The spirit came alive within Maria Edington more than a decade ago.
Maybe it was the speakers. And the sacraments. And the praise and worship music that she heard at the youth conference. Afterward, she realized she wanted more.
“It was the first time I wanted to build a relationship with God,” Maria said of her experience at the conference as a high school sophomore. The textbook knowledge of her Catholic faith transformed that weekend into a deeper connection with God. “I felt like previously I knew all the right answers, but now I felt that this is someone I should be building a relationship with.”
By the end of that Youth 2000 Retreat in the Diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky, Maria had experienced something so life-changing that she knew she wanted other teens to have the same opportunity. While on her knees in adoration, Maria felt God calling her to start a similar youth conference at her parish back home in St. Louis.
When Maria presented the idea to her parents, they peppered her with questions: “Who will be the speakers? Who will do the music? How will we advertise? How will we pay for it? How will we feed so many kids?”
God answered every question. In 2012, the Spirit Alive Youth Conference was born at St. Joseph Parish in Josephville, a small community in St. Charles County near Wentzville. The annual conference is held every fall, with the most recent gathering last October drawing more than 200 participants from all over the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
Maria — now a married young adult — and her younger sister, Clare Hoenig, have made youth ministry a large part of their lives. Both of them say that the experiences they had growing up in St. Joseph Parish propelled them to minister to the newest generation of teens. Clare leads eighth-graders and high school teens as a part-time youth minister at St. Joseph and teaches physical education at the parish school. .
Clare grew up watching her older sister help plan Spirit Alive conferences and attended them herself as a teen. Her involvement with the conference and her youth group led her to seek out a role in youth ministry as a young adult.
“It’s 100 percent what I got out of youth group when I was going to high school,” Clare said. “We had some fantastic leaders back when I was in it and going through Spirit Alive … seeing how God changed my life, I wanted other kids to have that.”
Clare acknowledges that teens face an immense challenge as they mature and grow into young adulthood and begin to make faith their own, especially with increasing secularization and a growing demographic of people who embrace no faith at all, sometimes described as the “nones.”
The friendships that the sisters gained through youth ministry and Spirit Alive have played a large role in making faith a central part of their lives. “If they don’t have a community of people, they don’t want to show up at youth group and not know anyone,” Clare said. “They don’t want to go to church and feel like they’re the only young people at church.”
With seven other siblings and 13 cousins, the sisters’ family dynamic also has helped them to keep each other in check when it comes to faith. “It is 100% definitely an influence,” Clare said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, this retreat is coming up,’ or ‘Where are you going to Mass this weekend?’ or, ‘You seem upset about something — have you prayed about it?’”
Love takes up where knowledge leaves off
The cafeteria filled with teens on a Sunday night last December at St. Joseph School. About two dozen eighth-graders and high schoolers — including a few newcomers — assembled in a circle for an icebreaker activity. Afterward, they broke into groups for another fun activity, followed by Clare’s talk on preparing for Christmas through the season of Advent. The evenings typically end with prayer in the Church, and sometimes include eucharistic adoration.
Clare Clever has been attending St. Joseph’s youth group meetings for several years. The high school junior, who is homeschooled, enjoys reading philosophy and theology-related subjects. She said the group gives her the space to have deeper conversations about her faith with her peers.
St. Thomas Aquinas once said that love takes up where knowledge leaves off. “You have to know and understand something to love it,” Clever said. “It’s so cool, because we have all these discussions and have all this knowledge here, and then we go into the church. It’s this one-on-one conversation with God, telling Him all about what I’ve learned. I feel like I love God so much more now than before I started coming” to youth group.
A focus on well-formed teens
Father Tony Ritter is in awe seeing the ways in which teens are allowing God into their lives through youth ministry, and in particular with the Spirit Alive youth conference.
Father Ritter was a seminarian from St. Joseph Parish when the first Spirit Alive conference was held. Now he helps his childhood parish by speaking at the conference, celebrating Mass and leading adoration. (He’s currently an associate pastor at St. Francis Borgia in Washington.)
“It wasn’t the priests who came in to offer this, it was this high schooler who had this dream and vision,” Father Ritter said. “Maria said, ‘I’m not going to just sit here and think these things. I’m going to do something about it.’”
Youth ministry is going to require a different approach depending on the needs of each community, he said. He credits the Catholic homeschooling community in the St. Charles County area with having an influence on the conference’s content, adding that the effects have been powerful. Many of the teens who once attended the conference have returned as young adults to help organize it and lead the teens in small groups.
“There’s something really inspiring in a way that is unique to the people of that parish and region,” Father Ritter said. “The people who come seem to be well-formed in their faith and understand the importance of the Eucharist. Because of that, they are comfortable with their faith and willing to be vulnerable.”
Sending them off
One of the biggest challenges facing teens is feeling alone in their faith, Clare Hoenig said. Without a community where they are seen and heard, many will fall away from the Church altogether.
Topics such as abortion can be especially challenging. Having conversations about those topics in a safe space can give young people the tools to know how to respond to others. Teens are also given practical advice on keeping their faith alive once they leave high school.
“With everything I talk about, I have a purpose behind why I am talking about this,” Clare said. “I like to keep it real — these are things you’re going to see out in the real world, and this is how you combat that.”
“Once you’re out of high school … you’re taking your faith into your own hands for the first time,” she said. “It is up to you whether or not you’re going to Mass. It’s up to you whether you’re going to keep going to confession. It’s up to you whether or not you’re going to keep a relationship with God.
“We’re ministering to them for four or five years, and then after that, they’re off on their own.”
Tips for teens going off to college
• Seek out your Catholic Newman Center on campus. No Newman Center on campus? Look for the closest Catholic parish and find a way to get there.
• Build your weekend around Mass. Take advantage of your parish’s Mass schedule, and do not let Mass be the first thing that is cut from your weekend.
• Find a friend(s) who can keep you accountable going to Mass and confession.
• Don’t just sit in your dorm — get out there and get involved.
• Pray. It’s what roots us in our relationship with God. With God at the center of our lives, this can be reflected in other areas of our lives and our interactions with others.
Youth ministry resources
The archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry serves those who serve young people, with a focus on youth ministers, Scout leaders, priests and parishes and parents.
Ministry support services include parish consultations, Scout and faith program leadership development, Scouting consultations, formation for youth ministers and youth ministry consultations.
The Office of Youth Ministry, which is supported by the Annual Catholic Appeal, also hosts diocesanwide activities, including the Steubenville STL-Mid-America youth conference, Generation Life, Totus Tuus and Catholic Scouting events.
To learn more, visit stlyouth.org.