“Ready to play? Let’s do this!” Caitlyn Sextro shouted as she led a dozen teenagers and a parish priest onto the field at Assumption Parish in south St. Louis County to play flag football.
Later, during a break on that mild summer evening, Sextro led an Ignatian meditation on Luke 19:1-10, beginning with a prayer saying yes to Jesus and the strength He brings while reinforcing trust and love in Him. Each teen took turns stating what part of the Gospel reading stood out to them.
Summer is a good time to grow in community with the teens because generally they don’t have school. Some youth ministry programs in the archdiocese have added efforts to involve participants during the summer. A highlight for many during the summer is the Steubenville STL Mid-America Youth Conference in Springfield, Missouri, held this year on two weekends in July, and other efforts such as retreats, camps and mission trips. But the heart of the programs and the community they form are the weekly events.
Sextro, youth apostolate coordinator at the parish, gathers frequently with the teens in the parish’s Lifeteen high school youth ministry during the summer. The July 27 flag football game was part of the weekly Pray and Play held on Tuesdays. Other nights included shaving cream wiffle ball, intense spikeball tournaments, slip-and-slide kickball, a cornhole tournament, 3-on-3 basketball tournament and
more. Wednesdays are set aside for a morning Mass and breakfast. Sunday nights are the ministry’s other meeting time.
Sextro’s focus is establishing relationships, getting to know the teens on another level. Besides creating community, it also enables the teens to grow in the faith together. They learn aspects of Catholicism such as Ignatian meditation or even the spirituality of St. Kateri Tekawitha, the first Indigenous American to be canonized as a saint.
“Our goal is to have a welcoming environment, so everyone feels like they have a home here,” she said. “We try to cultivate the hospitality at every event. Whether you know Jesus is your best friend or don’t know Jesus at all, you will find a home here no matter what part of the journey you’re on.”
Olivia Evers, an incoming senior at Cor Jesu Academy, said she enjoys the Pray and Play at Assumption because “it’s a really great way to combine a big community and a great group of friends with competition and still being able to serve our Lord.”
Evers took part in an eighth-grade Luke 18 retreat and has been helping out with that and the middle-school ministry ever since. She’s on the leadership team of her youth group. “I just love what this group of people does. It’s really great seeing how we bring Jesus to everyone. It’s a very open group. It’s all about having fun and being closer to Jesus. We’re able to spread and share that with other people.
Claire Scannell, an incoming senior at Notre Dame High School, said, “Pray and Play helps me grow in not only my love for sports but also my love for Jesus.”
The youth group community builds her up to be closer to Jesus through prayer and helps her with sportsmanship in the games they play.
Taking part in and helping with retreats “has helped me discover myself and find Jesus in a very prominent way in my life,” Claire said. “It’s a great community of people, and I love being here. Every time we have an event coming up I get super excited.”
Father Ryan Weber, associate pastor of the parish, said the ministry allows him to build rapport and lead the teens to Christ. It’s something that might help them go back to church or stay in church later on when they experience difficulty. “It’s a joy for me,” he said. “I love the energy, the fun.”
A final summer blast will be held to celebrate the feast of Assumption on Aug. 15. The fall schedule begins then, with the summertime weekday Mass and breakfast gatherings ending. The fall schedule will include youth group gatherings one or two nights a week.
Having a community that is authentic and built on relationships requires a year-round program, Sextro said. “A huge part of our ministry is to walk with teens through every part of their life, whether it’s the school year or not,” she said.
At St. Clement of Rome Parish in Des Peres, twice-weekly programming (including a monthly eucharistic adoration and an annual super-hydro olympics with water games), is interspersed with other activities such as prayer times and a service week.
“We definitely want to capitalize on the fact that the teens are out of school, more open and available to more engagement from us. We love to amp up the energy a little bit during the summertime,” said Laura Jablonski, youth minister.
At a senior send-off program Aug. 1, the recent graduates gathered for a dinner in in a converted residence that serves as a home for the youth ministry. The annual event included seniors leaving a lasting memorial by placing a palm print and their name on a wall or ceiling. Before a slide show honoring the seniors, the loud and enthusiastic gathering grew silent as Jablonski led a prayer thanking God for the faith family and the celebration.
