Doing His Work

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Mother Assumpta: 

We are so delighted to have Father Peter John Cameron with us today. Father, you have so many accomplishments. Who are you? How did you enter the Dominicans? Are you a Southerner or Northerner? Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Fr. Cameron: 

It’s a great joy to be with your mother. I was born in Rhode Island. I grew up outside of Hartford, Connecticut, but my parents were both from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. When they were growing up, there were three Dominican foundations in Providence, two parishes and Providence College. I wanted to be a priest since I was a little boy, and the desire never went away. In high school, I discovered there was a Seminary high school not far from where I lived in Bloomfield, Connecticut, called St. Thomas Seminary for Saint Thomas Aquinas. I switched to that school to start pursuing a priestly vocation with more intentionality. I always had the inkling that I wanted to belong to a religious community. When I discussed this with my parents because they grew up in Rhode Island, the community they knew better than any other were the Dominicans, so they suggested it to me. I actually read a novel by Louis de Wohl called The Quiet Light, and that book affected. In the story, his parents were not in favor of his joining the Dominican order which was new and not prestigious. They wanted him to be a Benedictine. They had hopes he would be an Abbott, but his reasons for wanting to be a Dominican, as the book discusses, is he wanted to preach. He loved the Eucharist, and he wanted to be a good Confessor. Those are all the things that I wanted to do. After I finished high school, I went to Providence College with the intention of making a more serious of the Order of Preachers, and I met Father Ramon Cesario while he was finishing his Ph. D studies. I was doing a junior year abroad program in Fribourg, Switzerland, and he brought me into the Order. 

Mother Assumpta: 

How wonderful. I didn’t know that we were alumni. I also went to Providence College, a little bit before your time. Father, the Dominicans must have seen your talents because you have done so many things in the Dominican order. What fascinates me are the theatrical accomplishments. 

Fr. Cameron

It’s strange because I’ve always been interested in the theater. In fact, when I went to Providence College thinking about being a Dominican, I thought, “I’ll have to study theology, so I signed up to be a theology major, and I remember I was outside the chaplain’s office, Father Terry Keegan who was a great priest and a big help to me. I told him about my aspirations to become a Dominican, and he asked what I was studying. I said theology. He said, “Don’t do that. You have to study it again.” I said, “What should I study? Philosophy?” He said, “Study something that you really like.” I said, “Something I really like from high school was theater,” and he said, “We have a little program here, but if that’s where your heart is, then then do that.” I was a theater major at Providence College and loved it. It was a fledgling program, but it was great because it was so small you had to do a little bit of everything backstage and acting. I learned so much, and they were wonderful people. When I decided to become a Dominican, in the process of going through the interviews, I learned that the Dominican Province of St. Joseph, my Dominican Province, for 32 years operated an Off-Broadway theater company called Blackfriars Theater. In fact, I think it still has the distinction of being the longest continuously operated Off-Broadway theater in American stage history. A number of great theater artists, playwrights, and producers got their start there. When I was going through the interviews to enter the order, a number of people said to me, “Would you ever consider reviving Blackfriars theater?” I said, “I would love to do that, but I didn’t know that was a possibility as a Dominican.” Sure enough, I went through my philosophical and theological studies, and I was encouraged to go across the street from the Dominican studies in Washington DC, where we do our theology studies, to the Catholic University of America and do a graduate degree, which I did in playwriting. I have a Master of Fine Arts in playwriting, and my mentor was the famous Father Gilbert Hearty. When I finished that degree and my License in Sacred Theology, I was sent to Providence College as my first priestly assignment to teach in the theater department and manage the theater there. I never really gave it up. I worked a couple of years for a Catholic film company. Then in 1998, I had a play that I wanted to produce in honor of the Centenary of the death or the birth of St. Therese, I can’t remember. I thought it’d be good if we could do it under the auspices of an actual theater, so my provincial gave me permission to found Blackfriars Repertory Theater. 

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Mother Assumpta: 

This goes into homiletics. I was so impressed when I saw you taught homiletics in four different seminaries. How important it is for the young priest. 

