The Catholic Church in the United States and within our own archdiocese was slow in addressing the particular religious/spiritual needs of adolescents. This stands in contrast to the long term practices within the Protestant churches of the U.S. They have traditionally had very strong youth oriented programs, both within their congregations but also within high schools and colleges. Young Life is one of the more well-known programs that has been around for decades. As a young person growing up in the fifties and sixties, the best effort made by my parish of Saint Agnes fell under the rubric of C.C.D.—Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. It was simply Saturday and summertime classes devoted to having students learn about Catholic doctrine; and at least in my memory, the various types of sin I could fall into if I wasn’t careful.
Thankfully things have changed since Vatican II, however slowly. I was one of 7 or 8 youth ministers in the Archdiocese of Chicago during the late seventies. It was a small intimate group that worked primarily in suburban parishes—St. James in Arlington Heights; Faith, Hope and Charity in Winnetka; St. Mary in Lake Forest (my position); Immaculate Conception in Highland Park; St. Raymond’s in Mount Prospect; St. Francis de Sales in Lake Zurich. It was an exciting time and many of us were tutored or learned the finer points about youth ministry from our neighboring Protestant youth pastors. One of the great Catholic gurus within our Catholic tradition was Michael Warren who was on the road around the country offering workshops on what youth ministry was to look like in Catholic parishes. Out of that period came the document “A Vision of Youth Ministry” that identified the pillars of successful youth ministry programs. The most critical element of the most successful youth ministry programs comes down to one word: relationships.
Everything else in youth ministry programs pivots around the ability of a youth minister or youth pastor (the preferred term in Protestant circles) to create relationships with parents and students, which then become the avenue by which they move toward the ultimate goal of a relationship with Jesus Christ. Great care must be taken in this endeavor to not turn the youth minister into a cult figure upon which the program rises or falls on his/her charisma. Saint Anne has been blessed with a solid youth ministry program over the years. Prior to my advent 8 years ago, the former youth minister, Ellen Nelson, was here for 15 years. The entire parish has been highly supportive of Saint Anne’s long history of youth ministry. Adult volunteers have made it into a vibrant program by their sacrificial support.
I inherited almost all the current programs from Ellen—Kairos, Spiritus, Summer Service, Night Ministry. I did create the current Confirmation program that I gave the name Paths to—People Arising Together Hoping Sharing—a name that I hoped would enshrine the value of the key word of ministry—relationships. My favorite ministry amongst the many offerings at Saint Anne is the Kairos Retreat that is offered to juniors and seniors. It is offered around the country and is based upon the adult Cursillo Retreat created after WWII. In the spirit of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the retreat, over the course of 4 days actual helps students to experience God’s grace in a tangible way. Most students come away from the retreat saying that they experienced God’s love in a most profound way. For many they reevaluated their relationship to the church, often returning to attending Mass on their own initiative, even without parents accompanying them.
Night Ministry and Summer Service cover another dimension of The Vision of Youth Ministry—doing justice and service. Eight to ten times a year 7 students and 2 adults drive to the south east side of Chicago to serve indigent residents hot soup and sandwiches, made by Saint Anne families. Students who do this give up 5 to 6 hours of their day at the end of a long school day to serve these residents, many of them homeless with children. Summer Service entails a 12 hour drive to southern West Virginia to assist residents there in rehabbing their homes and properties, as well as learning about the poverty unique to this region of the country. Many students call it a “7 day Kairos retreat” given both all the time with each other, the work they do side by side and the extensive reflection time done each day.
The Paths program incorporates both small home groups as well as large group presentations hosted in the Parish Center gym 4 to 5 times a year. Matthew Kelly’s program, Decision Point is the core study guide, but also other materials are used as well, with special emphasis upon the lives of the saints. If upon confirmation, the final sacrament of initiation, a student is to follow Jesus; no better way to learn that way is to look at the lives of the saints. The Spiritus retreat is a one day retreat hosted at the Jesuit Retreat House here in Barrington for second year candidates just prior to their confirmation. It is led by juniors and seniors and is quite similar to the Kairos format.
In summary, Saint Anne Youth Ministry continues to follow the best practices developed over the years in the Catholic Church and identified in The Vision of Youth Ministry. Many students do, upon Confirmation, become Eucharistic ministers, lectors or get involved with the choir. The hope is that as students graduating from their respective high schools, that they will do so with a positive connection to their home parish. In time, the hope is that as they progress up the ladder of adulthood, they can carry within them a vibrant experience of faith and affection for the Catholic Church that enriched them while in high school.