LA CROSSE, Wis. — Sarah Hofkes wants to be a teacher, and she decided to go to a Catholic college this fall because she wants to teach about the faith.
What gave this La Crosse-area woman her strong sense of direction? A lively, fast-growing Catholic youth group known as the Dead Theologian's Society.
Hofkes' father isn't worried about his daughter's involvement in a group whose name sounds a bit dark. In fact, he's pleased as punch.
“It's just been awesome as far as I am concerned,” Steve Hofkes said. “Over the past year, both my girls have been involved, and I have seen an increase in their receptiveness to the faith.”
The group may be called the Dead Theologian's Society, but it makes the faith come very much alive, Sarah agreed. “It inspires you to learn more and to get closer to God,” she said. “It has inspired me to work with young people, probably through youth ministry and teaching people about the faith.”
Keeping young people interested in the faith after they finish their preparation for confirmation has been a perennial problem for pastors, catechists and youth-ministry leaders. The Dead Theologian's Society is one of several innovative approaches, from Catholic Kids Net, which targets young children, to Life Teen, which has been around for almost 20 years, to groups for 20-somethings such as Thank God It's First Friday and Theology on Tap (see sidebar).
“The formation process for young people must be constant and active, capable of helping them to find their place in the Church and in the world,” Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1999 exhortation, Ecclesia in America (The Church in America). “Consequently, youth ministry must be one of the primary concerns of pastors and communities.”
Michael Barone has taken the Pope's advice to heart. He and fellow musician Eddie Cotter founded the Dead Theologian's Society in 1997 for high school students. “We have a very simple formula: something the Church has always taught,” Barone said. “We are using the lives of the saints to inspire others.”
The organization now has 140 chapters and has drawn praise from clergy, parents and youth. Utilizing prayer and emphasizing the lives of the saints, the society seeks to bring young people to a greater awareness of their Catholic heritage and a greater devotion in their lives.
Last fall, it moved its headquarters from Ohio to La Crosse, Wis., at the request of Bishop Raymond Burke, now the archbishop of St. Louis, Mo.
Archbishop Burke praised the group, in a letter posted on its web-site, for carrying out “very effectively the new evangelization among the youth and their families whom it serves.”
The Dead Theologian's Society “draws young people to an ever deeper understanding of Christ and his Church,” the archbishop wrote.
According to co-founder Barone, the Dead Theologian's Society gets to teens' minds and hearts through their stomachs. “We knew kids thought church was geeky and stupid, so we asked, ‘What would Jesus do?’” Barone explained. “We decided to follow the sixth chapter of John: to feed and to teach.”
The plan worked, and the little group began to grow. “Eddie knew a teen who was doing a Dead Poet's Society (named for the 1989 movie), so we decided to call our group the Dead Theologian's Society because of our emphasis on the saints and their teachings,” Barone said.
Within a year, the group spread to six other parishes. Then “Mike and Eddie” — as the founders are known — went on EWTN's show “Life on the Rock.” As a result, their website was so inundated with hits that it crashed, and though they were unprepared for the surge of interest, Barone said that 48 groups were started as a result.
Barone said there have been three religious vocations among the students he has worked with — with plenty more in other chapters — and many conversions. Most of the groups target high school students, but Barone said about half a dozen college chapters exist, as well.
And while the food may be the hook, according to Barone, the plan is to get the youths intrigued. After a snack, the group moves to a meeting room lit only by candlelight. There, they say a prayer and study the life of a saint for a few minutes before turning to the saint's writings.
Because of the anonymous environment, questions fly, Barone said. The group concludes with a prayer of intercession to the saint and a prayer for the souls in purgatory. “It is our charism to pray for them,” Barone explained.
Teens who come to three meetings in a row or five overall can become members. They are given hooded sweatshirts, affectionately known as “hoods.”
“We took the idea from St. Francis of taking the clothing of the average person,” Barone said. Medals, holy cards and scapulars are also given out at meetings.
Patrick Gallichio is another teen who was sold on the program. “It's helped me in becoming more Catholic,” said the junior at McDonnell Catholic High School in Chippewa Falls, Wis. “Before DTS, I did not care about my religion. Before that, I didn't go to church or care about the faith. Now I go every week.”
He said the society has taught him how to pray and gave him “examples of who to follow — the saints.”
“They really know how to draw kids in,” said Hofkes, who said his daughters can't get enough of the Dead Theologian's Society programs.
Sarah Hofkes agreed, adding that most of her friends are society members. She particularly enjoys the emphasis on the saints. “You don't learn a lot about them in school,” she said. “You learn about everything else, but not the saints.”
Andrew Walther writes