A team of 12 young adult Catholic missionaries left a mark on teenagers’ souls from four local parishes in recent weeks.
The missionaries — six women and six men — belong to one of eight groups who dedicated the academic year to serving on a National Evangelization Team through NET Ministries. They travel the country hosting Catholic retreats for junior high and high school youth.
The Diocese of Phoenix has several NET alumni, including three who now serve locally as youth ministers. It was through their good word that Jen Rajani, youth ministry coordinator at St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Cave Creek, invited a NET team to the diocese. She also invited teens from neighboring parishes St. Bernadette in Scottsdale, Our Lady of Joy in Carefree and St. Joan of Arc Parish in Phoenix to experience the greater Catholic Church around them.
The NET Team — Team 7 for those following their blog — led a retreat Nov. 17-18 for 45-60 high school teens from four parishes. Two days later, the team led a scaled-back two-hour retreat for 50 junior high students at St. Joan of Arc during their regular youth night.
Both focused on the theme “Reality check.” Ashley Cermak, a NET team member, gave the talk during the junior high retreat at St. Joan of Arc. She reminded the youth, who minutes earlier engaged in lively conversation with the team members during a “meet, greet and mingle” activity, that music and television shows often tell its audiences how to live, even though those methods aren’t very real.
“Reality means truth. Actual rather than ideal,” Cermak said, cautioning them against the devil’s traps.
“God is real and His image is real. Not only are we made by God, but we’re made for God,” Cermak said.
The high school retreat held smaller sessions for men and women too. Zack Hohenberg, youth ministry coordinator at St. Joan of Arc, found one of his youth’s statements afterward particularly poignant. It was her first retreat experience.
“I know who I am now and I know who I’m supposed to be as a Catholic woman,” she said.
Rajani saw similar transformations in some teens from St. Gabriel. She noted the girls paying close attention during the session for women. They asked dating and relationship questions of the NET team and local youth staff.
“Even some of the teens weighed in and gave reflections,” Rajani said. “We have some awesome leaders in the church coming up and are already present.”
Hohenberg, who himself spent two years traveling as a NET missionary, said a lot of youth left encouraged to have a personal relationship with God even if it’s just taking 10 minutes a day to sit down and pray. There were a few who were required to be at the retreat. When it came time for them to be prayed over, they shared an increase in faith and trust in God as their intentions.
“That showed me the power of having NET do the retreat,” Hohenberg said. “It’s like going to a priest you don’t know [for confession].”
He explained that there’s sometimes a willingness to be more open. He also loved seeing each team member genuinely caring about the youth.
NET leadership had other benefits too. The team members are 18-28 years old by design. Team 7’s oldest member happens to be 25, so the high school teens in particular left encouraged by the radical example of peers not much older than themselves, Hohenberg said.
Patrick Welsh, one of two leaders for Team 7, said at least two local high school teens were convinced that they’re called to serve with NET Ministries. Some join out of high school, others after college and some, like Welsh, take a break in between to be a U.S.-based missionary.
“There was a point in my life where religion and faith in general, was just a tradition, something I did,” Welsh said, noting that faith was an idea, not a relationship. “I hope that by the end of it, that they somehow come to know Jesus Christ, if anything, the curiosity factor…. What is it that makes you do this?”
Tatum Greenslade, the other team leader who converted to the faith at age 21, hopes youth leave NET events confident in living out their faith, even if they’re the only one of their friends wanting to go to church. The team had put on 27 retreats since August by the time they hit the Phoenix Diocese.
“The thing that l love the most: we get to pray individually for each of the retreatants,” Greenslade said, at one point calling herself and the team “a vessel to Christ.”
They often request prayers pertaining to school and home life and for growth in the Lord, she said. The youth on both retreats had time to reflect on the reality that God is revealing through Scripture, through small group discussion, a silent but moving drama and prayer time in the church. They also made personal commitments to Jesus.
NET missionaries often plant the seeds for those at the parish level to nourish year-round, Welsh said. His team alone plans to log 20,000 miles during the school year reaching 8,500 young people across seven or eight dioceses.
NET Ministries currently has 8 traveling teams composed of 10 to 14 members who facilitate retreats six days a week for youth in junior high and high school. Sara Drake, a Catholic from St. Joan of Arc on Greenway Road just east of State Route 51, is traveling with Team 3. She, alongside the 11 young adults serving with her, has led 50 retreats so far this school year.
“My hope is that they encounter Christ’s love — whether that be through the dramas, or the time in prayer, or just talking to one of the NET team members — however the Lord wills,” Drake wrote The Catholic Sun from the road Dec. 11.
She finds that the teens often want to feel loved and know it in a deeper way. With NET, Drake said, the young adults come in as relatable Catholics focused on loving the youth for the sake of the gospel.
“I think that whether they know His love or not, they are drawn to it,” Drake wrote.
Drake and the rest of Team 3 are scheduled to lead retreats in Phoenix in January and March 2013.
Instead of traveling, three other U.S.-based NET teams remain in a specific parish or school the entire year building youth or campus ministry.
Grace Minton, a former youth at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Scottsdale, served with NET Australia last year. She shared her journey with parish youth Dec. 9.
For 31 years, NET Ministries has trained more than 2,000 young adults to give personal witness to junior high and high school youth through retreats. They’ve impacted some 1.6 million young people.
Dates are still available for retreats in 100 dioceses around the country. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (651) 450-6833 to schedule a retreat for local youth.