Embracing Jesus and His church

Nov. 3-9, 2005
Embracing Jesus and His church
By David Vaughn/ SUN contributing writer
NET Returns to the Syracuse Diocese to Share Christ Through Drama, Talk, Personal Testimony In the gospels, Jesus commissions 72 disciples to go into the world, to share the Good News, to dwell in homes and eat meals provided for them. In similar fashion, National Evangelization Team (NET) members go forth to evangelize America’s Youth, to live in unfamiliar settings and sacrifice personal privileges for the good of many.

NET’s mission is “to challenge young Catholics to love Christ and embrace the life of the Church.” NET teams are typically composed of eight to 12 college-aged men and women who volunteer one or two years of their lives to travel the country participating in youth retreats. One of their stops for 2005-2006 will be a three-week sojourn to the Syracuse Diocese from Nov. 10 through Dec. 1.

NET began in St. Paul, Minn., in 1981 as a local and regional retreat ministry, but due to the vast success of the ministry quickly expanded nationwide and to Canada and Australia. One NET publication describes the retreats as “high energy experiences using large group presentations, small group discussion, music, drama, personal faith sharing, one-on-one prayer and the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist.”

NET retreats have themes which address issues faced by today’s youth such as self-identity in “Who Are You,” faith questions in “Why Faith,” the importance of a personal relationships with Christ in “Cling to Christ” and how to build faith in “Firm Foundation,” along with a general Confirmation retreat. Each thematic retreat can be modified and personalized to accommodate a given grade level. Day retreats run four to six hours for both middle school and high school youths, while overnight retreats are restricted to the latter. On average 60 to 80 youths attend a retreat with a maximum of 150 participants. NET reports in 2004-2005 that eight teams and served 60,760 youths. Most NET members claim that the great enthusiasm and passion they exude for God transcends challenging circumstances.

“Only through God’s grace am I going to do this ministry,” said Jonathan Foster, 22, from Baytown Texas., first-year team leader for Team 5, which is coming to the Syracuse diocese. “[I] asked God for guidance and patience in running retreats, meeting with parish contact people and living with other team members,” Foster added. Through his first few weeks on the road for 2005 (since Sept.), Foster said he is learning more and more “to depend on God.”

Traveling with Team 5, Kathy Webb, 23, of Lexington, Ky., also a first-time team leader, speaks of being “stretched” with the travel and whirlwind schedule, yet simultaneously feeling overwhelmed with God’s graces. “Grace is literally being poured into you,” Webb said. “God provided grace to make you strong in weakness.” “Breaking down walls for kids” coming into retreats “with barriers,” Foster believed was key to reaching many youth today. Often, he said, youth anticipate a retreat will be “boring.” The opening session of any NET retreat features skits, humor and light-hearted drama. A 25-minute talk follows in which the retreat themes are elaborated on and scripture verses are cleverly intertwined within humorous and thought-provoking, real-life anecdotes that speak directly to youth. Team members then give their own testimony about how God has operated in their lives.

Father Robert Ours, a theology teacher at Seton Catholic Central Junior/Senior High School in Binghamton, said the youths were at times “mesmerized” by NET. NET has done retreats at Seton Catholic for the last four years.

Small group discussion is another component of retreats. As the youths broke off into small groups of six to eight participants, NET team members facilitate discussion. These small groups, Foster said, allow the youths to “share personal reflections” about faith issues and discover others struggle just like they do. A prayer ministry session or, as Foster put it, “a chance for you to listen to God,” winds down the retreat. Prayer, a serious drama or a personal testimony precede the prayer ministry session. Foster believes youth often appreciate this time to pray, which could include reconciliation or be followed by Mass. Joe Tiesi from St. Catherine’s Parish in Binghamton, while chaperoning a recent NET retreat, believed that he “in a real sense, felt the Holy Spirit’s presence” during these prayer times.

A 10-minute talk entitled the “Go Forth Talk” provides youth with thoughts to bring home with them, according to Foster. During his time with youth, Foster said he most sought to help teens build peer relationships. “If they connect with a peer, they can build friendships and fellowship. I try to help them form friendships and Christian bonds,” Foster said.

Whether through prayer, talks, dramas or discussion, Father Ours believes “lives will be forever different because of how they [NET team members] spend this year of their life sharing the message of the Lord with young people.”

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