Keeping our Traditions Alive

I spent Good Friday in Lenoir, NC, located near the eastern edge the Appalachian Mountain range.  Catholic Extension supports a parish there called St. Francis of Assisi, which has experienced extraordinary growth in the last three years.  During that short span of time, Sunday Mass attendance has more than tripled; religious education enrollments are five times more than what they were just three years ago; and as many as 70 lay leaders are taking on various ministries that serve the parish and the larger community.  If you’re like me, you wouldn’t normally expect to find such a thriving Catholic community in a relatively small town of North Carolina.  But, something special is happening here.

Parishioners of all ages gather early to witness the traditional "living" Stations of the Cross.

The parish’s leaders, Father Julio Dominguez and Sister Joan Pearson, who arrived here three years ago, are both innovative people constantly thinking of new ways for this church community to reach more people and create new leaders.   Although they are always ready to try new things to make the Catholic faith speak to people, I quickly learned that their secret to success has been as much about getting back to the basics of the Catholic tradition and incorporating customs that have proven to sustain the faith for centuries.

That is why parishioners in Lenoir spent more than three months preparing for a “living” Stations of the Cross, which was open to the entire community on Good Friday.  Sister Joan expected attendance to jump this year, and sure enough, 600 people showed up for this mid-weekday Stations of the Cross.  Given that the church only seats about 300 people, the Stations of the Cross had to be done outside.  To enhance the experience, parishioners act out the scenes of each of the 14 stations in full costume and are accompanied by music and brief reflections.

The crowd drops to their knees, moved by the power of the 11th Station of the Cross.

At the 11th station, as the cross and the actor playing Christ were physically lifted up by the Roman soldiers and placed in the ground for crucifixion, I heard a collective gasp sweep through the hundreds of people as they came to their knees on the grass.  Tears filled the eyes of many, as they reflected upon God’s love expressed through the cross and how that cross has been part of all of our lives.

What impressed me the most about this experience, however, was the endless sea of toddlers, children and teens who were present at this event.  Just as the Stations of the Cross were starting, I happened to turn around to see a steady stream of parents pushing strollers across the Church parking lot as they made their way to the stations.   It felt as if they were literally carting in the next generation of Catholics to hear the same stories that our ancestors told.

Traditions like the "living" Stations of the Cross engage the parish youth in a compelling and inspiring way.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the afternoon was when a young boy, no more than five years old, broke ranks with the rest of us and wove his way through the actors to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he was being taken down from the cross.  The boy reached out and tenderly touched the lifeless feet the Jesus.  I have a feeling that for years to come that boy will remember his brief encounter with Christ this Good Friday.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management, Catholic Extension

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Young Adult Leadership Summit

“From all the ‘corners’ of the Earth we gathered, and hearts and minds met.”

Those simple words sum up the experience of one young adult Catholic who attended Catholic Extension’s first-ever Young Adult Leadership Summit.  The Summit, held in Chicago in late July, drew young adult Catholic leaders from 20 dioceses.

They came from California, Texas, Wyoming, The U.S. Virgin Islands, Montana, Ohio, Mississippi, New Mexico, Kentucky, Puerto Rico and Virginia – bright shining faces eager to talk about their Catholic faith.  They were invited to the Summit because of their proven extraordinary commitment to their diocese and communities through leadership and ministry service.

For some, this was their first plane ride or their first trip to a big city. For many, it was also a first chance to meet fellow young adult Catholics with a similar mission – to engage their peers in becoming active leaders and participants in the next generation of the Catholic Church.

Christian Jokinen presenting at the Leadership Summit.

One participant, Christian Jokinen of Las Cruces, New Mexico, has taken on enormous responsibility as a young adult to help build community and faith at his parish. He selflessly volunteers for 30 hours a week in multiple roles. He serves as a Eucharistic minister, teaches pre-Confirmation classes, trains altar servers, coordinates religious education and more. “Wherever they call me is where I end up going—it keeps me busy,” he said. “It’s a lot of time, but it’s fun.”

For Ana Hernandez of Monterey, California, another Summit participant, ministry to young adults and youth is a family activity. “We’re working together – my dad, mom, younger brother and I are all involved in the youth group,” she said of her family’s work at their parish.

“We want to tap into the energy and enthusiasm that young adults have demonstrated for the Church, for the service of others and for the faith,” said Joe Boland, senior director of Grants Management for Catholic Extension, who led the Summit activities. “They are here to help us understand and discover how we can multiply that energy and enthusiasm beyond this group of dedicated young leaders into the greater community of young adult Catholics across the country.”

Attendees meeting for small group discussions. Left to right: Maggie Warner, Samuel Bugueno, Ana Hernandez and Jermain Wair.

Through workshops, presentations, small-group discussions, faith-sharing sessions and even some social activities, Catholic Extension invited these young adult leaders to share their feelings about their faith, goals for their ministries and ideas for the church.

“Everywhere we go, we are inspired by the young leaders we encounter who are the bright light of the future of the Church in their diocese,” said Fr. Jack Wall, President of Catholic Extension. “Many of these young people lack financial resources for their ministries; however, their genuine faith and conviction are moving them to do great things.  We thought it would be very powerful to bring these young leaders together, to learn what inspires and motivates them and to see how Catholic Extension can support them in their efforts.”

