Omaha, Neb., Jan 30, 2011 (CNA) - What would bring teenagers to church other than Sunday Mass?
For many, it's the parish youth group, where young people learn about their faith, do service work, participate in discussions and build relationships with one another.
The groups are an important way to reach young people and keep them connected with their parishes at a time when they might become busy with school-related activities and drop away, said Rita Ramos, youth ministry coordinator for the archdiocese.
Although open to junior high and high school students, a majority of youth group participants seem to be from public schools rather than Catholic schools, local youth ministers said.
One reason could be that Catholic school students have faith formation throughout the day at school and they don't look for more at their parishes, said Nicole Cook, youth minister at St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion, Neb.
Cook could be right, said Allison Rickers, a senior at Mercy High School in Omaha who is involved in the youth group at Sacred Heart Parish in Omaha. In addition, Rickers said, students in public schools might have limited opportunities to express their religious beliefs.
Catholic schools offer Mass and teachers pray with students and address issues from a Catholic perspective.
Public school officials, on the other hand, cannot lead students in prayer or other religious activities.
"By attending youth group, they are getting some faith in their lives," she said of students from public schools. "Catholic school students talk about their faith on a daily basis in classes that are required so they may think they get enough faith talk during the day. Personally, I love having the extra faith talk with my youth group friends because it's way different than my peers at Mercy High School."
Whatever school they come from, the teens need to be met where they are in their faith, and youth ministers need to connect them to Jesus Christ so they can make better decisions, said Marty Kalkowski, youth minister at Omaha's Sacred Heart. There does not appear to be any conflict between Catholic and public school students in the groups, but they do learn from each other about differences in school cultures and different ways to live their faith, he said.
Virgil Tworek-Hofstetter, youth minister at St. Isidore Parish in Columbus since 1997, said he appreciates the way many Catholic school students are taught theology in school, because they can bring that background to the group when issues are discussed.
"For that reason I really value the Catholic school-educated kids in the group," he said. "They're systematically taught theology, but that doesn't make them better people necessarily or better Catholics or even better in the faith."
Kalkowski said Sacred Heart's youth group is built around weekly gatherings that include pizza, prayer, discussion and reflection on topics such as forgiveness, relationships and popularity. Sometimes a speaker addresses the 10 teenagers in the group, and on holy days the teens attend Mass together. Once a month, the group does service work at the parish's Heart Ministry Center.
"It's a chance to do a regular service activity and to reflect on larger questions of life and talk about real things," Kalkowski said.
At St. Columbkille, Cook meets weekly with 20 to 35 teens, and encourages them to build relationships with each other and other parishioners.
"It allows kids to know what's going on in the parish and what things they could get involved in now or later down the road," she said. "It also educates them in the faith and provides a safe space where teens can feel OK to be excited about their faith."
Youth group activities vary from week to week at St. Columbkille but revolve around three activities: the Dead Theologian Society, which teaches teens about the lives of the saints, small group faith sharing based on grade level, and general catechesis on topics sometimes involving parish experts.
"Kids need to know how and why the Catholic Church is different from other religions and why their faith is important," Cook said. "They need to take pride in their faith and in their religion."
Nourishing faith life
Tworek-Hofstetter said his goal is to nourish the teens' "faith life and community life so that when they go into the week, they have the spiritual stamina to keep them connected with the church and keep them connected with Catholic practices."
Each week, teens at St. Isidore meet for praise and worship music, an ice breaker activity and some sort of Scripture study. Occasionally a speaker will come, students will participate in the sacrament of reconciliation or they'll visit a nursing home. Twice a year, members travel to Omaha for service work. They also participate in summer mission trips through Youth Work and Young Neighbors in Action.
"We've had a number of individuals, who having had that experience, have rethought about what they're going to do in life ... not necessarily following directly in youth ministry, although some have," Tworek-Hofstetter said. "I feel that there are a lot of things that are gained from those immersion experiences."
Rickers said her favorite part of youth group at Sacred Heart Parish is reading a Scripture passage and coming up with discussion questions that relate to the Scripture and to today's society.
"We have about five questions that relate to our theme or Bible passage that we all get to answer. That's my favorite part because then we usually get different answers and it's truly neat to be in a group discussion with people around my age," she said. "We don't fight about it. We're all very respectful of what we each have to say."
Rickers credits her involvement in youth group with helping her grow in the faith.
"I've been open to great discussions from my peers there and in those discussions I've learned a lot," she said.
Printed with permission from the Catholic Voice, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Neb.
Lahore, Pakistan, Jan 30, 2011 (CNA) - Terrorist groups in Pakistan are planning to assassinate Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s federal minister for religious minorities, because of his opposition to the country’s blasphemy law.
Bhatti is the founder and president of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, a religious minorities network. He is also a Catholic.
The alliance told the Vatican-based news agency Fides that a Pakistani Secret Service report states it is “deeply concerned” by circulating news that an “imminent attack” on the minister is being organized. Bhatti has become a “number one target” because of his commitment to the abolition of the blasphemy law.
