of the Scout movement. The talk to the boys are chiefly stories with moral lessons. Stories from real life abound, such as the story of the good turn that brought Scouting to America. The "Good Turn" stories, and there are usually several, teach the boys that their rank in Scouting means little if they do not live up to this practice of the daily good turn.

The stories, however, are not confined to Scouting experience, but are suited to the boys' general field of interest. The writer, who attended these retreats as a seminarian, was much impressed by many of these stories, and cannot forego the pleasure of retelling one story used in a conference on Holy Communion.

Some missionaries to this country had visited a tribe of Indians and prepared them sufficiently so that they could receive their first Holy Communion. When the time came for the priests to leave, the whole tribe begged the missionaries to return soon. They promised to do this in the next spring. Accordingly, when the first signs of spring appeared, the Chief sent out scouts to watch for the approach of the missionaries. On their arrival they were conducted at once to the tepee of the Chief, who, contrary to his custom, even in receiving other Chiefs, received them standing. At once he asked that his people should again be allowed to receive Holy Communion. The missionaries readily agreed, but told him that first he must assemble the tribe to prepare for Communion by a good confession. The Chief appeared puzzled. He was then told that the Indians must have their sins forgiven before they could receive Our Lord in Holy Communion. Still puzzled, the Chief asked: "How is it possible that anyone who has once received Our Lord in Holy Communion could offend Him again?"

At an out-of-door campfire, on a clear night when the stars could easily be seen through the trees, a very impressive talk was given. The retreat-master, a professor of astronomy, gave forth a staggering round of data and figures on the size of the solar system, the distance of the stars and their number, and at each division in the subject would always insert, "Surely the God Who made all this must be a mighty God, and yet that same God loves us, and tells us to call Him Father, and sent His only Son to save us."

The general plan of the conferences is as follows: The first campfire deals with the consideration of what a retreat is, why make it, and the duty of helping others by example and by not disturbing them in their efforts to make a good retreat.

The boys learn that after each game the Notre Dame team makes a retreat, when the coach goes over the game with the players and shows them the weak and the strong points, and the means to better their technique. The following morning, the first conference is on the Fatherhood of God and His claims to our service and love. The second conference that morning considers sin as a violation of these rights. The afternoon talk treats of making reparation for sin and of its forgiveness. The campfire that evening opens with a short prayer to make a good retreat and a hymn to the Holy Ghost. After a ten-minute talk on loyalty follow the Litany of the Holy Name and a hymn to St. John Bosco, the patron of the retreat. Then there is another ten-minute talk on sincerity, followed by night prayers and a hymn. At this time the retreatmaster urges them to keep silence until Mass the next morning as a "Good Turn" to God. The campfire closes with the recitation of the Scout Oath and Law. This same sandwich arrangement is used at the closing campfire the next evening. The two conferences on the morning of the second day discuss habits, good and bad, and the powerful influence of example both for good and for evil. The afternoon conference draws a picture for the real Catholic boy, from the positive side. The material of the closing campfire is left to the discretion of each retreatmaster, but it will ordinarily include a talk on Holy Communion which they are to receive the next morning, making copious use of stories such as the one cited above.

Probably the most important work of the retreatmaster is done in the short private conferences which occupy most of his free time on the first full day of retreat. Each boy in camp comes in for a short talk, of perhaps ten minutes, to discuss personal problems outside of confession. All retreatmasters marvel at the wonderful frankness with which the boys will speak of most intimate matters. This is said to be the heart of the retreat. At these visits it is made clear to the boy that he is free to speak of any matters he wants to, and need mention only what he chooses.

The following day confessions are heard. No one is forced to go to confession and, likewise, at Communion time in the Mass, anything that resembles herding the boys is scrupulously avoided. Many receive Holy Communion each morning of the retreat at the Mass offered in the main cabin.

Outside of these his principal duties, the retreatmaster walks about and talks in a free and familiar manner with the boys, but is careful to take no hand in camp discipline and lets this fact be known. Camp discipline is the business of the staff.

Two or preferably three seminarians serve as assistants to the retreatmaster. They, too, mix freely with the boys, and even take part in their games and go swimming with them. Though the ideal situation would be one in which they, too, have no part in camp discipline, leaving this to the scoutmaster, this is not always possible. However, discipline is at a minimum, and any penalties inflicted are mild, such as a cancellation of swim period for a certain tent, or the assignment of more than the regular amount of work on the necessary camp details which keep the camp clean and in good condition. Such penalties are usual in any camp, and the boys take such procedure for granted. The theory is that a penalty is to be inflicted only in order to prevent those who cannot be induced to make a good retreat from spoiling the retreat for others, and this fact is emphasized for the retreatants.

