By Fr. Joseph Portzer FSSP
Recently a Catholic movement that has been a powerful source for good in the Catholic Church in Europe has branched out across the Atlantic, being established first in Canada and then in the United States. Rather surprisingly, one of its first new centers is Oklahoma, which is called the buckle of the bible belt. The sharp new uniforms and happy faces in the group photo of the 34 new young members caught the attention of parishioners when the Federation of North-American Explorers (FNE) had their first fundraiser, a successful bake sale, in the kitchen after the Sunday masses.
The FNE web site (www.fneexplorers.com) describes the FNE in these words: We are a volunteer Catholic Christian faith-based youth movement. By “movement” we mean that the varied FNE program experience can help shape the character, social, environmental, spiritual, leadership aspects of your child into his or her adult life. Separate single gender male or female program experiences include weekly gatherings, regular field trips, all season weekend camping opportunities, international travel excursions and an annual summer camp.
Digging down into the history of the FNE, it is found to be the Catholic version of the scouting program for boys which was started by Lord Baden-Powell in England, and which became the ancestor of multiple scouting programs worldwide. In Europe different scouting organizations eventually merged to become the Union Internationale des Guides et Scouts d’Europe-Fédération du Scoutisme Européen (UIGSE-FSE). )That French name translates roughly as The International Union of Guides and Scouts of Europe-The Federation of European Scouting). The name Federation of North-American Explorers was adopted when this group, now in 19 European countries with 55,000 members, took root in North America.
As a seminarian of the Fraternity of St. Peter, I was impressed by the Catholic scouting movement which I saw in Europe. When we would go on the annual Chartres pilgrimage the scouts and guides (the members of the female branch are called guides) were to be seen everywhere, from rather young children all the way up to young adults. The older scouts seemed as tough as nails. Three days of hiking 20 miles each seemed to hardly faze them, and they were quite at home in the outdoors. They served as acolytes for the masses, holding patens for the dozens of priests as thousands of people came forward for communion.
Even more impressive were the vocational statistics. I would estimate that 80% of my fellow seminarians in the French speaking part of our seminary had been formed in the scouting program. When I was assigned to my first parish in 2000 I realized that a scouting program like I had seen in Europe would be a great blessing, but I did not know how to get the materials in English that would produce a program as I had admired it in France. I did not know that the FNE was just getting started in Canada, having launched in August of 1999. When interested parishioners wanted to start an FNE group this year I was happy to approve the undertaking. It was an answer to my desires of more than ten years ago.
Lord Baden-Powell was delighted by Rudyard Kipling’s classic, The Jungle Book, and used it to reach the minds of boys. A little boy, Mowgli, is taken by wolves to a den, and is raised in a wolf pack. He learns wisdom from his elders, and must abide by the law of both the pack and the jungle. In Powell’s system, the Jungle Book and other stories are used to teach bravery, dependability, giving in to authority but not to yourself, outdoor skills, and many other practical skills. A Roman Catholic priest, the Venerable Jacques Sevin, took Powell’s system and Catholicized it. That is not to say that he was unfaithful to Powell’s vision. He met with Powell in person and had lengthy discussions about his scouting system. With great zeal he spread the Catholic adaptation of the scouts, which Powell said was the closest of all the versions to his original vision. In one of those happy coincidences that catch our attention from time to time, the feast day of Venerable Jacques Sevin is the same as that of St. Damien’s patron, May 10th.
What do I hope for from the FNE in this church? I hope that it will do what it has done all over Europe and especially in France: it has passed on vibrant, devout and active Catholicism from generation to generation. It has kept the young in the Church. It has provided a steady stream of quality vocations to the priesthood and religious life. It has acted as an antidote to the religious boredom that seems to have much of Western civilization in its grip. We can use that here in the United States.
The FNE clearly states that it is not a youth group, it is a Catholic formation group. In this movement young Catholics acquire natural and supernatural virtues while at the same time learning to live their faith in a world that is turning ever more away from the light of Christ. And while they are doing that, the young members are so excited and happy that they cannot wait until the next weekly meeting. Welcome to St. Damien’s, Federation of North American Explorers!