Cool to be Catholic

March 10 – March16
VOL 124 NO. 9
Cool to be Catholic
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Whether playing BINGO with nursing home residents, working at Catholic Worker Farms, or cleaning up litter on roadways and parks, Catholic youth are making themselves more visible and available for social work than ever before. Their involvement extends well beyond required Confirmation service projects and has become a year-round endeavor. Where once the goal was to score tickets to an upcoming pop rock concert, now more and more youth are raising money to attend World Youth Days or Christian conferences, retreats and rallies. In short, it is now cool to be Catholic.

Sister Lynn Abdelnour, CSJ, works with the East Utica Youth Ministry, which represents the seven Catholic parishes in East Utica. The program is in its first year and Sister Lynn has seen an increase in the number of youth who attend. “It’s growing every week,” she said. “The kids find out about it through announcements in the church bulletin or by friends telling friends. It’s important for our teenagers to know that they are greatly needed in the Catholic Church. The priests in East Utica are committed to letting them know there is a spot for them –– that they are wanted in the church.”

Youth ministry in East Utica began as a way for local teens to get together in support of one another while at the same time perform services for those in need. “This summer, our youth group will act as the welcoming and hospitality committee for 400 teenagers coming to East Utica to renovate homes for the elderly. They will also paint, clean and do chores at Emmaus House –- a shelter for abused women.

Through a $10,000 grant awarded by the Community Foundation of Oneida and Herkimer Counties, the teens will soon have a new drop-in center located in the basement of Blessed Sacrament Church. The drop-in center will provide teens who share the same values a safe place to gather and use the resources available. The center will be equipped with computers, a large screen television with cable access and comfortable furniture. “In East Utica there aren’t a lot of resources available to many of these kids,” said Sister Lynn. “They don’t go home to computers or video games or cable television. They rely heavily on other resources in the community such as the public or school library.”

Sister Lynn said the center would also provide the increasing number of refugees in the area a place for spiritual growth and socialization. “East Utica kids have a special heart for each other,” she said. “They share a common denominator in that there are a lot of refugees. Twenty-nine different languages are spoken at Proctor High School. These kids reach out and make everyone feel welcome.”

Celia Bogan, a 12th grade student at Herkimer High School and a parishioner of St. Francis de Sales, said that Sister Lynn recruited her to join the youth group. “It sounded fun,” she said. “I knew we would be involved in the community but I didn’t know how.” Celia was pleasantly surprised at how many different service projects the teens came up with. Her favorite ministry project is visiting with the residents at Loretto Nursing Home. “It’s fun to talk to the residents and listen to their stories. And it’s rewarding making a difference in someone’s life.”

Kimberly Davis, an 11th grader at Proctor High School is also a parishioner at St. Francis de Sales Church. She finds the service projects the most rewarding part of the youth group. “Ever since the youth group started, Sister Lynn would call me and ask me to help out and to participate in different activities going on. I thought it would be more about hanging out,” she said. Visiting the nursing home is her favorite activity.

“I got to know the residents. They have a smile on their faces when we come. My grandma’s here. I hadn’t seen her in a while. It was good to visit with her and talk to her. I helped her play BINGO.”

Elise Caroompas, a parishioner at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Endicott, spends several hours each month volunteering at a soup kitchen. She and dozens of other first-year Confirmation candidates are members of the newly formed Justice Walking (J-Walking) Program at Our Lady of Good Counsel. J-Walking, a spin off of JustFaith, is a Catholic Charities Program designed to empower and expand parish and church commitment to social justice ministry. J-Walking was created to bring adults and teens into a covenant community in order to practice living the Gospel message through hands-on community involvement and Catholic social teaching.

Elise is happy to be involved in community service projects and said that being hands-on is more fun than sitting in a classroom. Working at the soup kitchen has taught Elise that she has a lot to be grateful for. She was most surprised that there are so many people in the world who are poor. “We take our lives for granted,” said Elise. “I didn’t realize how much people suffer. The experience has taught me not to be so greedy. I try to be better at saving things and taking smaller portions of food so that I don’t waste. It’s amazing to me that these people don’t get food until they come to the soup kitchen. I’m so grateful for what I have.”

“The program also teaches you to give your time instead of just giving money to help other people,” said Katie McKissick, a 9th grader and also a parishioner of Our Lady of Good Counsel. “The people we help need attention. They want someone to listen to them and care.” Katie said that her first reaction to the soup kitchen experience was “wow” –– because it’s right in her community and she never realized that people so close to where she lived have nothing while others have so much.