In camps where the boys are divided into two or more sections as is the case at Dubuque, one or more of the seminarians sleep in the section near the boys. They try to win the friendship and confidence of the boys, and work through the natural leaders among the boys. Each tent group is, therefore, allowed to pick their own tent-leader. If his cooperation is secured, good order is easily obtained.

To encourage neatness of personal appearance and the keeping of the tents and grounds in good condition, inspection is held every day at 1:30 P. M. Since the afternoon swim period is divided into two periods of forty-five minutes each, one-half of the boys going to swim at a time, a very desirable award for winning first place at inspection is at hand. The winning tent is allowed to have both of the forty-five minute periods that day.

The seminarians organize all assemblies and lead the hymn at the beginning of each conference, as well as hymns at evening campfire, and a hymn to replace grace after meals.

Morning and evening prayers are said in common and in unison, with one of the seminarians leading in a loud voice to keep the boys together. Having all the boys say the prayers together makes attention easier and helps to avoid restlessness. At Mass each morning, two Scouts in uniform act as servers, but all the boys answer the prayers aloud with them.

Each afternoon at 2 o'clock, one of the seminarians conducts the spiritual reading. This opens with a decade of the rosary, and the remainder of the half-hour period is devoted to reading from a specially condensed life of St. John Bosco, arranged so that the entire life can be covered during each retreat. At 4 o'clock one of the seminarians leads the Scouts in making the Way of the Cross. Small wooden crosses canonically erected, are placed in a large circle on trees about the camp grounds. The form of prayers used is short. At the start the one leading the exercise explains that the principal object of the Stations is to think about the sufferings of Christ, and suggests the prayers as an aid to stir up better contrition for their retreat confession.

Perhaps the most important part of the work of the seminarians comes in the private devotion periods which follow each common exercise of the retreat. These are periods of silence. In one of the two small pamphlets given to each of the boys, there is provided material for meditation and for self-examination during these periods. Immediately after the conference, each seminarian takes a group of the boys with him to one of the tents, and there for ten or fifteen minutes helps them with this exercise. Many methods are used. Some of the seminarians have first one boy and then another read a part of the prepared material and discuss that part. Others give a short talk on the material and give suggestions on how to spend the remainder of the period. Still others have different boys retell the stories used in the conference just concluded and draw out the chief points from them. For the remainder of the period the boys are urged to examine their consciences, make visits to a rustic shrine containing a relic of St. John Bosco, say a rosary, make the Way of the Cross privately, or read some of the pamphlets provided. In the central cabin on a large table a plentiful supply of suitable pamphlets is on hand. In addition to this, each seminarian carries a smaller stock in his own tent from which the boys may borrow.

Since many of the seminarians have been connected with the Scout movement before entering the seminary, they are able to organize nature hikes to study trees, birds and plant life. This is done especially when the weather is unfit for swimming, and occasionally when a number of the boys do not care to swim even though the weather is suitable.

After ordination, it is the policy to allow those who have served as seminarians on these retreats to give the retreats if they so desire.

Each retreat lasts about three full days. For example, a retreat might begin on Monday evening with the campfire, run through Tuesday and Wednesday, and close with Mass on Thursday morning. The silent periods are from campfire until after Mass the next morning, from the first morning conference, at 9 o'clock until the morning swim period which is at 10:30 A. M., and from the spiritual reading at 2 o'clock until the afternoon swim period, the first section of which begins at 4 o'clock. The first bugle for rising is blown at 6:20 A. M., and all must be out of bed within ten minutes. A flag raising ceremony is held at 6:50 A. M., followed by Mass and morning prayers at 7:00 A. M. Breakfast is served at 7:45 A. M., after which beds are to be made and tents cleaned before the first conference at 9 o'clock. The second morning conference is at 10:00 A. M. Lunch is taken at noon. After lunch there is rest and recreation until spiritual reading. The afternoon conference is held at 2:45 P. M., followed by the Way of the Cross at 3:30 P. M. and swim at 4:00 P. M. Just before the evening meal at 6:00 P. M., the ceremony of lowering the flag is held. After the meal there is a game period until the campfire, which begins at 8 o'clock. Taps are blown at 9:15 P. M. By that time all are to be in bed and the lights out. On one of the first of these retreats to be held, one of the leaders heard talking coming from one of the tents after Taps. As he came closer he could hear that the tent leader was leading the boys in the rosary. This began a fine custom which has been carried out in all Scout Retreats in the Dubuque area since that time.

The writer would welcome reports about the procedures followed in conducting retreats for Boy Scouts in other Dioceses. He would likewise welcome reports about Girl Scout Retreats. A few months ago the Catholic press reported a singular series of blessings that were the result of Girl Scout Retreats conducted in Chicago: fourteen religious vocations, forty Baptisms, twenty-four Confirmations, and the blessing of five marriages.


1Quoted in Scouting for Catholics issued by the Catholic Committee on Scouting, 2 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y.



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