January 24, 2020

Catholic School Week Supplement

School leader shares the beauty of God’s creation on adventures with students

Archdiocesan high school students experience the adrenaline of rushing through white-water rapids—one of the many adventures during the annual Summer Field Study program led by Joseph Hollowell, president of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, for nearly 40 years. (Submitted photo)

Archdiocesan high school students experience the adrenaline of rushing through white-water rapids—one of the many adventures during the annual Summer Field Study program led by Joseph Hollowell, president of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, for nearly 40 years. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

There may not be a better plan for showing high school students the true beauty of God’s creation than the one that Joseph Hollowell has continued to shape and share for nearly 40 years:

Take a group of youths to one of the most breathtaking places in the world. Let them wake up in the crisp mountain air. Send them hiking and climbing mountains that stretch toward the heavens and stretch their limits. Put them in rafts that rush through white-water rapids—the cold water soaking through their clothes and the thrill soaking into their skin. Gather them around crackling campfires at night to share their experiences from the day and from their lives. Then have them sleep beneath skies where stars shoot across the blackness, where stars shine with their intended brilliance.

And when the beauty and wonder of “God’s country” surround them, deliver this message to the youths:

“If you look at the effort that God has put into this physical beauty, how much more beautiful is his intention for his people?” Hollowell says. “My goal is for the students to come back with a sense of their own wonderful gifts and the gifts all people have. Ultimately, we’re trying to get them to realize they’re an even more important part of God’s creation.”

That goal has been at the forefront of the Summer Field Study program that Hollowell started in 1982 as a young science teacher at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis.

Now, the 65-year-old Hollowell is preparing to lead the 41st such trip for juniors and seniors in high school. That wilderness adventure to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado in June will also be his last one, as the longtime president of Roncalli plans to retire at the end of the school year.

Through the years, nearly 3,100 students—including Hollowell’s 11 children—have participated in the two-week journey, traveling to wilderness areas in Alaska, California, Montana, Texas, Wyoming and Colorado, the state where Hollowell fell in love with the beauty of the mountains as a graduate student. Most of the students on these trips have come from Roncalli, Bishop Chatard High School and Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School, all in Indianapolis.

“We’re taking kids who are just done with their junior and senior years in high school,” Hollowell says. “They’re at a transition place in their lives. For the first time for a lot of them, they’re away from home. We ask them to think about where they are in their life and where they’re going. We talk about vocation—‘What are you going to do with your God-given talents? How are you going to share those gifts with others?’ We want them to think about their calling in life.”

He also wants them to have fun—and challenge themselves.

“There’s not a day that goes by that we’re not hiking in the mountains, just immersed in the beauty and grandeur and massiveness of God’s creation. The grandeur stops people in their tracks. You see the amazing, beautiful world we’ve been gifted with by God.

“We also put them in a lot of challenging positions with people they don’t always know. We challenge them to get more out of themselves. We’ve had 150 people climbing up Long’s Peak in Colorado—14,255-feet high. Climbing a 14,000-foot mountain peak is a major physical accomplishment. Anybody who’s been up there never forgets the beautiful view and the physical challenge of more than 24 hours of getting up and down it.”

The journeys have a life-changing impact on many of the youths.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten e-mails or letters saying, ‘This is the best two weeks of my life,’ ” Hollowell says. “They make all kinds of new friends, they leave with a plan, and they feel closer to God.”

While the journeys have changed lives, one trip ended up saving lives.

“When we were up in Alaska, we saw four people fall into a glacier river as they were trying to cross it, and they got swept downstream,” he recalls. “We were looking for our own place to cross when we saw this happen to them. We found big pieces of driftwood and formed a human chain to pull the four people out. I don’t think they would have made it without us being there to help them.”

As he prepares for the last trip from June 8-21, Hollowell knows the Summer Field Study program has done more than touch and shape the lives of the youths who have taken the trips and the adult volunteers who have guided them. It has also deeply touched and shaped his life.

“I do know what an extraordinary gift it has been. I look at it as a gift from God. I marvel at the beautiful things it’s done for so many youths and adults, and I’m grateful to be a part of it. I’ve always had a love for the outdoors and outdoor activities, and this allows me to do something I love in a way that provides others the opportunity to experience the joy I get when I’m out in God’s creation.”

He also views the experiences as an extension of the Catholic faith he holds dear.

“The beauty of God’s creation moves people. In the Catholic faith, we talk about the three-prong approach to introducing people to the idea of God—the presentation of truth, the presentation of goodness and the presentation of beauty.

“This particular program starts out by introducing people to the beauty. It’s very difficult for people to be immersed in these unspoiled, alpine environments and not be moved by it. The beauty of these environments stays with people—and they instinctively feel there’s a creator. It just takes your breath away.” †

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