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Teens Follow in the Footsteps of Saints

How holy lives inspire today’s young people. Aug. 28 print issue feature.

BY EDDIE O'NEILL

| Posted 8/25/11 at 9:45 AM

Melissa Hartog photo illustration
 

Do the lives of the Church’s saints still make an impression on teens?

According to Eddie Cotter Jr., founder of the Dead Theologian Society, the answer is an emphatic “Yes.”

“I believe that young people are interested in the lives of the saints now more than ever. Partly because most are so unfamiliar to them, and it’s an entirely new discovery. It is literally like they have just discovered a gold mine,” says Cotter.

Cotter should know. Since 1997, he has witnessed thousands of high-school lives changed through the Dead Theologian Society’s (DTS) program. At the heart of this parish-based youth ministry is a mission to inspire the youth of today to become the saints of tomorrow.

“Our young people love the fact that the saints are real and that they can develop a true relationship with them,” Cotter adds. “They respond with great enthusiasm and great faith. Many young people of DTS have been and are following in the footsteps of the saints in their behavior and their commitment to Christ and their Catholic faith.”

He says that the preparation for confirmation is often a time when young people are introduced to the saints. That was the case for 18-year-old Michael Rodriguez, a member of St. Joseph’s Parish in Conway, Ark.

“I was really drawn to St. Michael the Archangel. I felt this strong connection as I learned about him. I feel he leads me through this spiritual battle that we are still in today,” Rodriguez says.

Christian Schwenka, also 18, from Heartwell, Neb., says he feels more connected to the saints of our day than the holy heroes of ages past: “Nowadays we have people like Blessed Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, who I see very relevant to our current times, and they are real people I can relate to.”

As the Catechism states, “Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness. …  They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus” (956).

One young saint who can teach youth Christian virtue is Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, who died at age 24 in 1925, before receiving his college degree. On the 100th anniversary of his birthday, April 6, 2001, the Royal Polytechnic Institute of Turin, Italy, posthumously granted him a degree in mining engineering.

Pope John Paul II told youth before World Youth Day in 2001, “Mary, the young Virgin of Nazareth who said ‘Yes’ to God and gave Christ to humanity, stands beside each of you. May you be helped by your many peers, whose total fidelity to the Gospel has been recognized by the Church and who have been held up as examples to follow and intercessors to call upon. Among these I would like to mention Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. … Get to know him! The life of this ‘normal’ young man shows that we can be holy by living our friendships, studies, sports and service to the poor in a constant relationship with God.”

In his book 39 New Saints You Should Know (Servant Books, 2010), author Brian O’Neel highlights a number of these newly proclaimed saints and blessed. Among them are a handful of young people who were blessed with the gift of knowing that true happiness lies solely in a relationship with God.

One story is about Blessed Franz Jagerstatter. He was a young man from Austria who resisted the Nazis in World War II and lost his life because of it. O’Neel describes him as a “tough guy” when he was a teenager.

“He rode the only motorcycle in town, drank a lot and fought a lot. He was certainly much more interested in hanging out with his boys than praying,” says O’Neel.

He took that tough-guy image with him to a job working in an ore mine. As he was surrounded by co-workers who belittled the Church, he found himself standing up for her. But he quickly realized that he didn’t know what he was talking about. So he studied to know his faith better. Around this time, he met his future wife, whose first question to him was not “What do you do?” or “Where are you from?” but, rather, “Do you attend Mass?”

They married and honeymooned in Rome. Franz’s wife urged him to go deeper in his faith, which O’Neel says he embraced. “He was trying to become more holy and prayerful; she already was,” he explains. p>

According to O’Neel, there is a common theme that runs through the lives of a number of declared saints. He says that, in many cases, Catholic identity was instilled during their formative years.

“The families of these saints prayed the Rosary, read Scripture and were part of the parish,” says O’Neel. “They were raised to not think that their Christianity was a Sunday-only phenomenon. They were taught to live their faith in the world.”

As a popular speaker on the Catholic youth-conference circuit, Mary Bielski has found that it is important to present saints to teens as part of our rich faith family.

“We should be talking about the saints in our schools and in our homes. These are the tales of everyday heroes and martyrs who did amazing things in small towns and large cities all over the world,” says Bielski. “The saints weren’t great for what they did, but rather for what they allowed to God to do through them.”

She adds, “The saints are these family members who have passed on. They aren’t just names in our family tree, but real people who reveal our own legacy to us. Saints make me know that I am not alone. This is huge for me and huge for teens.”

Register correspondent Eddie O’Neill writes from Green Bay, Wisconsin.