August 21, 2015

Evangelization Supplement

Conference’s youth ministry track provides ‘meaty formation and catechesis’

Lisa Whitaker chats with a fellow St. John Bosco conference youth ministry track participant before a session on July 14 at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio. She serves as director of faith formation and youth ministry for Most Precious Blood Parish in New Middleton, St. Joseph Parish in Corydon and St. Peter Parish in Harrison County. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Lisa Whitaker chats with a fellow St. John Bosco conference youth ministry track participant before a session on July 14 at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio. She serves as director of faith formation and youth ministry for Most Precious Blood Parish in New Middleton, St. Joseph Parish in Corydon and St. Peter Parish in Harrison County. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

STEUBENVILLE, OHIO—Lisa Whitaker was raised in a “good Catholic family by good Catholic parents.”

She never expected that someone like her could stumble in her faith.

“I had an experience of falling away from the Church in college, some hard life experiences,” she admitted.

But out of those experiences, she said, her faith was renewed, and a calling to youth ministry developed.

“My own brokenness and my own challenges as a young person in high school and college, where my faith was not affirmed by my peers—that’s how I got into youth ministry,” she said. “For me, it was truly a calling from God.”

“I realized there must be other kids like me who came from good Catholic families that would fall. [God] urged me to reach out to them, to let them know that Christ loves them, the Church loves them.”

Yet, to help them, Whitaker realized she had a lot of growing to do.

“I knew of [Christ], but didn’t know him at that point,” she recalled. “I knew the Catholic-speak and gestures, but not why we do what we do and believe what we believe.”

So she started on a journey to catechize herself. She read Scripture and prayed daily, went to Mass and adoration as much as possible and sought opportunities to serve and perform works of mercy.

And she got involved in catechetical ministry.

Throughout roughly the last 35 years, in both volunteer and paid positions, Whitaker has served in youth ministry, Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and overall faith formation.

She now serves in a full-time, paid position as director of faith formation and youth ministry for Most Precious Blood Parish in New Middleton, St. Joseph Parish in Corydon and St. Peter Parish in Harrison County.

It is a lot of work, she admits.

“I almost didn’t come [to the conference] because of busyness,” Whitaker said. “But professionally and personally, I needed this.”

And Whitaker also knew what she’d been missing.

She started going to the St. John Bosco conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio in the early 1990s. It had been about 10 years since she’d last attended. After travelling to the conference this year, she lamented, “Why did I ever stop going?

“Not only do you get solid, meaty formation and catechesis you can sink your teeth into,” she said, “but you also get a spiritual shot in the arm. You have the opportunity to attend Mass, to adore Christ in the Eucharist, to go to confession, and time for personal prayer. It’s a beautiful experience.”

Whitaker focused on the youth ministry track at the conference. With two years of attending those sessions, along with some coursework, she will obtain a certificate in youth ministry from Franciscan University.

“The wonderful thing about this conference is they bring in documents of the Church, the most current statistics and findings, veteran youth ministers from all over the country—it’s just a huge, huge blessing to help us catechize,” she said.

One clear message she gleaned from the conference is the need to create disciples—among all Catholics, but especially among teens.

“We’ve got to help move folks from just catechesis—which is very important—but also to discipleship,” said Whitaker.

“Right now, our focus [in the U.S. in general] is off-balance. The scales are tipped heavily in catechesis, but it should be measured with discipleship, which is a relationship with the Lord and wanting to share that with others.”

In today’s relativistic society where truth is whatever many want it to be, Whitaker said this message of catechists helping youths develop a relationship with Christ is of utmost importance.

“We don’t live in a Christian society,” she said. “The Church has—specifically now in this time—a unique opportunity to lead others to Christ. Where else are the kids going to hear to rely on Christ, that there is a God and he’s got your back, wants to be your most intimate friend, will never leave you, and wants you to be with him for all eternity in amazing bliss?”

According to Whitaker and the speakers she heard at the conference, the key to creating disciples is teaching youths how to develop a relationship with Christ through prayer.

She said this is done by “giving them the mindset that you’re not talking at God, you’re in conversation with God.

“Praying is not only about talking, but more so about listening and then responding to what the Lord is telling you to do or not do,” she continued. “I heard that over and over [at the conference] about that relationship with God in prayer, and from that, you’re going to do amazing things.”

In a world that can be challenging to Christians, Whitaker found hope—especially in youth ministry—through the message of one particular session.

“[The speaker] said our mission field is here—you don’t have to go to other countries to evangelize,” she recalled. “We’ve got enough teens to evangelize in our high schools and colleges.”

She said the presenter recognized that the environment today is that of a neo-pagan society, but that challenge should not be a cause for hopelessness.

“He pointed out that St. Peter and the early Church didn’t run from the pagan Roman culture—they totally changed it,” Whitaker said.

“Evangelizing our youth in this culture is a challenge for all of us: priests, deacons, catechists, bishops, the pope, even the laity.

“But what a privilege it is that we’re at a point to be able to hand on the faith in love and mercy.” †

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