If you don't get enough of this, you will miss out on the best bits. The temptation to talk well into the night is strong. Resist it. If you want to see the clock go round on the last night, go for it. But get your head on the pillow and the lights out as soon as you can each night. Even a week is a marathon for your mind, heart and body, and you need that sleep so that you can get up in time for the 8am Mass with the unforgettable homily and won't snooze during the best lecture on Deutero Isaiah (Chapters 40-54) that you are ever likely to hear.
Whether it is cleaning up after lunch, toilet cleaning, setting up afternoon tea, or being on rubbish patrol, these are not optional extras they are opportunities for extraordinary graces. Don't miss them! Firstly there's nothing like sharing elbow grease for getting to know people better. Secondly you have the chance to mediate God's love into someone else's life if you do it wholeheartedly, cheerfully and extravagantly. One year a service team got matching t-shirts that made them look like high class waiters, went out of their way to serve accordingly and transformed the clean-up after dinner chore into something uplifting that both ennobled them and made the rest of us feel like the daughters and sons of God that He wants us to realise that we are. Clean bathrooms with extra touches (flowers, scripture quotations etc) mediate love too. But you will never know the amazing joy that comes from serving your brothers and sisters in Christ if you shirk your part in the service groups.
The bigger the camp is, the more essential the sharing groups are. It is where you get enough time and space for friendships to form. They tend to be groups of around 6 people, often matched for age and gender with an experienced leader. In them you get a chance to talk about what you have been feeling and experiencing, and to listen to how the others are doing. Talking often clarifies ideas and brings new insights, as well as inspiring your group members to pray for you, and you for them. The way God has constructed things is that you can't get really close to Him unless you also get close to the people He loves. You will probably hear a lot of advice to 'open your heart to God'. What on earth does that mean? On one hand it is giving God permission to come into our hearts and to do whatever He wills for our good, and on the other hand it is opening up to God by opening up your thoughts and feelings to trusted others. Both are needed, and sharing group is a good way to do the latter.
Are a fact of Summer Camp life. On average you are going to spend at least 5 minutes queuing up for major meals like lunch and dinner (or waiting for the doors of the refectory to open). Make the most of those 5 minutes. Talk to the person next to you while you wait. Why did they come to Summer School? What was the most memorable part of last night's rally/ this morning's lecture/ this afternoon's workshop for them? Do they belong to a parish or youth group?
Lectures and Workshops
These are the meat of the Summer Camp, everything else is the potatoes. They are about drinking in God's truth, so that it sets us free (John 8:32) and alters our behavior in ways pleasing to God (Romans 12: 2). You will listen better and retain more of that truth if you take notes. Take notes! Be like the wise young Samuel and don't any of God's words fall to the ground (1 Sam 3:19).
You will be getting sooo much input, which you will need to be diligent about finding time to process it. For some that might be sitting in a chapel before the Blessed Sacrament and mentally reviewing all that you have heard and experienced in the previous 24 hours and recalling what touched you most and what God might be trying to say through that. For others it might be finding a quiet spot and writing in a journal for 20 minutes before going off to the pool or the basketball courts. Having some written notes, not only from lectures and workshops, but also from homilies, 'chance' conversations, and prophetic utterances and images, will really help that process. Think of it as giving all the input seeds you have received, an opportunity to move from the surface of your mind and to begin to sink into the soil of your heart.
Apart from Compline (Night Prayer), and daily Mass, the other opportunities for communal prayer will largely be optional eg Morning and Evening prayer of the Church, the rosary, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Stations of the Cross etc. Get to as many of them as you can. Opportunities to participate in these things with a large group of enthusiastic people are few and far between, and they are precious. They are also opportunities to think with and pray with the mind of the Church universal, and that strength and solidarity is invaluable. Should you have got beyond the early heady days of conversion, they are the rays of hope and light when personal prayer is dry and arid.
These tend to have a pattern, God's love, Repentance, Healing, Seeking God's Gifts and Commitment – loosely following an Ignatian retreat model. Each rally is the crown and seal of the day, an opportunity to respond in song, action, and prayer and praise to all God has been doing in the interior of hearts and minds. Don't miss them. Sometimes the Holy Spirit takes over and the rally goes for a lot longer than the timetable predicted. If these evening rallies seem a bit daunting and strange to begin with, persevere with them. It will be worth it, far beyond the music and exuberance.
There will always be some who get up to hijinks: midnight snack raids, sloping off down to the pub, etc. Don't join them. Firstly they make you lose precious sleep. Secondly they disrupt the work God is doing in your soul. Reserve any wholesome hijinks to the last night.
Don't go overboard. If you must, get an official t-shirt. For the rest spend money on things that will give you long term spiritual benefit, for example a good quality bible, bible index tabs, books to pray the liturgy of the hours with, icons, writings of saints and popes, rosary beads.
On occasion at one of these Summer Camps you might find someone who claims to have a personal word of prophecy for you. Very few people have a genuine gifting in this area. If something like this happens, go to those in authority and tell them about it immediately. Pay very little attention to any message like this unless it gets clearly confirmed by a reputable independent source, and preferably more than one. If God is truly speaking to you about a major life decision, then that message will be coming in consistently from several sources. Be alert to the quality of both the message and the messenger. There's lots of well-meaning folk who see a young man or woman who prays and decide to do their bit for the cause and ask them whether they have a priestly or religious vocation. That's very different to someone who has taken the time to get to know you and your particular strengths and talents and says, 'I've been praying about this for a long time, and these qualities you have……, ………….., and………. are the kind of raw material that good priests/religious are made of. This is a path you should give serious consideration to.'
People can and do meet their future spouse at Summer Camps. But it should not be your primary focus to 'meet the One'. This week or so is precious time to work on your relationship with God. That should be your primary focus. Growth in holiness is the best preparation to become a spouse. If there is a very distracting someone at the Summer Camp, notice and mentally acknowledge the attraction, but don't go seeking them out until the last night of the Camp. Do the most loving thing and give him or her space to grow in their relationship with God too.
The Return Home
The spiritual highs of being at Summer School can be wonderful indeed. Going from being surrounded by truly happy people who take God seriously to the local shopping centre at home where almost nobody smiles can be a weird experience. All that joy, peace and love you brought home from Summer School is likely to leak out of you over the week or two afterwards. That's rather normal. The best way to make a soft landing is to get a regular daily prayer life going, and to share with holy people close to you the changes you resolved to make in your life and ask for their help and support in making them happen.
P.S. These tips are just as applicable for World Youth Day pilgrims.