The nurses at the front desk of the nursing home sit stunned. A dozen boys, ages nine to fourteen, dressed in purple shirts, have just walked past the nurses’ station. They are determined as they head for the residents’ rooms. The nurses watch as the boys, members of Kepha, a Catholic boys’ group, stop to talk to an old man in a wheelchair who smells unclean. They hug a kindly little lady who can sing her high school fight song but cannot remember what happened five minutes ago. Over the next hour the boys canvass the nursing home, shaking hands, distributing hugs, and brightening the day of the abandoned and depressed.
“A nursing home,” says one of Kepha’s adult leaders, “is one place where you can walk right in and be a hero.” One by one the boys begin wheeling residents in wheelchairs into a hall. The guitar starts and the boys, lacking all sense of harmony, begin with their theme song, The Battle Hymn of the Republic. When the singing stops, the boys say their good-byes and head out to continue with the other parts of this, their “Play Hard, Pray Hard” day. Before the sun sets they will squeeze in basketball, sack races, a reflection on brotherhood, tug-of-war, and Eucharistic adoration. As they depart, the residents have just experienced a sampling of Kepha’s charism defined by its motto: “Dynamic orthodoxy, infectious joy!”
Now three years old, Kepha began when I challenged two of my sons and a handful of boys from strong Catholic families here in the New Orleans area to put their faith into action. Like so many men, I remembered from my own teen-age years the utter lack of Catholic peers who were serious about their faith. The boys accepted the challenge and we rallied around five commitments: apologetics, brotherhood, charity, mortification, and prayer. The boys agreed to pray the Divine Mercy devotion daily, memorize a Bible verse each month to defend a Catholic doctrine (third-year boys now know thirty!), make frequent confessions, attend Eucharistic adoration, and perform a weekly act of mortification.
Along the way they were promised events that combined fun with service. If they did all this, I told them, we’d end the year with a trip to Colorado. There was a catch—they would have to raise the money for the trip themselves. Another catch: They had to give half of all the money they raised to charity. One year later we were swimming below a waterfall, 8,000 feet high in the Rocky Mountains. They had fulfilled the commitments, raised $8,000, and given $4,000 to charities.
In his book Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Karl Keating explains Matthew 16:18–19 where Christ changes the lowly fisherman’s name to “Rock.” In the Aramaic tongue of Christ, the word for rock is kepha. Our shirts, purple in tribute to Christ the King, bear that verse. Our shirts also bear the message: Roma locuta, causa finita est (Latin, “Rome has spoken, the matter is ended”). Above all, Kepha is an organization faithful to the Pope.
“Kepha” also expresses our rock-solid determination to cultivate joyful youth who eagerly live the faith. For example, after whitewater rafting and jumping off a forty-foot cliff into the river, we prayed the Divine Mercy on the bus ride to our cars. We were undeterred, even when a lady informed us, after the third decade, that we should keep our prayers to ourselves. “Sorry, m’am, we have a ‘Great Commission.’”
The next year, as we canoed down the Buffalo River in Arkansas, we spent the days splashing each other and horseplaying. But at 3:00 P.M. we linked canoes and prayed the Divine Mercy as we floated down the river. On our ten-mile walkathon, the boys took turns carrying a large purple cross through the forest. As he walked, the boy bearing the cross prayed for the intentions of those who pledged him (several boys had over 200 pledges). Behind him at a distance, the other members of Kepha threw footballs, told jokes, and climbed trees.
Like the Three Musketeers, whatever we do, we do together. For example, on overnight retreats after a long day of swimming, dodge ball, and Frisbee golf, you will find each of us, without exception, rising at 3:00 A.M. for a prayer service. An hour later, we’re back in bed, ready to snore a few more hours before rising again to “play hard, pray hard.”
Kepha strongly encourages the boys’ fathers to take part in every event. Next to the saints, a boy’s rightful hero is his father. Many fathers today do not feel like heroes because of their own faults and sins. Others are so absorbed in the affairs of the world that they seldom take time for their families. Kepha strengthens fathers so that they are hungry to do with other men those things that all Catholics ought to be doing anyway.
