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BRAINTREE -- Since the Order of Malta's annual weeklong camp for young adults with disabilities and their helpers was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the camp's United States team held a virtual camp for American participants Aug. 2-9.
The International Malta Camp is held in a different location each year, drawing young adults from 20 different countries. This year, the camp was planned for Rome, with the theme "Be Not Afraid." But two and a half months before it was to take place, the decision was made to postpone the trip until 2021.
Christopher Carter Lee, Lucia Simpson, and Luisa Majnoni d'Intignano, members of the camp's American team, did not want to wait that long.
"We knew we needed to renew the bonds of friendship between our guests and gather together in faith as a community during this time of isolation," Lee said in an Aug. 21 email. Lee is the hospitaller of Boston and the director of the American delegation to the international camp.
Simpson is a volunteer of the Order and part of the third generation of her family to serve its mission. She has participated in the international summer camps since 2013.
"Many guests have expressed that camp is a place where they can uniquely be themselves," Simpson said in an Aug. 21 email.
The helpers, who may be members of the Order, members of the Order's auxiliary, or volunteers, also gain much from the experience.
"My interaction with our disabled guests and the other volunteers is the highlight of my year every year, and it gives me fuel to face academic and vocational challenges the rest of the year round," Simpson said.
Lee, Simpson, and Majnoni d'Intignano led the efforts to organize a virtual camp for the United States team after receiving approval from the leaders of the American Association of the Order of Malta. They also received letters of support from the order's senior leadership in Rome.
The organizers contacted all those who had been part of the U.S. delegation to the international camp in the past three years. About 30 participants from across the country signed up, including some who had gone to the camp four or five years previously.
Lee said that they initially planned a 90-minute online session for each day, though they were cautioned by some that it could be too long. Instead, the opposite turned out to be true: every session ran longer than originally planned -- one even continued for three hours -- because the participants were so engaged with the interactive format.
"We all worried that our pivot to a virtual camp would be a pale shadow of camps gone by. Instead, the week that Team USA spent apart-but-together brought us a new camaraderie and intimacy as a 'camp family,'" Simpson said.
The week kicked off on Aug. 2 with an opening ceremony featuring leaders of the American Association of the Order of Malta: president Dr. Peter J. Kelly, chancellor Edward J. Delaney, and hospitaller Kenneth R. Craig.
There was also a virtual Mass celebrated by Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.
After the Mass, the camp song and dance was revealed. Some of the officers of the order's American Association had sent videos of themselves performing the song and dance, which the camp organizers put together in a montage.
The next virtual session was a "show and tell" icebreaker, in which participants shared videos of themselves showing their home or sharing something special to them.
Holding the camp in a virtual format allowed a larger group to participate that usual, and also provided participants' families a glimpse of the experience.
"It was particularly special for the families of both guests and helpers to get a small insight into the laughter, singing, prayer and dancing that camp entails," Simpson said.
The other virtual meetings included a trivia game night and a karaoke night. There was also an arts and crafts night, during which the participants decorated T-shirts, trivets, key chains, and artificial candles using materials the organizers had sent ahead of time.
The candle they created were used during the group's "silent night," an evening of prayer, music, and Eucharistic adoration on the Feast of the Transfiguration. Father Chris Peschel, a priest from the diocese of Fall River, served as the virtual camp's chaplain and offered a reflection. Guests then had the opportunity to speak with him in breakout groups.
At the international camp, there are usually "discos" or dance parties every night. For the American team's virtual camp, there was one disco night, when everyone dressed up and requested songs.
"Our virtual camp would not have been complete without a dance party of our own," Simpson said.
The program ended on Aug. 9, a Sunday, with a closing Mass celebrated by Msgr. David Charters, First Secretary to the Holy See Mission to the United Nations.
Lee and Majnoni d'Intignano joined him at the chapel of the residence of the Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in New York City.
"It felt like we had a little bit of the Vatican, (which) undoubtedly these folks all would have seen had they been at the camp in Rome which was postponed," Lee said.
Lee served as a lector and Majnoni d'Intignano served as the cantor during the closing Mass. Msgr. Charters had gathered pictures of each participant and mentioned each of them by name. Each participant shared their favorite experience of the week.
In an Aug. 18 interview, Lee said that he has received messages from participants saying that they are still using the camp prayer.
"Our little team came together out of love for what we have done and seen each summer in the Order's international camps," Lee said.
He pointed out that Servant of God Fra' Andrew Bertie, recent past Grand Master of the Order, called the camps "the primary work of the Order of Malta's young people."
"This virtual Malta camp has demonstrated the resilience and perseverance of this part of the Order community," Lee said.