September 20, 2019

New director will rely on community to bring youths closer to Christ

As the new director of youth ministry for the archdiocese, Paul Sifuentes believes the faith of teenagers should involve parents, pastors and everyone in their parish. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

As the new director of youth ministry for the archdiocese, Paul Sifuentes believes the faith of teenagers should involve parents, pastors and everyone in their parish. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

Paul Sifuentes wishes he could thank Joe DeBoo.

The new director of youth ministry for the archdiocese remembers the influence that DeBoo had on his faith life when Sifuentes was growing up in the same parish they shared in a Chicago suburb.

“He was an usher and a lector at our church,” Sifuentes recalls with a smile about that time in the 1990s. “He was in his late 70s then, a well-dressed man in his blue polyester suit. He helped me become a lector, practicing with me when I was in the eighth grade.

“His faithfulness had a large impact on my life. It was his reverence during the liturgy—just how important it was to him. As a lector, he wasn’t a showy guy. He was just doing his job of proclaiming the word of God. He was just a man of faith.”

DeBoo was 96 when he died in 2011, yet his influence on Sifuentes lives on in one of the crucial, guiding ways the 36-year-old father of four approaches youth ministry.

For Sifuentes, the faith of teenagers in a parish can’t just be left to one person—the youth minister. It has to involve parents, the pastor and everyone in the pews.

“Youth ministry is not just classes,” insists Sifuentes, who started at the archdiocese in mid-August. “You have to form leaders. You have to form parents. It’s having conversations with the youths and listening to them. It’s showing up in their lives. We can’t do this without everyone. That comes from discipleship. If one is following Christ, then we have to be there for one another. We have to minister to those in need. And we can’t deny the youth are in need.

“Many youths struggle with anxiety. At this age, they want to fit in. They’re grappling with life’s biggest questions. They are searching. They are inquisitive. And you have the answer: Jesus Christ.”

Sifuentes believes that teenagers are looking for different influences in their lives other than their parents.

“It’s important to walk with them as they are searching, to help them have an encounter with Jesus.”

Sifuentes shares an example of how that approach made a difference in the lives of two teenaged twins during the 7 1/2 years he led youth and young adult ministry at St. Alphonsus Liguori Parish in Zionsville, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese.

‘We brought them to Christ’

After getting involved in a parish coffeehouse experience and small-group gatherings, the twin sisters became a big part of the parish, serving as leaders in different roles. And the parish was there for them as they struggled through a time when their grandfather was ill.

“We were keeping them in prayer. A group of us went over to the church and prayed,” Sifuentes says, noting that his wife Alexa and two of their children were part of that group. “I didn’t have the words for them, but there was that support by the community. We brought them to Christ. As they grew in the community, they started to become the people who were there for others.”

That focus on “community” is ever‑present in a conversation about youth ministry with Sifuentes, who had served the Lafayette Diocese in leadership roles in evangelization and youth and young adult formation in recent years.

The emphasis on “community” has taken on a national perspective for Sifuentes in his role as the vice chairperson of the upcoming National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) in Indianapolis on Nov. 20-23—a gathering that traditionally draws more than 20,000 youths from across the country.

“It gives young people a wonderful opportunity to encounter Jesus Christ—from the liturgies to adoration to the Gospel that is preached, and through the witness of other teens and the dynamic speakers.

“The way I want people to approach it is that Indianapolis becomes a pilgrimage site for three days for youths. As a pilgrim, you are the one on the journey. Here are all these beautiful things about our faith. Come and seek the face of the Lord.”

He extends that same invitation to adults who are needed as volunteers at the conference.

“Adult volunteers who help out at NCYC always come away with a rejuvenated spirit,” he says. “It’s a great benefit to parishes to encourage adult volunteers to come to NCYC—to see all these youths from across the United States come together for their faith. It’s amazing.”

‘To form them to love Christ’

As powerful as that experience can be, Sifuentes stresses that the lasting impact on the faith lives of youths comes in the individual and small-group connections they make with each other and with the adults who encourage, listen and walk with them.

“It’s through our person that we will lead others to Christ, not through the best curriculum that is out there,” says Sifuentes, a 2005 graduate of the University of Notre Dame whose first job was as the youth ministry coordinator at St. Simon the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis.

That’s where archdiocesan Deacon Michael Braun first met and became impressed by Sifuentes.

“He is committed to forming faith-filled relationships with everyone involved in youth ministry, including the young people being served, their parents, and their adult leaders and volunteers,” says Deacon Braun, director of pastoral ministries for the archdiocese. “His approach seeks to identify the God-given gifts in each person. In this way, he draws the community closer to God and the Church.”

Sifuentes’ years in youth ministry have also influenced his faith life.

“It keeps it humble,” he says. “It keeps it focused on Christ and the Church. It’s not all sunshine and roses when you do youth ministry. You see youths who aren’t thrilled to be there. You see parents who aren’t involved. It reminds me of the work that needs to be done. It helps remind me that my faith isn’t just me and Jesus. He calls me out to spread his Gospel, to bring his message to others.”

The message that Sifuentes wants to share with youths is one of hope.

“My hope for the youths is that they find a community of believers, of disciples of Jesus Christ, at the parish who are seeking them and desiring to help them know who Christ is—to form them to love Christ and to send them out to serve Christ.” †

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