13-YEAR-OLD Shannon Conway is a solid student at Corpus Christi School in Colorado Springs, Colo. She's a good athlete, is close to her parents, and participates in her parish youth group.

Drugs seem little more than a distant threat to her now, but before long, she will leave safe, familiar settings for the less-protected environs of public high school. She feels ready. “It will be easier for me and the other people coming from Catholic schools,” she said. “The way our teachers have talked to us and treated us … has just given us general good judgment."

In fact, Conway's profile puts her in one of the lowest-risk categories for potential drug use among teens, according to two recent national surveys. A 1996 survey of teens and their parents, conducted for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) by the Luntz Research Companies, concluded that the number of teens expected to sample illegal drugs in the future has doubled since 1995—from 11 percent to 22 percent. Teens and parents who participated in the survey agree that drugs are the single biggest problem facing 12-17 year-olds in this country.

“The issue isn't whether our children are going to be tossed into this sea of drugs; the issue is how well we can teach them to swim,” said Joseph Califano Jr., CASAPresident and former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. “Too many of our parents are not even teaching their kids how to float."

Catholic teens who are active in their faith, according to another survey, are pretty good swimmers. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University this past July released results of a survey called “New Directions in Youth Ministry." More than 6,000 high school students involved in youth ministry in 41 diocese and cultural associations across the county responded. The majority—68 percent—surveyed rated “not using drugs" as the most important value from a list of 15 values in the questionnaire. (See sidebar.)

Admittedly, the teens who participated in the Youth Ministry Survey are operating with advantages many teens in the CASA survey did not have. Sixty-four percent said that they originally joined youth ministry programs because of their “family's urging/support" and 86 percent agreed in some form with the statement “I learned about faith from my family."

Indeed, parents’ attitude is a key factor, said Father Leonard Wenke, executive director of the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministers, a group that cosponsored the Youth Ministry study. “Parental apathy is the critical factor in kids use of drugs or non-use of drugs."

While experts agree that nothing can replace the role played by parents, for Catholic kids who take part in religious education classes at school or in the parish the anti-drug message is reinforced by another authority source. Many religious education textbooks, from early primary grades on, talk about the evils of substance abuse as a breach of the Fifth Commandment. But when working with teens, many dioceses take a less direct approach to the issue of substance abuse, focusing instead on moral decision-making across the board.

As Father Wenke said: “One of the things that young people come to Church activities for is to help them make tough life choices."

In fact, the majority of respondents (52 percent) in the Youth Ministry survey said that participating in youth ministry had helped them most in two ways: “Making serious life choices" and “understanding my Catholic faith better." The Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky. and the Diocese of Stockton, Calif. are fine-tuning new programs for young people that emphasize those two learning areas.

The Archdiocese of Louisville is testing a program called “Catholic and Capable,” designed by Mike Carotta, arch-diocesan director of Youth Ministry. The program focuses on developing three areas: religious faith, emotional awareness, and moral living.

“The only reason we do any of this is for the third one, the moral life,” Carotta said. “If all we do is help kids develop religious faith, but we're not impacting their moral life … we end up with a bunch of Pharisees." The clear emphasis of “Catholic and Capable" is on the skills necessary for moral decision-making. The program is “not meant to replace traditional religious education,” Carotta added.

Carotta has based much of his work on what he calls the “huge myth" regarding kids’ self-esteem. He began researching these ideas more than ten years ago, when he was religious education director at Boys Town. He said that American teen-agers—even those who take drugs and those who are troubled—have high self-esteem according to all of the major surveys.

“Current approaches to self-esteem are based on the assumption that if a kid feels good, they will do well. Too often we end up lowering the hoop and offering superficial affirmation that's not based on real accomplishments,” Carotta said. “This approach reverses that assumption. If a kid does well, he or she will feel good. Or, in our case, if a kid learns how to be ‘Catholic and Capable,’ he or she will feel good."

Carrotta added that it is still vital to affirm and support youngsters as they learn to make good decisions. “Parents must be very present, have high expectations, point out their failings and pick them up when they fall,” he said.

The “Prophets of Hope" program in the Stockton diocese has spent the last two years promoting spiritual formation in small communities of Hispanic young adults, ages 16-24. This program is facilitated by the Instituto Fe y Vida (Faith and Life Institute), whose executive director, Carmen Maria Cervantes, calls the program “a new model for ministry."

Cervantes, who also worked on translation and distribution of the Youth Ministry survey, said that the Instituto Fe y Vida has always tried to promote “decision-making with a background in faith."

Each small community rotates leadership roles among its 12-24 members. They are given materials to help plan reflection, prayer and discussion sessions. Each community participates in service projects. They schedule their own weekly meetings around school and work. The flexibility afforded by small groups makes it possible for many participants to stay active in spiritual formation. Cervantes said that one group meets routinely at 2:00 a.m., when many of its members get off the late shift at work.

There are pastoral ministers available to help the group get started, but after that the communities are very independent, Cervantes said. “We offer advisors in their faith journey only when a community is in need and asks for one,” Cervantes said. “All of the people in the small community are responsible for the life of the community." Cervantes attributes the growing success of these communities to the individual responsibility and accountability possible in a small group.

Both the “Prophets of Hope" and “Catholic and Capable" programs try to keep their participants interested and involved in youth ministry through high school, and beyond. In the conclusion of the Youth Ministry study, senior research associate Dr. Brian Froehle stated that the statistics proved “… youth ministry makes a deeper impression on participants the longer they participate."

And Catholic teens are given a leg up.

Molly Mulqueen is based in Colorado Springs, Colo.