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.