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Mark Berchem is founder and executive director of NET Ministries, a youth evangelization program that serves more than 60,000 young people annually in the U.S., Canada and Australia.
BY The Editors
Mark Berchem is the
founder and executive director of the St. Paul, Minn.-based NET Ministries USA.
NET (which stands for New
Evangelization Teams) reaches more than 60,000 youth in more than 80 dioceses
each year with its Catholic youth retreats and programs. What started with one
team in the U.S. has grown to nine; there are programs in Canada and Australia
Berchem spoke with Register senior
writer Tim Drake from his office in St. Paul.
How did NET Ministries get
NET began back in 1980 as a project
at the St. Paul Catholic Youth Center in downtown St. Paul. The youth center
was active in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s on youth work. It did youth work focused
on bringing kids together, social activities, craft activities and social
In the late 1970s, the staff
experienced a renewal in their faith that really changed the nature of their
ministry and really ushered in a period of evangelistic retreat work with young
people. I got involved in the late 1970s as I came out of college, as a
volunteer, ended up on staff and started doing local retreats in the area. The
youth center had retreats every weekend, Wednesday evenings, Tuesdays and
Thursdays during the day, and outlying parishes began sending kids into St.
Paul. Over about a two-year period some of these outlying parishes from places
like Winona, Rochester and South Dakota asked us: “Would you ever consider
bringing a team out to our place, rather than us having to rent a bus and
bringing people to St. Paul?”
We began sending out groups of
volunteers and staff people around these small towns in Minnesota and South
Dakota doing our retreats. After doing this a couple of years, I took out a map
and put these little X’s on all these little towns. I figured there had to be a
better way of doing this rather than back and forth, back and forth. So, I came
up with the idea to get a team of people and go down to the Winona Diocese and
do a bunch of retreats consecutively and then come back. To be honest, I was
looking for a way to make my life a little easier. I wasn’t trying to start
anything: I just wanted to find a more efficient way to do this retreat work,
and it just exploded.
What’s the nature of the
The focus is certainly the junior
high and high school young person. It’s really focused on the initial
proclamation of the Gospel, really trying to introduce young people to the
notion of God’s personal love, interest in them, and his invitation to entrust
yourself to him and live as a disciple. We use a lot of themes. We do a lot of
retreats for confirmation preparation: “Why should I have faith?” “God’s love,”
“Why be Catholic?” The substance that ties them all together is that initial
proclamation of the Gospel and an invitation to entrust oneself to Christ and
live as one of his disciples.
You said NET has exploded. Talk
about its growth.
We started back in 1980, with one team
that went out for one month in January. We used a team of Catholic college
students in the area who were free during their J-term. We did that in 1980 and 1981. After that we
thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get a team to do this for a year?”
At the time, I thought it would take years to do. In September 1981 the first
NET team went out for a full year. In 1983 we went to two teams, then four, six
and eight. Currently, we have nine teams working.
We’ll visit about 80 dioceses across
the U.S. and do retreats for about 60,000 young people. In the 1980s, we began
getting requests from other parts of the world. We’ve replicated ourselves in
Canada. There is a NET Ministries operating out of Ottawa and another NET
Ministries in Australia that operates out of Brisbane. We’ve sent teams to
other parts of the world. Canada is working with Ireland, and Australia is
working with Uganda to try to replicate NET Ministries in those countries as
Most of our teams will be retreat
traveling teams that will come into a diocese for two to four weeks, and
they’ll move from parish to parish conducting retreats. Sometimes they’ll spend
a week at a high school, doing a retreat for seniors on Monday, for juniors on
Tuesday, and so forth. We do have a team that spends the entire year at a
parish. We just started that the last three to four years as an experiment: to
see if we can’t help jump-start youth ministry on the parish level. That’s been
exciting: to see what can happen when you put 10 enthusiastic young Catholics
in one geographic area and turn them loose.
the NET teams’ witness so effective?
most of us, that’s how we caught the faith. It’s not the talks that we hear,
but the witness of other people who are excited about their faith. It’s contagious.
You catch faith by being around people who have it. That’s the beauty of a NET
team. They give a witness of what faith looks like in the life of an 18-, 19-
or 20-year-old. That can speak volumes to a young person.
other programs that have grown out of NET Ministries. Can you describe them?
of the things we want to do is that, as we’re able, provide some follow-up for
young people who have encountered a NET team. Hopefully, once a young person
goes on a retreat, you really want to make sure that they have opportunities to
nurture that faith. A lot of that should happen in the family and in the
parish. We think it’s helpful to give kids other experiences that can be kind
of an ongoing source of encouragement for them.
is a monthly youth Mass and program offered in St. Paul for young people. It’s
fascinating to see. It’s a three-and-a-half-hour event that has a Mass, a break
and some catechetical piece where we try to deal with issues and topics that
are relevant to young people. We’re trying to create an event that young people
will find exciting and faith-building. We’ll get 800 to 1,000 young people
packed into a gymnasium for Mass. It’s very exciting to see.
Week is a four-day event we offer around the country. The four days are geared
to be a follow-up to a retreat to help young people make the next step in
faith. We do more work on the tools we need to live our faith, such as how to
pray, understanding the sacraments, being a servant, sharing our faith with others.
Gathering is an opportunity for youth ministers to gather together monthly to
get encouragement in their ministry and help them to be more effective in
passing on the faith to the young people they are working with.
common argument that gets thrown at NET and other youth programs is that they
provide an experience for youth that is quite different from average parish
life. Because of that, some folks argue that it provides an emotional high that
cannot be sustained. How would you respond to that?
for any kind of retreat experience, with NET or any organization, to be truly
effective, you want to see follow-up happening in the parish and family. We’ve
all been on retreats where we experience that initial thrust towards God, and if
we don’t take some steps to follow it up, we do see some backsliding.
the same time, a retreat provides that grace and initial, if you will,
enthusiasm to take a step toward God. Without that, a lot of us would never
come to faith. It’s our basic contention that the vast majority of Catholic
young people have not heard the Gospel message proclaimed to them. They know
bits and pieces, but most of them have not had a concise and understandable
explanation of who Christ is, what he’s done, what he offers them, and an
invitation to entrust oneself to him. That is the important role that a retreat
can play in the life of a young person: It’s the invitation to conversion and
the beginning of the conversion process that any of us need to go through if
we’re going to live our life for Christ.
Drake writes from