By Doug Weller
Catholic News Service
SALINA, Kan. (CNS) — Ten years ago, Father Gale Hammerschmidt, then a seminarian, said he had no idea what to expect from Prayer and Action, a summer mission project he helped launch.
"I was hoping we could do one week a summer," he said.
The popular program has mushroomed. Now spanning seven weeks each summer, it draws almost 500 high school and college age people and adult sponsors. In a week’s time, participants focus on their faith and on helping the less fortunate.
"I stopped counting about three or four years ago, but I’m sure the number of projects is in the hundreds and the number of participants is in the thousands," Father Hammerschmidt said. "It’s kind of humbling."
Seminarian Brian McCaffrey led this year’s mission under the direction of St. Joseph Sister Barbara Ellen Apaceller, diocesan director of youth ministry.
McCaffrey said he continues to be overwhelmed by the response that Prayer and Action generates.
He joined the project in 2008 as a high school student and was on staff last summer. He enrolled at Conception Seminary College in Missouri this fall.
This year’s Prayer and Action schedule included spending four weeks in June in Stockton, Kansas, followed by three weeks in July in Ellsworth, Kansas, both in the north central part of the state.
"In Stockton, we got a lot of work done," he said. "The community was so great and welcoming. Everybody in town was talking to us. People were buying our stuff. It was really cool to see how the whole community gets captivated by what these kids are doing."
Ellsworth residents were just as supportive.
Brynn Brummett of Concordia, Kansas, was in Ellsworth, participating in her first mission.
"My cousin did it a couple of years ago and said it was a blast. I’ve loved it so far," she said.
Working with her was Leo Jirak of Oakley, Kansas, who said it was his fourth year with the mission.
"It’s pretty fun," he said.
While working on a project in Stockton, Luke Doll of Salina said he liked the mission because of the change of pace.
"It’s a step away from the real world — cellphones and social media," he said.
"It’s something I definitely wanted to come back to," he said of his second year with Prayer and Action.
Each year, two sites are selected, one in the eastern part of the diocese, which encompasses more than a fourth of the state, and one in the west. The pastor and local parishioners help line up projects for the work crews by getting the word out to social service agencies and parishioners.
"You don’t have to be Catholic" to be helped, stressed Pam Pelzel, a parishioner at St. Bernard in Ellsworth and one of several in the town who helped with advance work.
Among the people Pelzel met was Melanie Sallman, a single mother of three who had recently moved into a two-story home in need of a lot of work.
"They’re doing a great job. It’s so much work. It’s a wonderful program they have," Sallman said.
Sallman was so impressed by the volunteers that she’s decided St. Bernard would be a good place for her family.
"We’re looking for a church, so I think I want to get my kids there," she said.
Pelzel has been an adult sponsor for Prayer and Action for several years, but this was the first time she was involved as part of a host parish. She said she is buoyed by the reaction from townspeople.
"They are so amazed by these kids," she said.
She added that the Catholic Youth Organization at St. Bernard suggested that Prayer and Action come to Ellsworth.
"I think they wanted to show the other youth in town what it is they do here," Pelzel said.
Sister Barbara Ellen, whose office sponsors Prayer and Action, agreed. "They almost begged me to have it in their town," she said. "It makes a difference in the total community, and the Catholic community, to see these young people out there doing these jobs."
Each week, crews are dispatched to the project sites. They are assigned to scrape and paint buildings, clean up yards or help haul away trash.
But they begin and end each day focused on their faith. Daily Mass, reciting the rosary, eucharistic adoration, prayer and faith sharing fill out their days, which begin early and end late. They sleep on the floor in a parish hall or school gym, pack their own lunches and put away their cellphones.
Sister Barbara Ellen said she is impressed when she asks participants what they would not want changed in the program.
"They want eucharistic adoration. They want the sacrament of reconciliation. They want Mass," she said.
The member of the Congregation of St. Joseph also is pleased that most of the recently ordained priests have been involved in the program and that many of the new seminarians say Prayer and Action, as well as a summer catechism program, Totus Tuus, inspired them to discern a priestly vocation.
The idea has caught on. The three other dioceses in Kansas now offer Prayer and Action, and several other dioceses across the country have created their own projects based on the Salina model.
McCaffrey described his time as a great experience for all involved, and there’s a simple reason for that.
"It’s the Holy Spirit running it," he said.
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Weller is editor of The Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Salina.