By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
The cycle of life has its parallel in parish life. Babies get baptized, youngsters make their First Communion, teenagers are confirmed and made full members of the Catholic Church, young adults (and not-so-young adults) receive the sacrament of marriage within the church, their children are baptized and hopefully their children’s children are baptized and the cycle continues, ending finally with a Mass of Christian burial. Life in the church is integrated in life at all stages.
Just like life experiences, church experiences come with their share of ups and downs. One of the first hurdles is the little boy who once couldn’t wait to taste the wine at communion and very boldly took a bigger drink from the chalice than either of his parents, now suddenly finds it very “uncool” to attend church with his family. Maybe his peers are telling him how “lame” it is to worship. Maybe he is stepping out on his own spiritually and questioning all the answers that came so quickly when he asked questions during confirmation class. The reasons are as unique as the young people who voice them.
Today, in this diocese, the Youth Ministry program is alive and well. Each year more and more young people participate in special events and programs that have become an annual part of the calendar year for the Office of Youth Ministry. Sister Eileen McCann, CSJ, is the director of the office and her assistant is Dick Vetere, who is based in the Eastern Region of the diocese at The Joseph Center in Rome. Both of these adults are seemingly tireless and are strong and vocal advocates for young Catholics. They often say, “The young people are not the future of the church. They are the church today, now.”
Some of the ways a parish family can help welcome teens at church are very basic, Sister Eileen explained. For instance, when the first confirmation class is scheduled, “Begin with a welcome prior to a class for confirmation. Sit down one-on-one with each of the candidates at some point and tell them, ‘I’m glad you’re here. You are important,’” she said. There are some simple ideas that do not require a committee, a meeting or a budget — when prom season arrives, bless the teens at Mass and tell them to be careful, pray for the youngsters when it’s time for exams at school, mention them in prayer often so that they know their church family cares about them, and include their news in the bulletin, Sister Eileen said. The model for Youth Ministry is a comprehensive one, Sister Eileen said. Her office works very closely with the diocesan Religious Education Office and the Catholic Schools Office so that programs are compatible and there is input from different sources. Sister Eileen is also actively involved in youth ministry on the state and national levels. She is currently the secretary/treasurer on the board of directors for the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry. Before she came to the Syracuse Diocese 10 years ago to work with youth, she held the same role in the Albany Diocese.
“Youth ministry is really any ministry with a teenager,” Sister Eileen said. “Now that we have some parishes working together and sharing programs, that is helping as well.”
Sister Katie Eiffe, CSJ, is director of Religious Education for the diocese and she said that discipleship encompasses everything a person does, not a certain compartment of one’s life. “Faith formation is ongoing and lifelong. For students involved in confirmation and being active afterwards, those students are a witness to that idea,” she said.
After confirmation, young people get on with the busyness of school, work and socializing, and sometimes church or a relationship with God gets put on the back burner. The decision-making that takes place at this point in a person’s life is oftentimes crucial.
Relationship issues, peer influence, values and more are typically tested as a person grows into adulthood. One of the key components for the diocese’s Youth Ministry program has been the CLI, or Christian Leadership Institute. The youngsters who have passed through that program over the last several years have gone on to draw upon their personal spiritual resources to get them through all sorts of situations.
The CLI group from 1999 is unique in that the members have used an online e-mail group to keep in touch. Many of them are in college now and through the Internet, they have prayed each other through everything from academics to relationships. Most of them say their CLI group has become a second family — a place they can turn to for unconditional love and acceptance. CLI consists of an intensive five-day training program made up of skills workshops that deal with leadership styles and skills, communication and planning skills, and group dynamics. There are support groups that offer an environment conducive to growth in faith and awareness which includes decision making, self-discovery and prayer. There is also a spiritual component featuring planned liturgies.
Participants “learn by doing” as they take on a leadership role and plan parts of the CLI. Trained staff from the diocese lead the program. CLI fosters and unlocks the leadership potential of the teenagers, making them aware of their responsibilities in their parishes, schools and communities. The teens should be ages 15 to 18 or have completed ninth grade to take part in the experience.
Many members from the 1999 CLI group are now finishing their first or second year of college; others are in the workforce and a few are getting ready to graduate from high school. Lindsey Sternberg went into the CLI experience that year thinking the five-day program would be “long, boring and uneventful.” Her perception was turned upside by the time she completed CLI. “I ended up having the time of my life. I met so many people that were so different than me, yet so the same. We all had so much fun and learned so much at the same time,” Sternburg said. She said the experience was amazing, and she learned much about herself, God, and how to be a better leader. Her youth group director at St. Mary’s Church in Minoa had told Sternburg that the CLI experience would be good for her and she could bring back what she learned and share it with the parish. Sternburg had just completed both First Communion and confirmation.
