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West County XLT latest example of collaborative spirit in youth ministry

The soothing sound of a guitar wafted through the church and into the vestibule at St. Clement of Rome as Breeze Bonderer and Josie Davis quietly talked.

The high school freshmen were taking a break from their end-of-semester studies to attend West County XLT at the church in Des Peres. The monthly gathering of praise and worship, adoration, confessions and a talk began in November, and rotates among seven West County parishes.

Breeze and Josie, who are active in the youth ministry program at St. Alban Roe in Wildwood, described the gathering as a 'friendly environment" where they meet other Catholic teens from outside their parish.

"It's nice to see what other youth groups are doing and to get to know other kids," said Josie, who attends St. Joseph's Academy.

"Going to a public school, it's good to be somewhere I can talk openly about my faith," said Breeze, a student at Lafayette High School in the Rockwood School District.

This isn't the first time the Archdiocese of St. Louis has seen XLT — short for exalt, as in "exalting the Lord" — or a collaboration of parish-based youth ministry programs, for that matter. Many areas host retreats or other programs together.

But as St. Clement youth minister Steve Claudin put it, "we can't really afford not to do this kind of thing anymore."

Even though the participating parishes in West County have vibrant youth ministry programs, without collaboration, "you have all these parishes competing to do basically the same thing," Claudin said. "This is a way that ensures that A: teenagers get that opportunity no matter where they are, and B: it promotes youth ministry programs growing together. It's a huge asset to any youth ministry program to know you're not alone, and that you have support from other parishes."

Dan Angel, a Florida native who became youth minister at Holy Infant in Ballwin last June, said he was struck by St. Louis' Catholic culture and the whole "where'd you go to high school" phenomenon.

"I've realized how strong schools and parishes are in their identity, so without taking away from that, we also want to teach our youth that we're one Church. I know it will evolve as time goes on," he said.

Angel also sees this as an opportunity to connect with other youth ministers. Those are the kind of relationship-building opportunities the archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry encourages, said director Tom Lancia.

The Youth Ministry Office hosts regular gatherings with youth ministers, and fosters collaboration between high school campus ministry and parish youth ministry. Other examples include teaming up with archdiocesan agencies, such as the Respect Life Apostolate, for the annual Generation Life pilgrimage to the March for Life in Washington, D.C., and the REAP Team (archdiocesan youth retreat ministry) connecting with campus and parish youth ministers.

Lancia also said that effective youth ministry programs must flow with the overall mission of the parish.

"Youth ministry can't be done in isolation," he said. "The most sustainable programs are done in collaboration with the greater mission of the parish. We're trying to encourage that across the board and connect all of our dots, from little kids to high schoolers."

"God speaks to all of us in different ways," Lancia said. "We can't think that one way is going to be the only way for somebody. These (collaborations) highlight our faith and the universal Church. We must think about how do we continue to connect the dots." 

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