By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published October 11, 2012
Friends and participants of St. Ann’s youth ministry, both past and present, recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of its affiliation with Life Teen, a Eucharist-based program used around the world and focused on strengthening parishes and communities through ministry to teens. And after two decades, the St. Ann Church youth ministry continues to thrive.
People of all ages filled the sanctuary of St. Ann Church on Sept. 8 to recognize the lasting relationship with Life Teen as original members returned to see both old friends and new faces. A slideshow of pictures greeted the assembly before the Mass, which was broadcast online for those who were unable to attend in person.
“There were a bunch of people that were teens when we started that have now come back with their kids to be there and are still active,” said Randy Raus, the youth minister at St. Ann’s when the Life Teen program was implemented in the early 1990s. He now works as the president and CEO of the Life Teen organization.
“It’s wonderful to see how their faith is still alive,” he said.
When he was the St. Ann’s youth minister, Raus was approached by then teenager Greg Treanor about the possibly of incorporating the Life Teen program into the St. Ann’s ministry. Treanor had recently moved from Arizona, where Life Teen was established in the 1980s, and had seen how successful it had been in his previous parishes.
This came around the time when a parish survey had revealed that youth ministry was one of the most needed ministries in the parish. Raus explored the idea, attending a Life Teen training conference in Arizona, and eventually implementing the program into the parish a few months after his return.
Raus admits there were some speed bumps along the way as he brought in new ideas on ministering to the teens, but he feels that whenever people are doing something good for God, “especially with young people,” he said, they are bound to find some resistance. However, it didn’t take too long for the youngsters to realize how much they liked the changes.
“You want them … to be drawn to the sacraments of the Church, and that’s what was so attractive to me about Life Teen,” he said. “The teens were excited about what we were doing.”
A Life Teen Mass was added to the weekend schedule for the church, and Ed Bolduc was hired to provide music for the Masses, which put a greater focus on teen involvement, using them as lectors, singers and Eucharistic ministers.
In addition to increased participation in Mass, Raus found that bringing the teens together in a large group setting before breaking into smaller groups provided an effective learning environment and a successful way to engage them in discussion. Retreats, along with life nights, a gathering to keep teens engaged after Mass, also added new life into the youth ministry.
St. Ann’s successfully served as the flagship Life Teen parish in the archdiocese. Parish leaders and youth ministers were able to learn more about the program firsthand and could experience its components in action. Fifty-three parishes in the archdiocese are now using Life Teen, Raus said, adding that it is amazing how quickly it has spread in the last 20 years.
Those 20 years were represented well at the anniversary event at St. Ann Church. Following the Mass people gathered in Nolan Hall to enjoy refreshments and catch up with old friends. Photos albums from past retreats were displayed on a table, and a quilt made from St. Ann Life Teen T-shirts throughout the years was hung as a catalog of memories for many who returned that night.
“(Life Teen) is a wonderful, great gift to this parish, but it’s a wonderful gift to the Church,” said LaSalette Father John Welch, who previously served at St. Ann Church and returned for the anniversary celebration. “It will continue beyond us, way beyond us.”
The youth ministry at St. Ann’s has certainly seen its share of ups and down in attendance over the years, but overall the mark it has left on participants is undeniable. Current youth minster Carmen Lerma joined the St. Ann’s team in 2010 to revitalize the program and has seen a boost in involvement over the last few years.
Lerma and a dedicated core team reevaluated the vision for the ministry and begin to incorporate some new ideas into their life nights to get the youngsters excited about the program.
“When (teens) find something that is appealing to them, they are the ones who will spread the word and get their peers into the program,” she said.
“We have an amazing group of core members that are able to support us,” she said, noting that the core members have been successful in creating purposeful life nights through an organized curriculum and careful planning.
A strong social component also has been helpful in engaging teens in parish life. Instead of providing a once-a-week educational or catechetical experience, opportunities to gather come several times a week, making Life Teen and youth ministry a part of the teens’ lives, instead of just another thing to do at church. Mission trips are now also a staple of the youth ministry program, as four trips abroad provide teens with service opportunities each year.
A typical Life Teen Sunday at St. Ann’s begins with Mass at 6 p.m., followed by a meal in Nolan Hall where they are able to socialize and hang out with friends. Life night comes immediately afterward and the evening ends with prayer and praise at 9 p.m.
“But they don’t just want to go. They want to come back. They want to have something else to go to,” said Lerma. “So we offer Bible study on Wednesdays. … After Bible study is what we call ‘just for fun.’”
During this time, the gym is open for the teens who want to play games and expend some extra energy. Some will gather outside to throw the Frisbee, while others will simply sit and talk. It is a great way to get the teens to the church and incorporate parish life into their social lives, Lerma said.
Here in Atlanta, Life Teen is growing to minister outside parishes as well. With the opening of Mission District, a Catholic bookstore geared toward teens and young adults, Life Teen continues to provide ways for young Catholics to gather together in faith.
For Raus, the formation of young Catholics is important to the life of the Church and is also an important facet of parish life, strengthening it from the inside by bringing generations of the faithful together.
“Youth ministry, while it’s not the only important ministry, I don’t really know one that is more (important),” said Raus. “Youth ministry is a way to connect (teens) to the parish. It builds up the parish.”
“They really are hungry for the truth and the depths of the Church, and they are wanting people to walk with them on that,” he added.
Thanks to dedicated ministers, parishioners and teens, the Life Teen program has been a success at St. Ann Church, but even more importantly has put a renewed focus on youth ministry throughout the Atlanta Archdiocese.
“When I think of celebrating 20 years of Life Teen youth ministry, I cannot help but feel that we are celebrating much more than resources or a name,” St. Ann pastor LaSalette Father Tom Reilly wrote in a letter to parishioners. “We celebrate the dedication of many committed parishioners. In these 20 years, we have seen the fruits of the interaction and dedication of youth ministers, parents, young adults, core members and clergy. Through our youth ministry program, vocations to the priesthood and religious life, marriages, lifelong friendships and many, many Catholic adults committed to discipleship have been developed.”