“Those close to the Minister need to protect him and ask the state to afford the minister maximum protection,” the Secret Service report continued.
The powerful terrorist organization Laskar-e-Toiba has already declared a death sentence upon Minister Bhatti. The new information confirms an actual plan is underway.
Bhatti told Fides his resolution was firm.
“Pray for me and for my life. I am a man who has burnt his bridges. I cannot and will not go back on this commitment. I will fight fanaticism and fight in defense of Christians to the death,” he said.
One Pakistan source deplored the inaction of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party. It is not aligning itself with Bhatti and coming to his defense because it is being pressured by lobbying from fundamentalist Islamic parties.
The party is “leaving too much space to the fanatics in society: its leadership believes that its political survival depends in keeping the militant religious right happy,” the source told Fides. “However, in doing so, the party is losing its traditional nature: moderate, secular, popular and pluralistic.”
Pakistan’s blasphemy law came to be a prominent part of the national conversation after Asia Bibi, a Christian mother, was sentenced to death under it. She has been in prison for a year and a half and is presently in a secure cell to protect her from assassination attempts.
Tensions escalated even further when Punjab governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by one of his body guards who was reportedly angered by his opposition to the law and his support for Bibi.
Minsk, Belarus, Jan 30, 2011 (CNA) - Catholic leaders in Belarus celebrated the annual week dedicated to Christian unity by gathering and breaking bread with local heads of Orthodox, Lutheran and other other Christian denominations.
From January 18 – 25, Christians around the globe marked the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, a time when members from various denominations traditionally meet to pray together for unification efforts among the faithful.
In Minsk, the capital of Belarus, Catholic Archbishop Kondrusiewicz and Orthodox Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk and Sluzk hosted various initiatives, including daily prayer with Belarusians from numerous Christian backgrounds and traditions.
At a joint celebration on Jan. 22, at the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Minsk, Catholics, Orthodox, Eastern Catholics, Lutherans and Christians of other denominations gathered to pray, preach and symbolically share a large loaf of bread.
In a Jan. 20 interview with global charity Aid to the Church in Need, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz remembered the words of Pope John Paul II, who said the churches in East and West were like two separate “lungs” and that "Europe must breathe again with both lungs."
The archbishop said that not only do all the Christian denominations “share the desire for unity,” but that they also seek dialogue with the Jewish and Muslim communities as well.
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz said that the relationship between the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches is very peaceful and cordial. The Orthodox Church accounts for roughly 80 percent of the citizens of Belarus, while 14 percent or around 300,000 are Catholics.
He said leaders from both traditions meet together regularly, and both churches see it as their common mission to live the Christian faith and share it with others.
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz also spoke on the issues that individuals are facing in modern Belarus such as alcoholism, drug addiction, and high rates of divorce and abortions. He said that these problems call upon Christians more than ever to unify and be effective witnesses within society.
"Giving witness means that all the faithful, and above all the laity, are called to become more active," he said.
Denver, Colo., Jan 30, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Although Feb. 3 is more commonly celebrated on the liturgical calendar as the feast of St. Blase, it is also the memorial of St. Anskar, a remarkable missionary who risked his life to bring the Catholic faith to Scandinavia during the ninth century.
Anskar was born in 801, just a year after Pope Leo III bestowed the title of emperor on the Frankish King Charlemagne. Between 772 and 805, the emperor would achieve the dubious feat of spreading Christianity to the northern Saxon tribes through a process of conquest and forced conversion.
Eventually in his missionary work, Anskar would continue this northward extension of the Church. However, he would employ very different means in his attempt to convert the northern tribes, seeking to impart the faith through his inspired preaching and exemplary life.
Anskar was brought up among Benedictine monks in northern France and received his own monastic calling shortly after the death of Charlemagne in 814. A number of visions and dreams, which he had experienced from a young age, culminated in a vision of supernatural light, accompanied by a command to surrender his life for the sake of God's kingdom.
“The majesty of almighty God was revealed to me,” he later recalled. “A most sweet voice, the sound of which was more distinct than all other sounds, and which seemed to me to fill the whole world, came forth from the same divine majesty, and addressed me and said: 'Go and return to Me crowned with martyrdom.'"
Anskar never became a martyr in the literal sense, but he undoubtedly gave himself in a sacrificial way to the service of the Church from that time onward. This service intensified when his Benedictine community moved in 822 to northwestern Germany, where Anskar took up the work of heading the monastery school and giving religious instruction to the public.
In 826, Charlemagne's imperial successor –his son known as Louis the Pious– sought the service of the German Benedictines in evangelizing the pagan kingdom of Denmark. The abbot suggested Anskar undertake the mission, and he gladly accepted. Only one other monk in the community, named Aubert, was willing to accompany Anskar on the dangerous mission, while the others refused and asked him to reconsider.
