Youth ministry in the Diocese of Orange brings together young adults to share their faith

By Meg Waters

“We need to make all our institutions better equipped to be more welcoming to young people, since so many have a real sense of being orphaned.  ….communities like a parish or school should offer possibilities for experiencing openness and love, affirmation and growth.” writes Pope Francis in Chapter 7 of his 2019 post-synodal apostolic exhortation: “Christus Vivit” (Christ Lives), following the 2018 Synod on Youth.

However, long before the Synod on Youth, the Diocese of Orange’s strategic plan called for increasing “…parish support for adult faith and young adult learning, service and prayer opportunities. Equip the faithful for evangelization by energizing parish life and engagement.” 

This isn’t your momma’s CCD, where young people sat one night a week in a classroom listening to a catechism lecture. Within the past decade, youth ministry has had a makeover at most parishes in the diocese. 

According to veteran director of Adult and Youth Faith Formation at St. Timothy’s in Laguna Niguel, Matt Zemanek, “The first thing we need to do is make youth programs fun – teens are averse to anything that seems like school.” 

High school youth ministries are often wrapped into preparation for the Sacrament of Confirmation. But it doesn’t stop there. At St. Timothy’s, and many other parishes, youth ministry has taken on a more engaging format. Cole Hauso, director of Youth Ministry at Christ Cathedral Parish echoes the emphasis on fun, and also stresses that young people want religious education to be meaningful. “Teens have a lot of enjoyable experiences in their life, and youth ministry should be that, but we are also hoping that they have a life-changing experience. We want them to encounter God in a new way, make significant friendships and encounter Jesus.” Often, teens are encouraged to bring their friends, even if they are not Catholic. 

Zemanek emphasizes, “We want our youth ministry to be an opportunity for teens to learn about who God is and explore their relationship with Jesus Christ in a friendly and supportive atmosphere.”

One special event that has caught on in many parishes is XLT Exalt!  XLT is a national program that combines prayer, praise and worship with an inspiring message and adoration. The evening typically begins with a free dinner hosted by the parents. There may be a few activities and then a speaker pertinent to issues of concern to teens – such as dealing with anxiety, drugs/alcohol or suicide. Usually the speaker is someone from outside the parish who can speak from experience. The teens then break into small discussion groups. According to Hauso, “This is an ideal way for teens to learn and support each other in a safe environment.” The evening concludes with prayer and Eucharistic adoration. Frequently the entire parish is welcome to attend the adoration and concluding prayers.

For high schoolers these programs are in addition to formal preparation to receive the final sacrament of initiation, Confirmation.  Confirmation preparation also includes retreats and other events to reinforce the importance of this sacrament in their future relationship with Jesus and his Church. The catechism states: “The effect of the sacrament of Confirmation is the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost.” Youth ministry for high school is evolving to be a platform for emerging adults to strengthen their faith as they enter adulthood.

Since middle schoolers are not preparing for sacraments, middle school ministry has traditionally not had much attention, but again, this is changing radically in the Diocese of Orange. At San Francisco Solano Parish in Rancho Santa Margarita, Youth Ministry Coordinator Matt Franklin is equally committed to blending fellowship and fun with meaningful spiritual growth. “We begin with a boisterous team activity such as dodge ball or steal the bacon – it’s high energy and fun, but it also has a higher purpose. These are team games and it gets the kids cheering for and supporting each other. Many of the 6-8th graders are coming to us straight from sports practice or other activity so we begin with a dinner prepared by the parents.”

Once the group has settled in, there are songs and prayer, followed by a key note speaker who gives a talk – no more than 20 minutes. The boys and girls then break into small groups, separated by grade and gender so that they can have an open and honest conversation. “We ask them to bring their toughest questions and also put a lot of emphasis on the lives of the saints so that they have practical examples of ordinary people who faced the same challenges in their lives.”

According to Pope Francis, “Our institutions should provide young people with places they can make their own, where they can come and go freely, feel welcome and readily meet other young people whether at times of difficulty and frustration or of joy and celebration.” In the Diocese of Orange, this papal directive is well underway. 

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