At World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid, Spain, Pope Benedict XVI addressed more than a million young people who had traveled from countries across the globe to participate in the event. Referencing Christ’s command in Mark 16:15, “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation,” the Holy Father said, “You too have been given the extraordinary task of being disciples and missionaries of Christ in other lands and countries filled with young people who are looking for something greater and, because their heart tells them that more authentic values do exist, they do not let themselves be seduced by the empty promises of a lifestyle which has no room for God.”
The decades after Vatican II saw many young people leave the active practice of the Faith, often to the distress of their parents. A variety of factors are often cited for this exodus, including the lure of materialism, relativism, and the sexual revolution, poor catechetical programs and formation, and the influence of non-Catholic religions in search of converts.
Today, lay Catholic youth ministers are on the front lines, winning teens back to the Church. Their role is often to provide an initial outreach to teens, getting them excited about the Faith and steering them back to regular involvement in their local parishes. While battling cultural messages that are the antithesis of Catholic teaching can be a daunting challenge, youth ministers are reporting that progress is being made in winning back young people, one soul at a time.
Gary Foote, coordinator of youth ministry for St. Edward Church in Dana Point, California, has worked in youth ministry for 14 years. He is in his third year at St. Edward, which is in the Diocese of Orange in Southern California. He works with about 350 youth at St. Edward. He has theology and philosophy degrees from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and is also a regular speaker at conferences, parish missions and retreats (his website is www.gary-foote.com).
“My goal is to introduce youth to a relationship with God and instill in them an ownership of the Catholic faith,” Foote said. “When they go on to adulthood, I don’t want them to merely say youth ministry was a ‘good experience,’ but that the Faith has become an ongoing part of their lives.”
While there are plenty of “fun” activities—bowling, beach bonfires, movies—the more serious pursuits of prayer, adoration, and education in the Faith are stressed. One of Foote’s current educational initiatives is the introduction of an online confirmation course. Teens can read the class material online before they come to class, and then show up with their parents for meetings ready to talk about it.
Foote has seen his years of ministry bear fruit; some of his teens have gone on to seminaries or convents, or have become youth ministers themselves.
When he travels nationally to speak, he sees a “hunger” for the Faith in many teens. “Like St. Augustine in the Confessions, their heart is restless, but the answer of Christ and his Church seems most distant to them,” Foote said.
A hot topic among teens right now, according to Foote, is the teaching of the Church on homosexuality. “It’s not the issue I go to speak on, but it seems to always come up,” he said. “I break open the Catechism and read what the Church teaches on the morality of the act, and they have a huge sense of relief. We’re not the ‘bigoted Church’ that they thought we are.”
David Calavitta is youth and young adult minister for St. Thomas More Church, Irvine, also in the Diocese of Orange. He came to the parish six years ago, and has worked for a dozen years in youth ministry. His chief duties include overseeing the parish’s Life Teen and confirmation programs. As with Foote, Calavitta also sees same-sex marriage as a hot topic among his teens. He said, “Our teens ask, ‘Is there an absolute truth? If I’m opposed to same-sex marriage, am I a bigot?’”
Calavitta, too, has seen his efforts teaching teens bear fruit, as he has seen many return to become youth ministers themselves. He added that many seminarians today have had contact with the Life Teen program.
One of St. Thomas’ most successful programs for youth is XLT (short for “exalt”), which involves a Sunday evening Mass, dinner at a local restaurant (often comped by a parishioner), and two hours in the church hall for prayer, adoration, and a presentation.
Kevin Bohli, director of the Office of Youth Ministry for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, has served in his role for more than a decade. He is pleased to see that youth coming to church today have less of an expectation that they will be entertained, and that traditional spirituality has a greater appeal.
“When I came to the diocese, a youth rally was a rock concert,” Bohli recalled. “Now we have less rock, and more prayer, Mass, confessions, and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.”
Arlington’s bishop, Paul Loverde, has encouraged this trend, telling young people, “To be faithful disciples, we must come to know Christ through prayer, especially before the Blessed Sacrament, and through reception of the sacraments. This closeness with the Lord will aid you in discerning the Lord’s plan. Further, the fellowship available through the various programs sponsored by the Office of Youth Ministry can bring you closer to the Church, and, therefore, closer to Christ.”
Bohli and his staff support youth ministry programs which exist in most of the diocese’s parishes. They offer youth minister training and resources and plan large diocesan events. The “jewel” of these events, believes Bishop Loverde, is the annual summertime WorkCamp (June 22-28 in 2013), which combines a program of spirituality for teens with a corporal work of mercy, repairing homes for the needy in the community.
WorkCamp is “going gangbusters,” reported Bohli. After the teens spend a day helping those in need, they return to a gathering point for prayer, Mass, and adoration. Priests, religious, and seminarians also take part in the program, and provide youth the opportunity to meet those who have committed (or will soon commit) their lives to serving the Church.
“At the end of a week, they really begin to understand the work of the Church,” noted Bohli. “It’s also been a great source of vocations.”
Bohli began his career as an engineer, and volunteered his time to assist in youth ministry and at the WorkCamps. Seeing what a life-changing experience a high-quality youth ministry program can be, he opted to leave engineering and work full-time as a youth minister.