“It makes you feel good to be helping, but at the same time, it makes you sad,” said Katie. “You think nothing of having meals to eat every day, yet they are waiting for Wednesdays to come.”

From soup kitchens to the Souper Bowl of Caring, the newly-formed youth group at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Liverpool raised $770 on Super Bowl Sunday in support of Jail Ministry. Souper Bowl Sunday is a national Catholic Charities Program that encourages parishioners to give one dollar each on their way out of Mass on Super Bowl Sunday. Every penny collected is donated to a soup kitchen, food bank or other charity. During all Masses on the weekend of Feb. 5 and 6, the teens at Immaculate Heart of Mary not only collected funds but also learned a valuable lesson about marginalized individuals in prison.

“The youth group became independent of the religious education program at Immaculate Heart,” explained facilitator Deacon John Woloszyn. “The program is unusual in that we let the kids come together and form their own Christian community. Everything they do should flow out of Christian fellowship. We offer them a safe place to form that community.” The teens were allowed to decide which types of ministry work they wanted to participate in and are currently organizing a Pentecost celebration scheduled for May 15. The mega workshop will feature the Life Teen Praise and Worship Band from St. John the Baptist Parish in Rome as well as Mass, teaching, testimonies and Eucharistic adoration.

Tenth-grader Teresa Woloszyn has been active at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish for three years. When Curt Andino, director of the Jail Ministry Program in Syracuse, spoke to the teens about what it was like living in jail, they were eager to help. “Curt told us that even a little bit of money can make a difference,” said Teresa. “It can change someone’s life. He told us the story of a girl who was getting out of jail and needed to leave Syracuse. She had someone in North Carolina who would give her a place to stay and help her get situated. The jail ministry program bought her a bus ticket and some clothing. They gave her a chance to start over.”

“Curt taught us that not all people in jail are bad people,” added 11th grader Megan Kirsch. “They do bad things. They trip over themselves in life. They get in their own way and just need a little help.”

Deacon Woloszyn said that the group’s participation in the jail ministry program is just one way to get the students involved while giving them a larger perspective on why it’s cool to be Catholic. “There are a lot of youth groups in the diocese that are networking. A lot of these teens have been to the youth conference in Steubenville, Ohio. The kids who have had the Steubenville experience are fired up. They open themselves up to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and allow Him to touch them in a very personal way.”

Megan said that she wants to attend the Steubenville conference so badly this summer that she’s made a deal with her parents. “I have to keep my grades up, get up on time and be more responsible,” she said. “Steubenville is a good motivator. My mom yells up the stairs at me in the morning and says, ‘get down here or you’re not going to Steubenville.’ Five seconds later, I’m down the stairs and at the table.”

Students at Immaculate Conception Parish in Fulton are not waiting until Steubenville to get fired up. Saturday, March 5 will bring dozens of teens from all the Catholic churches in Oswego County together for a Teen Bash. Heidi Buda, director of Religious Education at Immaculate Conception, said that more than 35 teens have pre-registered and she expects more to register the day of the event. “We are all very excited because almost every priest in Oswego County has agreed to participate,” said Buda. “We’ve [participating parishes] been scheduling this Teen Bash for six years and we’ve never had so many priests attend.”

The day will begin with a welcome and ice-breaker activities followed by Mass at St. Paul’s Church in Oswego. After Mass, the teens will enjoy a pizza supper and musical entertainment by a Christian youth band. Father John Donovan, of the Office of Vocation Promotion for the Syracuse Diocese, will present a workshop on vocations. The teens will then participate in a variety of skits before other Christian and secular musical groups perform.

“Father Stephen Wirkes, pastor of Immaculate Conception, will get the kids out on the floor for dancing and games,” said Buda. “The event is a combination of entertainment and spiritual experiences. The teens get to see the priests on a personal level, which helps them realize priests are real people.”

Buda said that she has seen a significant increase in the number of students who are becoming involved in social issues. “They are starting to look around them. We tell them there are many people out there who are poor. I also tell them they need to take care of the environment in which they live. They ask what they should do and then go do it. They are eager to do something about social justice issues –– whether it be working at the soup kitchen or environmental issues. God gave us this world to take care of. We have a duty to the earth and the people around us,” she said.

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