From CLI, Sternburg said she learned how to deal with people on a more personal level without acting as if she were trying to “boss them around,” but rather leading them. Patience and leading conversation in groups were two other things Sternburg said she gained from CLI.
Her experience led to spiritual growth as well and she has a message to pass on to high schoolers today. “I have not always been perfect when it comes to being the perfect Catholic. Everyone makes mistakes and everyone has rough times. No matter what happens in your life, just always know that God will always be there for you. Sometimes you feel as though the world has turned its back on you, but that is when God is teaching you the most. He is trying to teach you patience, love, compassion, the feeling of pain/rejection, understanding of one another and many other things. That is what’s going to make you stronger,” Sternberg said. “So, never give up on your faith in God because he is always there.”
Sister Eileen explained that the young people who go through CLI begin to realize they do have some skills and are a part of the church.
“They realize they do have the skills to make a difference,” Sister Eileen said. “You get 25 or 30 of these kids together from different parishes and they begin to realize that they are not alone, that there are other kids who share their beliefs and have a passion for their church.”
St. Augustine’s Church in Baldwinsville sent Vanessa Blum to the CLI program in 1999. She says now that it was the best thing that ever happened to her.
“I started getting involved in my church more back home and adults started to see me as a leader. I have more self-confidence now and I have friendships that will last forever,” Blum said. “Also, I have two adults that will always be there for me if I ever need them, Dick [Vetere] and Sister Eileen.” Blum is one of the members who has managed to stay connected with the group. She said they talk often still by the group e-mail account.
“We don’t talk about parties and things like that. We talk about our life and any hard times we are going through. We all pray for each other in times of need. It’s great. CLI ‘99 is my second family. I love them all,” Blum said.
Blum just completed her freshman year at SUNY Oswego where she is part of the retreat team at the Newman Center. She said she is still using what she learned at CLI.
“Every day I have to think about how I want to live my life and God plays a big role in that thinking,” Blum said.
The 1999 CLI group is having a reunion the weekend of May 31-June 1. Their reunion will find them back at The Joseph Center to help out with the first-ever Catholic Faire on June 1. The Eastern Region religious educators, the Catholic schools, The Good News Foundation, Catholic Charities, the diocesan Office of Youth Ministry and The Joseph Center are combining efforts to bring families together that day to visit The Joseph Center, 808 Cypress St., in Rome, and to provide information about everything from Camp Nazareth to St. Elizabeth Medical Center. There will be refreshments, storytelling, musical entertainment and more. Bishop James Moynihan will be there to dedicate The Joseph Center at 2:30 p.m. Also to be dedicated that day, Vetere explained, is Joseph’s Garden. The garden is a way for the center to recognize the nearly 75 Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet who lived at The Joseph Center when it was a convent. For 32 years the sisters lived there while they worked at area schools and various other ministries. Vetere has invited all the sisters to come back for the dedication. He worked closely with Sister Elisabeth Colby, CSJ, in coordinating the dedication.
“The name of the garden is really a testament to the humility of the sisters,” Vetere said. “We had considered calling it The Sisters’ Garden, but Sister Elisabeth suggested Joseph’s Garden. We have purchased a new statue of St. Joseph for the garden. The sisters will have a table at the faire with information about vocations.”
This year’s CLI program is planned for June 24-28 at The Joseph Center. Sister Eileen said that registration is limited to 30 youth and she encourages parishes to take advantage of the program. Anyone interested in finding out more about CLI, may contact the Office of Youth Ministry at (315) 470-1419, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Prayer for Youth
We offer to you, loving God, the gifts and needs of youth. Bless them with your guiding grace as they face the challenges and opportunities in their lives Touch their hearts with the gentleness of your love, that they may know they are valued and valuable beings. Send your spirit of hope to their lives, that they may believe in themselves and know they are needed in this world. Grace them with the gift of joy That they may celebrate life through laughter and tears alike. Guide us, as we continue to grow in our appreciation of the many gifts of young people, in the ministry opportunities we offer to them, in the journey of faith we walk with them, in our shared mission as a community called to discipleship in the world.
We ask this in Jesus’ name.