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 as well.

Berchem spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake from his office in St. Paul.

How did NET Ministries get started?

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 service.

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 retreats?

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 well.

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.

What makes the NET teams’ witness so effective?

For 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.

There are other programs that have grown out of NET Ministries. Can you describe them?

One 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.

LifeLine 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.

Discipleship 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.

The 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.

The most 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?

Obviously, 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.

At 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.

Tim Drake writes from

St. Joseph, Minnesota.