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Archdiocese’s summer youth programs lead the way to Christ

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It was the boys turn to sing! (CT Photo/Greg Hartman)
Totus Tuus! (CT Photo/Greg Hartman)

By Gail Finke

As a scorching summer burns to a close, thoughts turn from camps and concerts to school, fall sports, and programs organized around the academic year.

     Summer youth programs at parishes, schools, and organizations – many that have long histories, others new and fast-growing – have finished or are drawing to a close. The same is true for youth programs sponsored by the archdiocese, which aim to supplement those programs and help young people develop a deep and life-long faith.

     Part of an archdiocese-wide missionary and evangelization effort, these youth programs combine catechesis (formal teaching) with Mass or other liturgies, music, and a lot of group fun, while also offering young people a chance to continue their formation as Catholics with other group and one-on-one mentoring opportunities.

     Referred to by Pope Francis as “missionary discipleship,” this might seem like a new way to evangelize. But according to the Office of Youth Evangelization and Discipleship’s director, Brad Bursa, it’s the oldest way of all: leading young people to an encounter with Christ, and then helping them become His disciples. 

     “It’s the original model of evangelization,” he said, “not an event, but a relationship.” Building relationships is key to all the the programs, added Matt Reinkemeyer, associate director of missionary outreach. He works with youth ministers and trains young people for the new Via Missionaries program that jumpstarts parish youth ministry by placing teams of missionaries with them for two years. 

     “The culture our youth are immersed in is at worst in opposition to the faith, and at best obscures the beauty and joy of the Gospel,” he said.

    “What we do takes seriously where youth are and counters a culture of isolation with the goodness of community and the joy of the Gospel — which is the source of community.”

     Bursa’s office sponsors a variety of summer events for junior high- and high school-aged teens, as well as year-long events and meetings for youth ministers, that aim to create the same sort of community. The teen events dovetail with another program launched in the archdiocese last year: Totus Tuus, a week-long, parish-based camp for school-aged young people. 

    Overseen by the Office of Evangelization, Totus Tuus is a program that began 30 years ago in Wichita. Developed by a seminarian, it brings seminarians and college student missionaries to parishes to live, work, and teach. They run a camp for elementary school children in the morning, and another for junior high- and high- schoolers in the afternoon. Unlike vacation Bible school, it includes daily Mass and adoration, and is infused with a Marian and eucharistic understanding of the church.

     Managing Director of Discipleship Andrea Patch, a former Totus Tuus missionary, is overseeing the program here. The witness of college students is one key to the program’s success, she said. “To hear someone close to their age talk with excitement and zeal makes an impact on the kids, and when their parents see the joy that comes from an authentic living out of their faith, they want their children to have that.”

    Although the office did little formal promotion, Patch said, Totus Tuus participation skyrocketed this year, doubling from 11 to 22 parishes and from two to four teams of missionaries, and with more registrations per camp. “It was mostly word of mouth,” she said. “We even had a parish from Hawaii call us and offer to pay to fly one of our missionary teams over there.”

     Youth and young adult discipleship programs are organized under a model called Via Catholic. Latin for path or way, “via” sets out a path young people can follow through their early teens to their high school graduation. Summer events include Awake camps for junior high teens and, for high schoolers, Encounter youth evenings, AMP Fest, and the five-day Abide camp. 

This year the summer wrapped up with the office taking more than 600 teens to a Franciscan University of Steubenville youh conference. “We made an orchestrated effort to get as many there as possible there on July 14, because Archbishop Dennis M.Schnurr celebrated Mass that weekend,” Bursa said. “He is our shepherd, and we want to follow our shepherd.”

     The youth events are part of a larger effort to evangelize and form Catholics of all ages in the archdiocese. They are meant to flow into each other. “We have no formal ties to Via,” said Luke Carey, who heads both the Young Adult and Campus Ministry Offices, “but we’re cousins — related, but different.” Other efforts are being developed for youth athletics, parishes, and family life; and a growing Hispanic Ministry Office is working to adapt and create programs for a varied population whose first language is Spanish.

     “Ideally, our programs should create a loop,” said Reinkemeyer. “A teen who has been to Abide invites another teen to Encounter. A graduate from campus ministry becomes a Via Missionary and helps lead to the renewal of family and parish life.”

     “Everything we do is to help and enhance what parishes are doing,” said Father Jan Schmidt, who heads the Department of Pastoral Life and Evangelization, which encompasses the offices designing these programs. “And if a parish has something that’s really working for them, we want to hear about it so we can spread the word.”

Click here for the companion story, “About Via Catholic summer programs.”

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