Even though the Summit wrapped up just a short time ago, Catholic Extension has heard that the ideas the young adult leaders gathered from the event have already inspired them to take action. Upon returning to her hometown, Ana Hernandez sent the following note to her deacon: “It was an awesome experience. Now I think I’m in the wrong Major. Now I want to study Theology.” Another participant, Marsha Howe from the Diocese of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, was so moved that she has met with several local diocesan priests to share her experience. She also met with local youth group leaders to create a youth leadership program to ensure the participation in the faith from young Catholics on each of the different islands.

Attendees after celebrating Mass at St. James Chapel in Chicago, IL.

“Catholic Extension is committed to building a network of young Catholic leaders,” Fr. Wall added.  “We were blessed to have this opportunity to come together to share ideas that will ultimately strengthen the Church’s outreach to young adults.”

Catholic Extension provides grants to dioceses throughout the United States to empower Catholic communities by funding a variety of building projects and ministries and investing in lay, religious and ordained Catholic leaders. Last year it supported youth ministries with more than $2 million in grants exclusively in underserved or under-resourced dioceses.

Catholic Extension

The True Jewels of the Diocese

One of the most common questions we are hear from Catholic leaders across the United States is “how can we keep our young people involved and excited about the Church?”  Parishes and dioceses alike are focusing on building youth ministry programs geared to providing youth with spiritual and personal growth alongside Jesus and in their faith communities.  On a recent trip to the Diocese of Helena, I was able to witness a robust youth ministry program that is “connecting the dots” between the parish, diocese and universal Church.

Entrance to "the jewel of the diocese," Legendary Lodge.

Our first stop, often referred to by locals as “the jewel of the diocese,” was Legendary Lodge.  Legendary Lodge is a beautiful campground located on a pristine river valley nestled between seemingly mile-high Montana mountains.  Each summer, nearly 900 youth from the Diocese of Helena travel to the campsite for a unique Catholic experience, unrivaled by most.  The camp is run all summer long with week-long sessions divided by age group.  “It’s a family tradition—many campers have been coming for nine years, just as their siblings did,” said Dan Bartleson, Seasonal Director of Legendary Lodge.

As we were ferried across the river by the head camp cook, sounds of high-school students laughing echoed through the trees.  The evening’s main activity was a game in which camp counselors assumed the personas of characters from various fairy tales, each exemplifying specific virtues and vices.  Campers raced around the grounds in teams working to identify each virtue or vice and complete a task designed to build teamwork.  In fact, this summer’s theme for all Legendary Lodge camp sessions is “virtues,” and the kids love learning about them, no matter what their age.

Legendary Lodge counselors use activities to teach about the virtues.

While the sun set behind the mountains, a campfire was carefully lit by the water’s edge.  Bleachers circled the fire pit and were quickly filled with campers excitedly laughing and talking amongst themselves.  Each night, a camp counselor tells an interesting story or a testimony about their personal faith.  After a few ice-breaking campfire songs, we learned it was Oliver’s night to share his faith testimony, and everyone hushed to listen.

Legendary Lodge Campers

Oliver explained his personal journey and ultimate decision to attend seminary school in the fall at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.  He said that he felt a natural calling to the priesthood during his youth, but “didn’t have friends interested in discussing their faith,” and he put those thoughts on shelf.  When Oliver attended a small Catholic college in Helena, he became immersed in campus ministry, and found many other youths interested and engaged in their Catholic faith. During this time, Oliver was pursuing a career path in medicine; he also hoped to have a family some day.  Throughout this time, he knew he was still interested in the priesthood, but “I was always waiting for my big sign,” he said.

Oliver tells the story of his journey to become a seminarian.

Then, while visiting the Vatican with classmates from college, it happened.  While his close friends knelt down and prayed at St. Peter’s tomb, Oliver stood quietly in the back and felt a great love open from deep within him.  “At that moment, I was overwhelmed with my love for the Eucharist,” he explained through tears.  “It still chokes me up today—I’m getting used to being this emotional when I speak about it.”  Oliver’s overwhelming experience led him to contact Fr. Marc Lenneman, a trusted priest and mentor with whom he spoke with often.  Fr. Marc, who was present at the fire that night, knew Oliver from his college campus ministry and is also the Chaplain at Legendary Lodge.  After prayer and reflection, Oliver fully realized and “opened himself up” to his true calling, the priesthood.  It was not an easy process, but he now feels God’s plan has been fully revealed to him.

After Oliver’s heartfelt story, many others opened up around that very fire and spoke about their hopes, dreams, fears and faith.  Humorous stories and laugher intertwined with the deeply personal and profound.

Fr. Marc Lennemen, Legendary Lodge Chaplain

For the counselors and leaders at Legendary Lodge, it’s their goal that this experience does not leave when camp is over.  They work closely with the Bishop, area priests, youth ministers and parents to ensure the themes and ideas discussed are built upon throughout the year.  Based on the impactful camp experience, parishes are seeing their youth continue church involvement year-round.

The Diocese of Helena’s youth ministry program is truly connecting the dots between small, rural faith communities and the universal Church.  As I drove away from Legendary Lodge in the morning, I could feel the powerful momentum built throughout the diocese by their youth programs.  It seems to me very likely that tomorrow’s leaders of the Church are being cultivated in Montana.  And those young leaders, are the true jewels of the diocese.

— John Bannon, Manager of Digital Communications