By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published February 5, 2004
It’s an age group not often singled out by the church, but the Archdiocese of Atlanta is trying to change that with a new ministry for middle-school students.
Lynn Ory, youth minister at St. Oliver Plunkett Church in Snellville, and Brian Walsh, youth minister at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Smyrna, now serve as co-coordinators of middle-school events.
Their biggest project is called “Rise Up,” a middle-school youth rally held once a month. The first one was held Jan. 24 at St. Oliver Plunkett. Similar to the popular high school program XLT, Rise Up features praise and worship music, witness talks and eucharistic adoration. And for many of the middle-schoolers, it was their first experience encountering Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass.
“Eucharistic adoration is a huge part of the spirituality of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and we think that’s important to introduce to the middle-schoolers at this age,” Walsh said.
High school teens from St. Oliver Plunkett formed the Rise Up band and wrote the theme song for the event, which will be held at different parishes throughout the archdiocese.
The first rally drew 180 middle-schoolers.
Father Peter Jandaczek, MS, parochial vicar at St. Oliver Plunkett, spoke to the young people, in between songs from the band.
“We do pray and hope that you will find God among our church and our people and that we can create the body of Christ,” he said.
The energy of the crowd was infectious as they cheered, sang and danced in the St. Oliver parish hall. They played games, most of which added comedy to the event and some of which included burping, whistling with crackers in their mouth, and drinking unknown concoctions for a T-shirt.
But then it was time to get serious. It was time to meet Jesus.
Thomas Westbrook, a high school sophomore who attends St. Oliver, spoke to the middle-schoolers about the importance of prayer in his life.
“When people pray and their prayers aren’t answered, they tend to get angry,” he said. “But you have to know that when you pray to God, he does answer. He just doesn’t answer with a knock on the door saying ‘this is what you should do.’ You have to listen.”
Westbrook encouraged the middle-school students, who are at an age where they sometimes struggle to fit in, to be bold in their faith.
“I hope that when you leave here tonight, you carry this with you to school. Don’t be afraid to have a good time, don’t be afraid to speak the Lord’s name and praise and worship him,” he said. “You get to do this once a month. Y’all are so lucky.”
Prayer time in front of the Blessed Sacrament is precious, Westbrook said, as he prepared them for adoration.
“I hope you take that time, in a few minutes to pray and hear and understand God. Just open your hearts,” he said.
Before he brought forth the monstrance, Father Jandaczek told the middle-schoolers that this was their “training.”
“If you decide to play a sport, let’s say biking, are you going to immediately go biking for 100 miles? No. You’re going to start out small, maybe four or five miles,” he said. “This is your first training. And you are starting small by being one with God for maybe 15 minutes.”
He encouraged the group to use the time to examine their relationship with God.
“I want you to take this time and ask yourself, what is your relationship with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Do you trust that he is there and that he listens to you?
The teens then were silent as Father Jandaczek brought forth a monstrance and placed it on an altar in the center of the room. As the band played, many of the teens became visibly moved, some crying, others raising their hands in prayer.
For Meg Westbrook, a seventh-grader who attends St. Oliver Plunkett, the night was a turning point in her relationship with God, she said.
“It was awesome. It really touched me. Sometimes it’s hard for me to open up and talk to God, but something about tonight just really helped me,” she said. “It’s like I would be asking God for stuff and Father Peter would come in with a prayer that was right on target.”
Brent Masters, an eighth-grader from St. Thomas the Apostle Church, also enjoyed his first experience with adoration.
“(I was especially touched) when we were silent. Everyone was so into it. Everyone was nice and friendly,” he said. “I think this is going to influence me a lot and make me more in tune with God.”
Ory and Walsh were pleased with the turnout and the way the night went.
“I thought it was incredible to see so many young people fellowshipping and worshiping,” Ory said, adding that she believes the teens’ understanding of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament will grow each time they experience adoration. “Soon they will really realize the power the Blessed Sacrament has for them. It will be awesome.”
Walsh believes that the first Rise Up was an indication of great things to come.
“We had more middle-schoolers than we had planned on,” he said. “They’re ready. They’re pumped. They’re already asking when the next one is going to be.”
Reaching the teens now is important for their future faith journey, he said.
“This is really the time when they are going through so much and they are asking serious questions. And if they don’t get the answers from us, they’ll get them somewhere else,” he said. “That’s the whole reason for starting this ministry—to get middle-school students to realize that they do have a place in the church and that the church cares for them.”
The next Rise Up will be held on Feb. 21 from 7-9 p.m. at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, 4300 King Springs Road, Smyrna.
For more information about Rise Up, contact the archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry at (404) 885-7491.