ARLINGTON, Va. — Pope Benedict XVI dedicated the month of April to pray for the evangelization of youth: “That through its compelling preaching of the Gospel, the Church may give young people new reasons for life and hope.”
The decades after Vatican II saw many young people of all ethnic backgrounds leave the active practice of the faith. 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. Their role is often to provide an initial outreach, getting teenagers excited about the faith and steering them back to regular involvement in their parishes. It also reinforces the faith of teens who are practicing Catholics, giving them an important opportunity for spiritual growth and fellowship with like-minded teens
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 the minds and hearts of youth, one soul at a time.
Kevin Bohli, for example, has served in his role as director of the Office of Youth Ministry for the Diocese of Arlington, Va., for 10 years. He is pleased to see that youth coming to church have less of an expectation of being entertained and that traditional spirituality has a greater appeal.
“When I came to the diocese, a youth rally was a rock concert,” he recalled. “Now we have less rock, and more prayer, Mass, confessions and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.”
Arlington 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’s office has a staff of seven, supporting the youth-ministry programs which exist in 50 of the diocese’s 68 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, 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,” Bohli reports. It drew 100 teens a decade ago and today is drawing 800. 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 often provide youth the opportunity to meet those who have committed (or will soon commit) their lives in service to 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 quality youth-ministry program has on teens, he opted to leave engineering and work full time as a youth minister.
He believes effective youth ministry begins with establishing quality relationships, first among adults running youth programs, and then with the teens themselves. Teens are typically more receptive to accepting the faith, he continues, even its more challenging teachings: “Our teens are starving for someone to tell them the truth.”
Chris Stefanick, director of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver agrees: “Young people are open to radically following God. They’re really capable of a heroic response.”
Stefanick’s office performs a similar function to Bohli’s; Stefanick is also a sought-after speaker for youth events.
Most teens don’t leave the Church because of their “liberal” ideas, he believes, but due to complacency. They don’t understand why they need to go to church: “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.”
Stefanick, who is from New Jersey, was once a wayward teen himself, but was “dragged” by his parents to a youth retreat which 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, before coming to Denver five years ago.
His 15 years of youth-ministry experience have taught him that teens typically struggle with insecurity and finding an identity — and often find it 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: “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, Raising Pure Teens, and speaks to 10,000 teens annually on chastity. Despite it being a delicate topic, his audiences often give him a standing ovation, and individual attendees email him telling him he has changed their lives.
Stefanick is also vice president of 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, celebrating its 35th anniversary, is reaching out to touch the lives of 38,000 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 reported that 9% had been to a Franciscan University conference and that it had a significant impact on their formation. 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,” Beaulieu commented. “We want to show them that Jesus Christ is the way. He is the life.”
Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ committee on clergy and vocations, believes that “lifelong formation and engagement in the Catholic faith” to be a determining factor in producing vocations to the priesthood and religious life. He also stressed the importance of campus ministry programs in extending “the culture of vocations” to young people.
Beaulieu grew up in Michigan and received his introduction to working with youth as a volunteer for NET Ministries, headquartered in St. Paul, Minn.
NET (National Evangelization Teams) is another nationwide ministry working to win teens for Christ. NET was established 29 years ago by Mark Berchem. It recruits young adults to commit a year working in youth ministry. Teams are invited by diocesan bishops across the country to come to their dioceses and offer high school and parish retreats.
Berchem explained, “Our role is to break through teens’ apathy and get them excited about their faith. 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 he has worked in the field, he has noticed two changes among youth: 1) a rise in the influence of social media, and 2) a greater openness among youth 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.”
But the greater openness to the Gospel among youth means there is great opportunity for evangelization. He concluded, “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. Our young people need to be challenged to receive the Gospel and have a conversion of heart.”
Register correspondent Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.