Faith Caught and Taught

As young Catholics head back to school, youth ministries are gearing up more than ever.

After experiencing a mostly secular environment at the University of Southern California, Christie Hamers decided to spend her first year after college ministering to high school-age youth. The 21-year-old from Newport Beach, Calif., is one of more than 100 team members being trained for NET (National Evangelization Teams) Ministries, a St. Paul, Minn.-based Catholic youth ministry that sends teams of young adults to parishes and schools across the country. They conduct junior and senior high school retreats and challenge young people to love Christ and embrace the life of the Church.

It’s just one of many youth ministry programs that young Catholics have to choose from as they head back to school.

And, as young people around the world prepare to meet Pope Benedict XVI for World Youth Day in Madrid in a little less than two years from now, the bishops of Spain proposed a patron saint for the event. Blessed Mary Raphael Arnaiz Baron, a Trappist monk who died young, is set to be canonized next month.

“Noticing the challenges that (college) people face made me want to work with high school kids,” Hamers said. “It’s such a transformation. Having a solid sense of your faith and morals provides you with a better foundation for handling the college atmosphere.”

Hamers wants young people to know that their faith is more than something else in their busy schedules.

National Evangelization Teams will conduct more than 1,000 retreats this next year in 80 dioceses. Founder Mark Bercham conceived the idea for the organization while at the University of Minnesota, where he was studying to become a social worker. A lot of energy was spent trying to fix people’s problems, but it made better sense to Bercham to help people before the problems occurred. He wanted to help young Catholics discover their faith, and that was exactly what Pope John Paul II was calling for in the New Evangelization. Since 1981, the ministry has trained more than 2,000 teams that have ministered to 1.6 million young people at 24,000 retreats. But millions more Catholic teens are out there, says Bercham, and his group offers a ripe harvest for workers up to the challenge.

“There are thousands of Catholic young adults who want to do something significant in the Church but don’t know where to look. They want their lives to count, and we’re giving them an opportunity to do that,” he said. “I think our young adult population is the gold mine for the Church — if we would just tap into them and invite them into service.”

‘Hit-and-Run Ministry’

National Evangelization Teams isn’t necessarily an easy ministry, said Father Andrew Cozzens, professor of theology at St. Paul Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. Before he went to seminary, he served on a team in 1991 that reached 9,000 young people from Minnesota to New York. He recalls a grueling but rewarding experience of traveling with a committed faith community in a van for 10 months.

“It’s fun for about the first three weeks; then you have to start loving these people,” said Father Cozzens. “It’s an intense way of life, so a lot of intense growth happens.”

Father Cozzens is still committed to the ministry and attends its annual training sessions to help with teaching and sacramental needs. He says young people today face more cultural and family challenges than his generation did, but more of them have experienced Eucharistic adoration — and that is a significant difference. It’s a “hit-and-run ministry,” he explained, but the most important element of the ministry is giving young people that experience of God’s love in their lives, helping them understand that he is real in the sacraments, in prayer and in others, and that he makes a difference.

“The thing I’m most excited about when I come to Camp Wapo (the ministry’s training camp in Amery, Wis.): Here’s 100 young people who love their Catholic faith enough to give up their life for a year,” he said. “They’re going to get really good formation in their Catholic faith, and they’re going to hear the full truth of the Gospel. That’s going to have a huge impact on them, not to mention the thousands of young people who they’ll minister to throughout the year.”

Destination: Christ

But National Evangelization Teams isn’t the only group ministering to young people. Thousands of teens have been impacted by Teens Encounter Christ (TEC), which started in Battle Creek, Mich., in 1965. It now operates in 50 dioceses and six other countries. The three-day retreat is centered on the paschal mystery: “Die Day” (Good Friday and the sacrament of reconciliation), “Rise Day” (the Resurrection and the Eucharist at Mass) and “Go Day” (Pentecost and the call to go forth as disciples of Christ). The group serves all ages, but specifically targets older teens because that’s when they’re making a lot of decisions about life, and God should be one of those, notes Teens Encounter Christ’s executive director, Ron Reiter.

“The environment of young people has certainly changed, and there’s a great need to place God’s plans before them as soon as possible,” said Reiter. “When they experience that encounter weekend, that produces a clash with the culture they’re living in, as opposed to the culture that God is inviting us to. They’re invited to die to self so that they can enter into new life and go forth and share that with others. It’s an invitation to living a different lifestyle.”

And then there’s Destination Jesus, which bills itself as a “prayer festival to allow young people to find Jesus, welcome him into their lives and build a daily relationship with him.”

Ryan Essington, 22, attended a Destination Jesus retreat while in high school in Fisher, Ind. It sparked an interest in youth ministry, but the pressures of fitting into a culture that is fraught with drugs, alcohol and sexual immorality took a toll on him in college. Essington later realized he wasn’t always acting in line with his faith and came back to the faith. He got involved with National Evangelization Teams, and he enjoys being part of that transitional time in life when young people are discovering who they are and searching for the truth.

“We have the opportunity to share with them the truth of the Gospel,” he said. “It’s challenging at the beginning, but we’re trained on how to approach young people and how to effectively have an encounter with them. We’re a relational ministry. We’re just like them — young people living in this crazy world that teaches us confusing values, yet we’ve experienced a relationship with Jesus Christ. You’d be surprised how accepting they are.”

Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.

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