Bohli believes effective youth ministry begins with establishing strong relationships, first among adults running youth programs, and then with the teens themselves. Teens are quite receptive to the Faith, he explains, even its more challenging teachings: “Our teens are starving for someone to tell them the truth.”
Chris Stefanick, who until recently served as Director of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver, Colorado agrees: “Young people are open to radically following God. They’re really capable of a heroic response.”
Stefanick is a sought-after speaker for youth events, and recently left employment at the archdiocese to speak full-time (his website is www.chris-stefanick.com). His years interacting with teens have taught him that most teens don’t leave the Church because of unorthodox ideas, but because of complacency. They don’t understand why they need to go to church, he says: “Our challenge is to introduce them to the Gospel message, which is compelling and resounds deep in their hearts. Christ can offer them hope that the world cannot.”
Originally from New Jersey, Stefanick was once a wayward teen himself, but was “dragged” by his parents to a youth retreat that changed his life. He became a champion of the Faith in high school, and in college knew youth ministry would be his career. He worked at the parish level, including four years at an East Los Angeles parish and six years in Denver.
Stefanick’s more than 15 years of youth ministry experience have shown him that teens typically struggle with insecurity, as well as searching for an identity, which they often find in the wrong places (he chuckles as he recalls recently seeing a “Volleyball is life” bumper sticker). Working as a youth minister is not the most lucrative profession, but it is rewarding, Stefanick says: “When I see a light go on in a teenager’s eyes, it makes it all worth it.”
Stefanick has co-authored a book with Jason Evert called Raising Pure Teens, and speaks to 10,000 teens annually on chastity. While his topic is a delicate one, his audiences often give him standing ovations and individual attendees tell him he’s changed their lives.
Stefanick has also been involved with the Dead Theologians Society, an organization that encourages young people to adopt the saints as role models.
In addition to diocesan programs, nationwide youth ministry programs are achieving success as well. The Franciscan University Summer Youth Conference program recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, and is reaching out to touch the lives of nearly 40,000 young people annually. The program puts on 18 conferences in the United States and one in Canada, featuring upbeat Catholic speakers and musicians. The program includes ample time for prayer, Mass, Eucharistic adoration, and confessions.
John Beaulieu, Franciscan’s Director of Youth Outreach, noted that a recent nationwide survey of newly ordained priests showed that 9 percent of them had been to a Franciscan University conference and said that it had a significant impact on their formation. Six percent of new religious sisters reported the same thing. In the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, a third of the seminarians reported that they had participated in a Franciscan University conference.
“Reflecting the beliefs of the university, we have a strong Catholic identity and fidelity to the Holy Father, and seek to make a difference in the lives of young people,” said Beaulieu, who received his introduction to working with youth as a volunteer for NET Ministries, headquartered in St. Paul, Minnesota. “We want to show them that Jesus Christ is the way. He is the life.”
Jim Beckman, Director of Youth Leadership and Evangelization for the Augustine Institute in Denver, is author and founder of YDisciple, which provides leadership and evangelization formation for teens. One of his current projects is developing resources for youth ministers and parishes to do discipleship studies with teens. The curriculum is video-based, and discusses a wide range of topics about the Faith. It also meets the educational requirements of the US Catholic Conference of Bishops.
Beckman explained, “Our goal is to raise up and form leaders for the New Evangelization, equipping them with tools to help them become more effective in the field.”
Teens are receptive to the message of the Church, Beckman believes. “Many young people see themselves as Christian,” he said. “They want to know the truth and have meaningful conversations with adults about it, but the adults are often not equipped to do so.”
Ours is an age of tolerance, he observed, and not forcing one’s beliefs on another. “Adults are timid when it comes to ‘politically incorrect’ issues,” Beckman explained. “Yet teens want someone to tell them the truth. They’re aimless, and looking for direction.”
NET (National Evangelization Teams) is another nationwide ministry working to win teens for Christ. Established 30 years ago by Mark Berchem, NET recruits young adults to commit a year working in youth ministry. Teams are invited by bishops across the country to come to their dioceses and offer high school and parish retreats.
“Our role is to break through teens’ apathy and get them excited about their faith,” Berchem explained. “Our young people say to us all the time, ‘No one has ever talked to me about God like this,’ and ‘I didn’t know other teens believed what the Church taught.’”
Berchem is a native of St. Paul, and had intended to become a social worker. As a young man, he had a personal conversion: “I experienced God’s love for me and met Christ.” He opted to devote his life to youth ministry instead.
In the three decades Berchem has worked in the field, he has noticed two changes among youth: a rise in the influence of social media, and a greater openness to the Gospel. The rise of social media causes him some concern; youth have virtual relationships rather than real ones, and are “just a click away from tremendous temptation,” he says.
But the greater openness to the Gospel among youth means there is great opportunity for evangelization. “I know of many examples of young people who were headed in the wrong direction who went through a NET Ministries program and embraced the Faith,” Berchem said. “Our young people need to be challenged to receive the Gospel and have a conversion of heart.”