Fr. Cameron: 

There aren’t a whole lot of homiletics professors out there. It sounds like a disease being a college professor, but it sounds wonderful to me. It’s something I was always interested in. I was a campus minister at New York University in Greenwich Village, and Cardinal John O’Connor, the former Cardinal Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York, was making some changes to his major seminary, St. Joseph’s Seminary of Dunwoodie, and he wanted a Dominican to teach homiletics there. He asked Father Gabriel O’Donnell, who had been teaching homiletics at the seminary in Philadelphia, but he was already engaged, so Father O’Donnell recommended me. I was only a priest maybe seven years or so when that started. I had to teach myself some of the principles for teaching for instructing homiletics, but my background in the theater helped a lot, especially in terms of how to structure a homily and how to deliver a homily. I began there in 1994, and actually lived there until 2003, and then my provincial assigned me elsewhere. In 2010, I was asked to go to the seminary on Long Island that serves the dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre, and that seminary, Immaculate Conception in Huntington, New York, merged with St. Joseph’s Seminary of Dunwoodie, and that’s how I ended up back there again for another stint of six years. I love teaching homiletics. 

Mother Assumpta: 

I think the order was blessed to have you to do this. I think what’s made you most well-known is the Magnificat. It has meant so much to so many people. Tell us the beginning. How did you get involved in that? Why did they even begin in the United States?

Fr. Cameron: 

It really is providential, Mother. I was on a pilgrimage in 1993 with Father Cesario in France. At the end of it, we visited the Dominican Priory of Fribourg, Switzerland, where we had originally met in 1978. While I was there, he handed me this beautiful little prayer journal/prayer aid called Magnificat in French. And so this is around 1993 or so. When I saw it, I immediately said, “This needs to be an English.” Fast forward to 1998. I had been working freelance for a Catholic newspaper called the National Catholic Register. I was a contributing editor to the newspaper, and I had a column on Sunday Scriptures. I did a number of series for them. The publisher of Magnificatwas looking to assemble a team of journalists and writers from the United States to launch Magnificat in English for America. He was close friends with the editor of the National Catholic Register. He recommended me to help in some way. I met the publisher. I remember him having for lunch, and it was going well. He wants to take it to the next step. He took Magnificat out and showed it to me and began to explain the contents. I stopped him and said, “You don’t have to explain it to me. I can explain it to you, and I’ll tell you why I love it.” With that, he offered me the position. 

Mother Assumpta: 

There are so many appealing things about the Magnificat. For example, the artwork. Beauty is magnanimous. You’re drawn to Beauty. Who writes the meditations of the day for the Magnificat?

Fr. Cameron: 

They’re drawn from many different sources, and most of them are more classic works. We try to use a good smattering of ancient sources, what we call the Fathers of the Church, but then also some contemporary sources, some deliberately English writings that have been written in English, so not everything is a translation. There are different criteria we use for choosing them. 

Mother Assumpta: 

What about the saints? Some of the most unique saints are in there. Who does that? 

Fr. Cameron: 

At the moment, those are being done by one laywoman, a mother of eight children. Her name is Lisa Lacona, who also holds a License in Sacred Theology. It’s something that was of interest to her as a devout Catholic woman. With the internet and the resources that are available digitally, she was able to discover all these biographies of saints that you would otherwise have to be in libraries flipping through dusty volumes to dig up these gems. She’s a real scholar, and she’s excellent at research and has a great gift for writing and loves it. 

Mother Assumpta: 

I always appreciated your letter in the front. It was personal, and you felt connected. Now, Father Sebastian is doing a great job doing it. I thank God that went to another Dominican. How many work on the Magnificat

Fr. Cameron: 

Believe it or not, the staff for the editorial part is not large. Father Sebastian has a managing editor who’s full-time, and then there’s a part-time secretary who does all of the hard labor in terms of scanning the meditations and formatting them and getting them ready to put into the master document, and then there is a proofreader who also helps out with the other editorial tasks for us. Basically, that’s the whole editorial team. 

Mother Assumpta: 

It’s common to see people with the Magnificat. One of the most exciting things now to me is your new ministry. Tell us about this unique and refreshing ministry. 

Fr. Cameron: 