As the father begins spending time with his son in Kepha—as when they knock on doors to collect canned goods for a local soup kitchen—he strengthens that bond established many years ago when he held his newborn son in his arms. Working side by side his son, the father soon sees how very much his son wishes to follow in his father’s footsteps. How does a boy become a strong Catholic? By imitating a father who is trying to become one.
At a time when some believe that young people need to pull away from their families to develop properly, Kepha is calling young men to make sacrifices for their families and to lead their brothers, sisters—and even their parents—to heaven. When twenty wives accepted their husbands’ invitations for a quiet evening at a fancy restaurant, they were surprised to be greeted by boys in purple shirts yelling “Surprise!” and welcoming them to Kepha’s Surprise Banquet for Homemakers. As the husbands paid tribute to their wives, the boys served as waiters. This year Kepha will host a family beach retreat in Florida, another example of our devotion to the domestic Church.
Kepha draws its inspiration from the “big three”: St. John Bosco, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. We study their lives, imitate their generosity, pray for their fire, and invoke their intercession. In fact, the communion of saints is an integral component of the boy’s formation. On retreats the boys each deliver a report on a saint, competing for prizes for the best report.
Inspiration is also drawn from Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), the Holy Father’s timely encyclical. The boys must read the encyclical annually. In addition, each year Kepha hosts an outdoor celebration for families to celebrate the gospel of life and the papacy. In keeping with our commitment to charity, the event is free and open to anyone who loves the Church.
This year’s event, called E.V. 2000, included space walks, an egg toss, guest speakers, games, Eucharistic adoration, Mass, and a spirited pep rally for the Pope. Our main speaker, in tribute to Don Bosco, was the provincial of the Salesian order. The governor of Louisiana issued a proclamation declaring the day ” Evangelium Vitae 2000 Day” in the state. The niece and sister of Pier Giorgio Frassati sent warm greetings from Rome. Another resident of Rome, John Paul II, sent greetings and his apostolic blessing.
Enthusiasm for our cause is overwhelming. After we attended his Mass in Denver on our Colorado trip, Archbishop Charles Chaput invited us for a private audience at his seminary. Wherever we attend Mass, priests ask us to explain the “hope that is in us” (cf. 1 Pet. 3: 15).
We don’t always fit in. Once we wandered into an unfamiliar parish and were invited to bear the offertory gifts. Gladly we accepted. Then we found that the congregation stood during the consecration, even as they sang a song about worshiping “on bended knee.” In the midst of the standing congregation a few pews of purple shirts knelt, insisting that Jesus not be deprived of his honor.
After every Mass we kneel before the tabernacle and offer a prayer for the Pope. Currently we are rehearsing to perform a play in public—A Reasonable Assumption—that will defend the great Marian dogmas. Also, the boys will act as waiters again as they host Kepha’s Humanae Vitae Banquet for Couples to promote the Church’s teaching on the sinfulness of artificial contraception and the beauty of natural family planning. Kepha is not fuzzy or cute; we are militant—our God is marching on.
In two years the boys have raised $16,000 and donated $8,000. They rode horses through the forest and served meals beside Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. They mountain-biked in the Rocky Mountains and played basketball with handicapped kids. Our boys are as unique as the various branches of the Church herself. Some are shy; others do handstands in airports (literally). Some are poor speakers; others can’t wait to stand before a congregation. Some are in schools; others are homeschooled. Some struggle with our basic commitments; others step up to our more challenging “Iron Will” commitments—memorizing the books of the Bible, taking cold showers during Lent, and giving up sweets for the year. We have boys who fly into New Orleans from Dallas, others who drive from Mississippi. They come to experience an orthodox Catholic version of the Cajun phrase, Laissez les bons temps rouler (French, “Let the good times roll”).
Even as the boys prepare for a retreat to Rome in two years, they are reminded that a good time is not all that we are about. Kepha’s long-term goal is to infect each other with joy until, together, we are models of Pier Giorgio Frassati, the outgoing young man who played hard—as when he climbed mountains—and prayed hard—as when he taught his horse to genuflect whenever it passed a church.
Like Pier Giorgio, our boys are on a crusade to find what it takes to become men of the eight beatitudes. The boys are standing side by side with each other. We fahters are standing side by side with our sons. All for one, one for all, as we repeat the militant prayer of Pier Giorgio: “I beg you to pray for me a little, so that God may give me an iron will that does not bend and does not fail in his projects.”