God is present everywhere as priests, young men brave the elements to discern a vocation
Story by Bill Brewer
Photography courtesy of Father David Carter and Father Michael Hendershott
When young men are discerning a vocation to the priesthood, priests pray for the intercession of the Holy Spirit to give an awe-inspiring sign to the aspirants that illustrate God’s presence, power, and mercy.
Oh boy, did those on the MelchizeTrek see God’s presence in abundance!
MelchizeTrek is the incarnation of Father David Carter, rector of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, and Father Michael Hendershott, associate pastor of Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville. As deanery coordinator of vocations and associate vocations director, respectively, for the Diocese of Knoxville, the priests wanted to give interested young men the opportunity to have fellowship in an outdoor setting, a place where they were free to explore God’s plan for them.
As it turns out, promoting vocations to the priesthood sometimes isn’t for the faint of heart.
Father Carter, Father Hendershott, and a half-dozen young men ages 16- 19 who ventured on the MelchizeTrek June 23-30 can attest to that.
When Father Carter and Father Hendershott conceived of the weeklong backpacking trip in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and along the Appalachian Trail, their primary concern was making sure each guy had all the needed equipment and food to hike and camp for a week. After gathering at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Townsend for a team meeting and inspection, the crew drove to Elkmont to begin its 35-mile journey.
The priests have trail experience. They have completed the St. George Trek in New Mexico several times. And prior to the priesthood, Father Hendershott even worked as a wilderness guide and spent summers backpacking in the western United States.
They wanted to pattern the MelchizeTrek after the St. George Trek, the National Catholic Committee on Scouting’s high adventure leadership program for older Catholic Scouts. The St. George Trek at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico brings high school youth from around the country together with priests, religious, and seminarians for 11 days of backpacking on a vocation retreat.
The priests believed the Smoky Mountains served as the perfect setting for the MelchizeTrek, especially during storms that overshadowed the adventure.
Father Carter pointed out that Jesus uses the imagery of mountains, hills, wilderness, and water throughout his ministry to describe the spiritual life and many biblical events of our Savior’s life that took place in those environs.
“When Jesus was preparing his Apostles to go out, he took them up a mountain for the transfiguration. What better way to prepare young men than to take them up a mountain and transfigure their hearts,” Father Carter said. “It is a natural sequitur for young men to seek the Lord in these same places, to be challenged, to meet adversity, to learn virtue, and to find a place of quiet and stillness apart from the noise of the valley.”
Father Carter explained that the trek began with two challenging days before God showed His “majestic presence” on the third day. “Then, on day four, when we were coming off the mountain, all hell broke loose.”
Despite the weather-related challenges, Father Carter said he and Father Hendershott let the young men know that the Lord always has provided and always will provide.
“It took the mountaintop experience to prepare them for the fearful and dangerous trial that would await us. Even though at a certain point, when much of the park was being evacuated, the Lord gave us a passage out even though it was challenging. It’s a great analogy for what’s going on now in the Church with so much evil surrounding us.”
Father Carter agreed with Father Hendershott that the hardships the young men faced on the trek served as a preparation for priestly life.
“The whole of the experience was a microcosm of the priestly life, with its ups and downs, it’s joys and sorrows. Such is our God,” he said.
Father Carter is looking forward to the next MelchizeTrek.
“I will absolutely do it again. I look forward to the opportunity to again help young men grow in virtue, strength, self-awareness, and knowledge,” he said.
Father Hendershott found many similarities between the MelchizeTrek and the St. George Trek.
“We thought, ‘Hey, let’s do that in the Smoky Mountains. Let’s go into the desert like Jesus did and go into the wilderness like Jacob did,’” Father Hendershott said. “So, we went into the desert to listen to what our calling is.”
Father Hendershott, who also teaches religion at Knoxville Catholic High School, said he began thinking about an outdoor activity for young men after reading the book John Senior and the Restoration of Realism, which addressed the importance of human contact with that which is real, not virtual.
As a priest and teacher, Father Hendershott looks at young people today with concern that they are missing out on what’s really important in life — one-on-one interaction and personal experiences, as opposed to living in a digital world.
The MelchizeTrek, an homage to the priest Melchizedek in the Bible, offered an alternative to virtual reality.
One of its key features was daily Mass and morning and evening prayers, no matter where on the trail they were. The group also sang at the end of morning and evening prayers. And by the time the trek was over, they had practically perfected the Salve Regina in solemn tone as well as Corsican and Crusader chants.
Listen to the MelchizeTrek hikers chant Salve Regina:
“We needed song to lift our spirits because the beef stroganoff just didn’t cut it,” joked Michael Stapleton, a junior at Knoxville Catholic High School who was one of the six teens on the backpacking trip. He was referring to a meal prepared by the guys along the trail that apparently left much to be desired.
As it turns out, Michael, who was elected by the group as crew chaplain, and his five peers were fortunate to get a MelchizeTrek spot. Father Hendershott said the outing for those beginning a discernment of a priestly vocation filled up within 10 days and quickly had a waiting list.
Other teens on the backpacking trip were Tristan Cooper, a Knoxville Catholic High School (KCHS) junior; Ethan Palisok, a student at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga; Spencer Belanger, also a KCHS junior; Max Qiernan, who is homeschooled; and Joseph Healy, a student at East Tennessee State University.