I work now full-time with an apostolate called Hard As Nails Ministries. It was founded by a beautiful charismatic young layman. His name is Justin Fatica. He is the father of five children. When he was a young man, he was a bit of a rebel, but at age 17, a priest who was his mentor at his Catholic school made a profound impression on him by inviting him, despite all of his misbehavior, to go on a retreat. At that retreat, he had an encounter with Jesus Christ that changed him permanently and from that moment, he began to draw other people into the same encounter with Christ. He has a true gift in his ability to get people excited for Jesus and to start living for Him. He finished high school and college. He became a youth minister and went on to be a religion teacher. People began to ask him to direct confirmation retreats, and he discovered that he was in demand and that he could make his living doing this instead of teaching religion, and he felt that his gifts were more in that area, so in 2002 he began to preach around the country on his own with great success so much so that HBO learned about him and made a documentary film about his life. It was released in 2008 and shown at the Tribeca Film Festival, and with that the ministry almost exploded because there are so many requests coming in. In 2010, Justin realized that the ministry would be benefited by having others join him as evangelizers on the road, so we invited young lay missionaries, 18 to 25 years old, to join him in preaching to the young people that are the focus of Hard as Nails Ministry. The name refers to the fact that the ministry exists to go out to the hardest of hearts where we will try to bring Jesus to those who are most resistant to the Gospel. We do it united with the mystery of Christ and His passion, especially at the moment of our Lord being nailed to the cross because it was literally an excruciating moment for Him, but it was the moment that released into the world the greatest force of love that the planet has ever known because it was then that Jesus declared, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” Hard as Nails lives from the conviction that every moment of suffering contains the same promise and possibility, but sometimes you need somebody to help you see how powerful and valuable and productive or fruitful an experience of suffering can be, so that’s what the Hard as Nails missionaries do. They travel around the country on a bus that a benefactor provided for us, offering 16 different kinds of events from confirmation retreats to campus events to parish missions, but especially reaching out to young people and their suffering, whether it’s from depression or anxiety or broken family or addictions or self-harming behavior, whatever might be drawing them to the Cross so that the power that’s unleashed at that Cross can take hold of their suffering so that young people especially can see the value of their suffering and to help them to suffer well, even to the point of drawing them to be grateful for their suffering. 

Mother Assumpta: 

When you go into an area, how do you draw these young people to a gathering? 

Fr. Cameron: 

For the most part, the events that we offer would be pre-arranged through our booking manager. For example, we would take the bus to the Midwest. We’re going to do several events in the Fargo area. Once we know we’re going to be there, if there are different requests to speak in a school whether it’s a Catholic school or public school – we have programs designed for both of those – or in a parish, we try to book as many events in the locale for the duration of our stay. We are typically in an area for 7 to 10 days. Sometimes the booking manager might have to call certain places to say we’re coming and ask if they’re interested in having us. 

Mother Assumpta: 

Is this also a ministry to older people? 

Fr. Cameron: 

It is, but I would say more indirectly because our charism is to evangelize with a special focus on young people with particular attention to being sensitive to suffering, all of this with the goal of creating community. We do that by evangelizing through the community of Hard as Nails. We model for others the way that living the gospel in the Church is most ideal, which is in the communion of the faith. We try to lead people back to their parishes. We try to strengthen them and their family ties. We try to draw out those who are most marginalized, and we want to also raise up leaders in the Catholic Church through the experience of Hard as Nails because very often what moves people when they’re at a Hard as Nails event, as was the case in our Lord’s sending out the disciples 2 by 2, is the unity between the missionaries, which is something that distinguishes the Roman Catholic Church more than anything, how Christ makes Himself present. You can recognize Christ through the companionship that we share with each other. It’s a unity that can’t be faked and that only the Grace of Jesus makes possible. We will evangelize to older people, for example at a parish mission that’s for all age groups, and if we do, we’ll do evangelization trainings. For example, for many years Hard as Nails has helped out the Apostolate for Family Consecration, which sponsors Catholic Family Land every year. For more than 15 years, with the missionaries, Justin has been going to Catholic Family Land certain summers to offer different programs.

Mother Assumpta: 

This is so exciting. Our sisters work a lot with youth, and we’ve got to get to the youth. There is so much suffering, and they don’t even know sometimes what is going on in their life because they’re so bombarded with distractions. Everything is taking them away from God and the Church. Thank you for this ministry. I want to hear about it. Is there some way we could keep up with it and see what’s going on?

Fr. Cameron: 

The website is easy to remember: rememberyoureamazing.com. We are going to be producing our own podcast soon because one of the great strengths of Hard as Nails is the follow-up program that we provide. We go into these different places. We offer an event, but we want to make sure the people are continuing to grow in Holiness and that they’re staying close to the people that have helped them grow close to Jesus Christ, so there are many different programs that are offered, especially through the website, to keep people on the path. We want to catechize the young people because I think that’s one of the sufferings that they experience is that the reason they haven’t been living their faith or living it as the priority of their life is because they haven’t learned enough to be able to do it, so we’re going to do a program to help systematically lead young people to a greater understanding and appreciation of the Catholic Faith.

Mother Assumpta: 

I am so glad they got you involved in this. I think the Dominicans see that this would be a wonderful apostolate. It’s so Dominican. Thank you for coming to us. We feel so honored because you are so busy, and we’re privileged to have you with us. God bless you. 


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