While Anskar outwardly accomplished little during his first two years in Denmark, he did found a school for children, instructing them in the Catholic faith in hopes that they could eventually participate in the conversion of their country. But eventually King Harald, who had welcomed the missionaries following his own conversion, fell out of favor with the people, forcing Anskar's exit as well.
In the nearby kingdom of Sweden, the pagan king presided over a traditional religion that considered him a descendent of the gods, and which encouraged ancestor-worship, human sacrifice and polygamy. Word came to Emperor Louis that many Swedes had learned of the Christian religion and wished to convert, prompting him to request Anskar's service again.
Anskar and his companion Witmar were robbed by Vikings on the way to Uppsala, then the Swedish capital and a center of pagan worship. He obtained permission to preach from Sweden's King Bjorn, and made steady progress for two years before returning to Hamburg to be consecrated as a bishop. Returning to the Scandinavian territories, the new bishop continued to form monasteries and schools.
A tragic period in Anskar's later life began in 845, when King Eric of Jutland led an invasion that laid waste to his diocese. Anskar spent the next four years wandering throughout the desolate land, attempting to care for the remaining Catholics and rebuild the destroyed churches.
Then, after being named Archbishop of Bremen in 849, Anskar took an astonishing step. Approaching the same King Eric, with almost unimaginable humility, he sought – and received – permission to preach the Gospel in his realm. He returned to Denmark, where he soon encountered a number of Danes who had secretly become Christians and now wished to worship openly.
He returned to Sweden four years later, after receiving encouragement in a vision from his late former abbot, and strengthened the Christians who were experiencing persecution under King Eric's successor. In 854, he returned to Hamburg, where he spent the last 11 years of his life. One of his most notable accomplishments during this time was in negotiating the release of many Christians who had been kidnapped by members of hostile pagan tribes.
Near the end of his life, the bishop – known for his extremely conscientious ways – became worried that he had not become a martyr, as he was asked to do in his youth. Eventually, however, he received a revelation from God that allowed him to accept the judgment of his disciple, biographer, and successor Rimbert – that “his whole life was like a martyrdom.”
“He endured many labours amongst foreigners apart from those within his own diocese,” Rimbert wrote of Anskar, “which were caused by the invasions and ravages of barbarians and the opposition of evil men – and in addition, the personal suffering which, for the love of Christ, he never ceased to bring upon himself.”
St. Anskar died on Feb. 3, 865. He would be known to subsequent generations at the “Apostle of the North.”
Vatican City, Jan 30, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) -
The Beatitudes offer a “new program of life” and demand a discipleship through which people today can open themselves up to what is truly good, Pope Benedict XVI explained during his traditional noon audience on Sunday.
On a pleasant and mild winter morning in Rome, thousands of young people were in St. Peter's Square with Italy's Catholic Action association to mark the end of their annual initiative for peace in the month of January.
Their singing and dancing entertained the crowd until the Pope arrived in his studio window for the Angelus prayer.
His pre-Angelus message centered on what he called the “Gospel of the Beatitudes,” Jesus' first major address to the people in the hills around the Sea of Galilee.
From the mountain, Jesus “proclaims ‘blessed’ the poor in spirit, the afflicted, the merciful, all those who hunger for justice, the pure of heart, the persecuted,” recalled the Pope.
This was not a “new ideology,” but “a teaching that comes from on high and touches the human condition,” which Jesus himself assumed to save it, said Benedict XVI.
The Sermon on the Mount is directed to people in all ages “and yet it demands discipleship and can be understood and lived out only by following Jesus and accompanying him on his journey,” he explained.
“The beatitudes are the new program of life, to free ourselves from the false values of the world and open ourselves to the true good, present and future.
“When, in fact, God consoles,” said the Pope, “he satiates the hunger of justice, dries the tears of the afflicted.” This consolation rewards every person in a sensitive way and “opens the Kingdom of Heaven.”
In the eight Beatitudes, Jesus’ death and resurrection are translated into an ever-current “discipleship,” in which his persecution for man's salvation is mirrored in people's lives, said the Pope.
The Beatitudes have historically been connected to the sanctity of Christians, because, in St. Paul’s words, “God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something,” he explained.
“For this, the Church does not fear poverty, disdain and persecution in a society often attracted to material well-being and worldly power.”
In St. Augustine's words, the Church does not revel in suffering, “but endures it in the name of Jesus, not only with a serene soul, but also with joy,” he said.
The Pope concluded the message with a prayer for “the strength to seek the Lord and follow him forever, with joy, on the way of the Beatitudes.”
After the Angelus prayer, one of two young people from Catholic Action alongside Pope Benedict promised the prayers and commitment of youth for peace.
The pontiff himself invited all people to pray that the Lord "bring minds and hearts together for concrete projects for peace."
He also remembered the celebration of World Leprosy Day, assuring all those who suffer from the disease of his prayers. He wished “serenity and prosperity” to “those grand peoples” of the Far East for their Feb. 3 Lunar New Year festivities.
Before retiring once again to his apartment, as a sign of peace the Pope released a pair of white doves with the help of the two young people from Catholic Action.