Maddie Massmann, a 2021 graduate of Cor Jesu Academy who will attend Florida State University, said “there’s complete freedom to be yourself and share God’s love. God’s love is so evident in every person you interact with here.”
She appreciates the fun, community-building on Sundays as well as the discipleship groups and praise and worship on Wednesdays.
Gracie Halfmann, a 2021 graduate of St. Pius X High School who will attend Marian University in Indianapolis, said she found a home at St. Clement. “The Holy Spirit is so alive and present here,” she said. “We all just want to grow deeper with the Lord, and it has been such a beautiful journey to see and watch everyone grow together with one another.”
This summer, she said, “it’s been such a blessing to grow in virtuous friendship, which has helped me because it’s been a really hard year for everyone.”
Bubba Chapman, a sophomore at Chaminade Preparatory School, is focused on his sport, golf, in the summer, so “this is good for me for balance,” he said. “As a serious athlete, if you’re too focused and you don’t take any time off you get lost mentally. Having this group of people is an outlet for me. I don’t know where I’d be without this youth group, but I think I’m a much better person because of it.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe youth ministry helps teens shine
Youth ministry provides faith-related and practical guidance
BY JOSEPH KENNY | [email protected] | twitter: @josephkenny2
“If someone says you are smart, will you believe it?”
“Everyone has areas where their talents shine, the challenge is finding those areas.”
“We have a north star to guide us — Jesus.”
Those nuggets came from Our Lady of Guadalupe youth minister Lorena Jimenez during a recent meeting of the youth group. Afterward, Gabriel Lule, an incoming freshman at McCluer North High School, said he enjoys the group’s activities. He tends to be shy and stay to himself, but it’s a good setting to get to know others.
Daniel Medina, an incoming sophomore at Marquette High School in Alton, Illinois, listed those aspects as well as retreats, prayers and learning about Church teaching. Saul Rico, who is an incoming freshman at De Smet Jesuit High School, said that besides socialization the youth group “strengthens my way of talking to people about Christ and religion in general.”
Jimenez, who often is joined by her husband, David, used conversation cards to help the teens open up about faith-related and general questions. It helps them get to know each other. “Little things might seem insignificant sometimes, but once they’re shared, other teens hear it and might also open up and share,” she said. “Sometimes they can be shy at first. Sometimes the conversation will lead to something else. But that’s OK. That’s why we’re here. We want to listen to them and reassure them.”
As an example, a teen shared how he is a little worried about starting high school and the pressures that come with it. “It’s good to hear him say that,” Jimenez said. “There’s other teens here who have gone through that and have felt that. They can talk among each other and reassure each other that it’s going to be OK, what’s helped them.”
Some are the first in their family to go to a private high school, which may be stressful because of the pressure they feel to succeed and justify their parents’ financial sacrifice. Jimenez herself was the daughter of parents who dropped out of school after eighth grade to work. A graphic artist, Jimenez said she felt similarly, striving to do well in high school and college for her parents’ sake.
Some teens struggle a little more than others to find their way, she explained. She’s there for them. Among other things, she helps when they’re applying to colleges with letters of recommendation, financial aid applications and more. Jimenez and her husband have attended graduations and weddings and celebrated other achievements.
Vanessa Curiel, attended the youth group from about age 12 and evolved into a leadership role around age 18. She has since gone to college, started a career in education and gotten married. She recalls her time as a youth group participant fondly, especially the role Jimenez played in her life. “If we ever needed to talk to her about anything, she was always there.”
The first time the group went to Steubenville was especially memorable, and Jimenez’ efforts in fundraising to pay for the trip was essential, Curiel said. “We hadn’t been around that many other teens that shared the same faith and similar values. I know I wouldn’t have been able to experience that if I hadn’t been in the youth group.”
The Jimenezes started out working with children on their First Communion preparation and moved over to the youth group about eight years ago. The youth group started growing after they began attending the Steubenville youth conferences organized by the archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry which aim to help attendees grow in faith through talks, music and the sacraments.
The youth group balances conversation, faith formation and social events. A one-day or weekend retreat is usually organized, though they skipped last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.