Father Hendershott was encouraged by the response, saying, “The harvest is plenty.”
Michael, who is almost an Eagle Scout, said he has backpacked as a Scout, but the 35-mile trek was a first.
After a smooth but soggy start, severe weather moved into East Tennessee, and the Smoky Mountains were especially hard hit. Heavy rain and high winds placed shelter at a premium, and passive streams along the trail quickly became raging rivers after some three inches of rain fell in a short period of time.
At one point, Father Carter and Father Hendershott had to put into practice what they had preached during pre-trip instruction — getting into lightning and whitewater positions.
When lightning began to strike in the area, the priests spread the guys 10 feet apart, instructed them to put their heels together and stand on the balls of their feet while crouching down with their hands on their head and elbows on their knees as a safety precaution.
On the trail and in search of higher ground, the group was forced to cross swollen mountain streams. Within 10 minutes of assuming the lightning position, the guys were instructed on the whitewater position. That meant if they lost their footing while crossing the water, they were to float upright with the swift current with their head above water and legs raised in front of them until they’re able to reach the creek bank.
At one point, campers in other areas of the Smokies were evacuated because of the storms. Father Hendershott said he and Father Carter considered evacuating, too. They were prepared to cut the trip short when Father Hendershott broke from the group and hiked to the top of a nearby ridge to hopefully find a cell phone signal.
Prior to the trip, it was understood that the MelchizeTrek would be free from outside communication, in keeping with John Senior and the Restoration of Realism and the need to be in constant communication with God.
If no signal was available, or if the weather forecast called for more storms, they were going to abandon the trek. Father Hendershott was able to reach his father, who informed them that the storms were passing and the forecast was clear skies. They decided to ride out the rain.
“When my father answered, he said, ‘Hello, this is Noah,’” Father Hendershott recalled with a laugh. “I just wanted to have all the facts to decide if we needed to go out, to help us make a decision. Dad said by 11:30 a.m. that morning there would be clear skies and highs in the 90s, so hypothermia would not be an issue.”
Fortunately, there were no close calls with lightning or whitewater. But God’s presence surrounded them. And then there were the bears. While no close calls with bears were reported either, the group had to change its schedule several times with the Park Service because of bear activity.
“It was June 27, on the third anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, and we were looking at a beautiful rainbow, admiring God’s beauty when a downpour came. Elkmont, Tremont, Little River, that whole side of the Smokies had to be evacuated,” Father Hendershott said in describing how quickly the weather turned. “We debated whether to evacuate. I was letting them argue as hard as they could.”
The severe weather left quite an impression on the priests, especially considering they were leading six teens through the storms to safety. At one point when a storm suddenly rolled in, the guys became concerned and prayed.
“I have not experienced anything like that weather for that prolonged time. It rained on us each day, but on the 27th it rained a lot. All the trails were inundated with water,” Father Hendershott said. “Father Carter and I wanted to see how determined they were to stay or leave, and we also assessed the safety of the situation and the condition of our group.”
Michael said he may have thought about quitting, but he didn’t show it. “Fear is something everyone felt, but no one showed it,” he said, adding that the crew placed a lot of faith and trust in the priests — and God. “We were all glad we stuck it out when it was over.”
The storms, uncertainty, fear, and isolation created a perfect environment for the group to place its trust in God and experience without filters the Holy Spirit’s wonders.
“I was worried about these guys. I prayed unceasingly and relied on the providence of God, even with all my experience as a wilderness guide and ranger,” Father Hendershott said. “I couldn’t plan the parts where the Holy Spirit wanted to be. Father Carter and I preached about Peter, Paul, and Our Lady. Our readings came alive. Whenever we reached a vista, they praised God. The mountains and hills praised the Lord.”
As God’s wonders and might came alive, the teens were prompted to more closely work together as a team to overcome the elements.
Father Hendershott said he learned as much as the boys did, with the MelchizeTrek rivaling anything he has done physically and surpassing anything he has done spiritually.
“As competent as we think we are, we are not Him. That was my greatest takeaway for the week,” he said. “You do your due diligence and leave the rest to Him. I said, ‘Lord, I have to give this all to you.’”
Michael said the guys got as much out of the experience as the priests. He especially liked the daily Masses and Holy Hours, and the way the teens joined together as a team.
“The thing I really liked were the Masses and Holy Hours every day. It was like a taste of the priesthood; priestly simplicity as we carried all of our belongings with us along the way. I also enjoyed the internal struggle of doing what needs to be done and working in tandem with others, as well as celebrating the liturgies and celebrating them well,” Michael said. “If I do only one thing on this trek, let it be to glorify God. It was great to see the other guys with the same purpose.”
To illustrate how they grew together as young men of faith, they began the trip struggling to sing in harmony, but by the end of the trek, they were singing in perfect harmony.
“The theme song of the trek became the Salve Regina. We were there because of Him. It was a very worthy reason to do this for Him,” Michael said.
Father Hendershott and the young men already have talked about repeating the MelchizeTrek next year. Regardless of the weather, the opportunity to assist young men in discerning a priestly vocation is too important to pass up.
“Another grace I gained from this is for discernment. Young people need to be able to make real contact with priests as people; see what priests are like as humans. This humanizes priests. It shows us as people. And I also experience them as people. It is so good to have that relationship with people and the Father,” he said. “I have a line: Priests are people, too. And Christ calls people to His ministry.”