NET Ministries Honored for Making Lifelong Missionary Disciples of Jesus

Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, gave its highest non-academic award to the apostolate, which has ministered to 2 million young Catholics over four decades.

NET Ministries has been evangelizing young people for almost 40 years.
NET Ministries has been evangelizing young people for almost 40 years. (photo: Courtesy of NET)

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — In the middle of his most difficult retreat, a young 22-year-old missionary had his most grace-filled conversation. The high schoolers had been a tough crowd for Andrew on that 1991 retreat in Morehead, Minnesota, but one of them in the small group opened up and confessed a haunting secret.

The teen’s girlfriend was pregnant — and he had asked her to get an abortion.

“I prayed with him, he wept and realized he couldn’t go through with it and had to do the right thing,” Andrew, now Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, told the Register. Bishop Cozzens’ year on a National Evangelization Team (NET) run by NET Ministries from 1991 to 1992 would be a life-changing event — not just for him, but hundreds of other youth that experienced the NET team’s witness that year. 

“It was living and evangelizing as missionary disciples,” he said of that mission, saying it put him on the path of discipleship that would lead him to priesthood. “You got to be in places where you saw some people whose lives were transformed.” 

Since NET Ministries’ founding in 1981, its NET Teams made up of young adults 18 to 28 years old have logged more than 34,000 retreats and ministered to 2 million young Catholics. 

On Sept. 15, Franciscan University of Steubenville honored the evangelizing organization with the Poverello Medal, the university’s highest non-academic award.

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Father David Pivonka, president of Franciscan University at Steubenville and former NET missionary, confers the Poverello Medal on NET Ministries, which was received by founder Mark Berchem.(Photo: Courtesy of Franciscan University at Steubenville)

“Thanks to NET, teenagers who may have never otherwise had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ have come to embrace him as their Savior and make the Catholic Church their spiritual home,” read part of the citation for the award, according to a news release. “Amid a culture that often rejects Christian principles, they are emboldened and empowered to live their faith.” 

NET Ministries’ greatest contribution may be the thousands of Catholics who went on a NET year over the past 39 years and have continued to enrich countless Catholics by their ongoing witness of Christian discipleship.

Bishop Cozzens himself credited his own sister’s “witness of living faith” for his decision to spend a year as a NET missionary after graduating college. He strongly recommends Catholics make such work a normal part of life, “where every Catholic young person spends [time in] a missionary year or two.”

“You get formed in a missionary mindset with your faith, and it has a big impact on the rest of your life,” he said. 


Apostolate Origins

In January 1980, Mark Berchem and his team had finished 16 retreats for high-school youth in 21 days for the Winona Diocese in Minnesota. Berchem, founder and president of NET Ministries, told the Register that at the time, they had not set out to start anything new. They were just young adults who had an “awakening” in their Catholic faith and “just wanted to share the Gospel with young people.” 

“When we came back, we got a call from Winona: ‘That went really well. Can you do it again next year?’” he recalled.

Then the bishop of the Diocese of Sioux Falls called and told him, “I heard what you did in Winona. Can you come do that in Sioux Falls?” 

Then he got a call from a priest in the Diocese of Fargo, North Dakota. 

And the calls kept coming in.

“At that moment, we began to realize that we were doing something that’s needed,” he said. “People were looking for ways to have Catholic young adults who are faith-filled and excited about their faith talk to other young Catholics.”

Every year, NET Ministries commissions 16 teams of young Catholics to spend approximately nine months serving with the NET Teams. Five teams work directly with parishes’ and schools’ youth ministries, and the other 11 focus on giving six-day retreats for junior-high and high-school-age youth.

Each NET team has approximately 10 members, who are prepared over a five-week training period to grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ, proclaim the Gospel of Christ through their own personal witness of faith and invite young people to live in and follow Jesus Christ. The NET members develop the study and practice of their Catholic faith and are given practical ministry skills needed for evangelization. NET missionaries go through extensive background checks and safe-environment protocols.

“We firmly believe — and Paul VI talks about this in Evangelii Nuntiandi — that the most effective way to pass on the Gospel message is for one person to share with another person their own personal experience of salvation in Jesus Christ,” Berchem said. NET missionaries share that message with their own personal testimony of life in Jesus, Gospel-based dramas, small-group discussion “and letting young people wrestle with the content of faith.”

Most NET missionaries commit to one year — and approximately a quarter return to do a second year before concluding their time with NET.

“It’s pretty exhausting,” Berchem said, adding, “People tell me that was the best year of my life and the hardest year of my life.”


A 9/11 Call

A self-described “Church geek” with a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, Casey Jones had gone back and forth about seminary. He learned about NET from watching EWTN (the parent company of the Register) and asked a priest about it. The priest told him, “Casey, if you do NET, you can do anything.” 

“I came to NET as a disciple, for sure,” now-Father Jones told the Register. “But NET really deepened that relationship.” 

That year the world changed forever: The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, unfolded as he and his other team members were training at NET Ministries’ Camp Wapo.

Fellow missionaries took turns huddled around a pay phone to contact relatives in New York and New Jersey to make sure they were alive. Then Jones saw the impact of 9/11 on the young people his team met on their coast-to-coast missionary effort, which included visiting Ground Zero twice. 

“I think it is similar to right now: People were hungry for ministry and having their questions about God answered,” he said. “People were hungry to increase their faith at a difficult time for the nation, and as a priest I see the same phenomenon happening right now.” 

Father Jones, who serves as parochial vicar at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in the Diocese of Venice, Florida, said NET prepared him for priestly ministry — in some ways far more deeply than seminary did — by firmly rooting his priesthood in discipleship where his identity was always being “a Son of God before I’m anything else.”

“NET’s primary mission is in the formation of its missionaries,” he said. “The first thing they wanted to do was make disciples … and they don’t assume you’re a disciple when you come to NET.” 

He said the human and spiritual formation of NET really teaches a person how to “love authentically” and how one collaborates with and loves “the people you’re working with and those you’re ministering to.”

“NET encourages you to be who you are in Christ,” Father Jones said.

Pivotal Experience

Over the course of its nearly four decades, NET Ministries has seen among its graduates two bishops, 77 priests, 40 religious and hundreds of laypeople continue in their discipleship in youth ministry, teaching, catechesis and other walks of life, leading others to Christ. 

Franciscan Father David Pivonka, president of Franciscan University, told the Register that NET was one of the “pivotal experiences of my life.” 

Working as a young-adult missionary in the mid-1980s, supported by people who were there with the same purpose, he explained, “just had a huge impact on me.” 

“When you’re with other young people with the same love of the Lord and same desire to serve the Church, it produces vocation,” he said. “It was on NET that I became sure this is what I wanted to do.”

Father Pivonka’s year with NET introduced him to Franciscan University at Steubenville, which then brought him to his vocation as a Franciscan friar. 

He told the Register that the Church is struggling in many ways today, but in the midst of COVID pandemic he wanted to put a light on the fact that more than 130 young adults “with their creativity and ingenuity” were still stepping forward to follow the call of discipleship and invite others to follow Jesus.

For Berchem, the Poverello Medal is just a reminder to Catholics that even during the pandemic, “there are courageous missionaries who want to serve in spite of the unknown.” 

Berchem said ultimately NET intends to help Catholics discover what it means to “become a mature follower of Jesus Christ,” and that mission is not a job unique for a priest, religious or even NET member, but flows from that universal call of Christ to discipleship.

“The reality is mission is for everybody,” Berchem said. “And everybody can do something.”