Annual diocesan outings on Niobrara reminiscent of St. John Paul II
By JD Flynn
(SNR) - Smith Falls, Nebraska’s largest waterfall, begin as a trickle—a small spring, deep in Nebraska’s Sandhills, which runs clear, and quiet, and cold before plunging over a 63-foot cliff with the kind of ferocious roar that echoes insistently through the red-faced canyons surrounding it.
For 20 summers, Father Ronald Homes has taken teenagers to the falls, observing that God’s love begins quietly too, before conquering all obstacles with the ferocity of unbounded mercy.
For 20 summers, Father Homes has plunged into the icy pools at the base of Nebraska’s spring-fed waterfalls, laughing and shivering, while daring students to take the plunge.
For 20 summers, he’s stood behind a fire, ringed with students, explaining to them that second-degree canoe tipping—the kind which comes in the over-exuberance of a splashing waterfight, is good fun, but that first-degree tipping—premeditated and plotted—is unfair sportsmanship.
And for 20 summers, on the banks of the Niobrara River, Father Homes has celebrated Mass, and offered confession, and led students in a living rosary, a campfire ritual accompanied by the absorbing chirp of crickets.
The diocesan canoe trip, which Father Homes initiated in July 1994, began like Smith Falls, as trickle. He began the trip in a year when a local TEC in McCook had to be cancelled. Students told him they weren’t sure if it would be fun. And so he decided to “put together a fun event that would encourage students to make the next step of making a good retreat.”
In the first year, he took students from McCook. In the year after, he expanded to allow students from across the diocese, and approximately 20 took the trip. For the past 10 years, Father Homes has run two annual canoe trips, back-to-back for more than 100 students, 20 parents, and at least eight priests.
Jeff Schinstock, diocesan director of youth ministry, pointed out that “the trip is reminiscent on the ministry of St. John Paul II, who, as a young priest, took students to hike, and camp, and canoe in the mountains outside of Krakow.“
“I think it’s cool,” said Father Homes, “that we’re doing something similar to what St. John Paul II did.”
The trip is ministry, and the trip is fun. Students pitch tents, and pitch horseshoes, and sit around a fire pitching jokes and ideas and banter with the kind of companionship borne in the challenge of an outdoor adventure. And that, for Father Homes, is the point.
“The goal on the canoe trip,” he says “is for these students to know that it is possible to have good, clean fun. And you can do that in the midst of having the sacraments.”
Jeff Schinstock said the goal is accomplished each year.
“The canoe trip is one of my favorite things that we do,” he said. “It invites a diverse group of young people to come together and share an experience. That experience is tied together by the presence of Christ among us.
“We have many young people who return every year. We also are blessed by new people who haven’t been active beyond Sunday Mass for a while, or who have never touched a canoe paddle. Conquering all those things together is a real communal event—and it’s fun.”
The fun, over the years, has been tempered by misadventure. On this year’s canoe trip, which included more than 100 students participating in two different excursions between July 6 and July 10, rain was, at times, relentless.
“The first year was a disaster. It’s amazing we ever did it again. The rain was coming from everywhere, and everyone was miserable. And I told everyone not to overpack, so everyone was freezing; we had no warm clothes.”
“And, of course,” he recalled, “one year I accidentally left our ham—for lunch—on dry ice. When it was time for lunch the ham was completely frozen. I was amazed we ever tried again after that. But, we did do it again.”
Through rain, or frozen lunch, or cold, the canoe trip is entrusted entirely to Mary, the Mother of God. Schinstock said, “Father Homes loves Our Lady in a tangible way. She is the secret to the success of the canoe trip. He doesn’t worry, and he lets her do the work. The reward in the end is the amazing moment of ending each night with 80 young people who come from different places praying the rosary together.”
Father Homes agreed. The trip belongs to Providence, he said. And each year, he learns that from the students.
“I love being able to see such a wide variety of high school students—and being overwhelmed by their faith,” he said. “For instance, the students kneel down in the dirt at Mass—with a great sense of piety and devotion.”
He paused, for a moment, and laughed.
“And of course, I love when the students tell you they get something out of what you have to say—because students are pretty honest. They aren’t going to say it if they don’t mean it.”
The trip is designed for students. But Father Homes is equally glad for the priests who attend.
“The priests who go just have a great time,” he said. “Some of our priests love to be with students in a great social atmosphere. I hope more of our younger priests will take the time each year to go.”
Like the priests, students who attend build friendships. And those friendship, said Father Homes, lead to conversion.
“I want people to make friends from different towns, and then sometimes these friends invite kids to make a retreat like a TEC”
Like Smith Falls, the diocesan canoe trip echoes through the life of the Diocese of Lincoln. Father Homes said he prays that his mission will continue to grow.
“The canoe trip is an invitation,” he said, “to a deeper relationship with Christ. I hope more students will come every year. I can’t wait to get in the water again.”