Giving a voice to youth to help form lifelong discipleship in the Church

December 8, 2020

Archdiocesan Youth Conference attendees gather during a session of the 2019 gathering in Houston. The 2020 event, which usually draws more than 2,500, was held virtually due to the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Adolescent Catechesis and Evangelization)

HOUSTON — Providing opportunities for youth to have their voices heard by Church leadership is key to reaching today’s adolescents with the Gospel message.

The Archdiocesan ministry that focuses on forming Catholic adolescents into lifelong disciples of Jesus Christ is the Office of Adolescent Catechesis and Evangelization (OACE). Its mission is to provide leadership, formation and resources in comprehensive youth ministry for parishes.

According to its director, Timothy Colbert, the ministry’s main priority is to give adolescents a voice to help OACE interpret the needs of today’s youth and advocate for their concerns to the members of Archdiocesan leadership. The Archdiocesan Youth Council was formed for this purpose.

Colbert said the young people chosen for the council become servant leaders in various capacities and encourage the Archdiocese to attend to their needs. Each parish and Catholic high school in the Archdiocese is eligible to enter two representatives. Currently, the council consists of 115 young people.

Heart and soul

“The Archdiocesan Youth Council represents the heart and soul of who we are,” said Timothy Colbert. “They provide a direct window into the lives of adolescents today, which enables our office to respond to the unique characteristics of each generation. In addition, the council provides excellent leadership for them in a variety of programs.”

Colbert said the youth council aims to draw young people to responsible participation in the life, mission and works in the faithful community of the People of God.

It also promotes spiritual and personal growth of its peers by facilitating active participation of youth in Archdiocesan events.

One such event is the annual Archdiocesan Youth Conference sponsored by OACE, which is one of the largest Archdiocesan evangelizing events in the nation available to high school youth that gathers over 2,500 participants. Young people are challenged to live out their faith and learn from exciting and informative national speakers and worship leaders.

Another event is the Junior High Youth Rally that brings together 700 younger adolescents each year. They gather together in community for a day of prayer, sharing, learning and celebrating their Catholic faith with the larger Archdiocesan family. The day features speakers, service, workshops and games.

A third event, a Celebration of Youth of African Descent, brings together young people to celebrate and experience their shared faith and culture. The day consists of presentations, workshops, prayer experiences and community life.

Equipping leaders

Colbert said to form and train adult leaders to effectively minister to the adolescents in their parishes, OACE provides adult leadership, formation and resources in comprehensive youth ministry. The Basic Certificate in Youth Ministry Formation, offered in both English and Spanish, is a ministry-training program for those in leadership with youth.

“Our adult leadership training equips youth ministers with the entry-level skills and understanding needed for creative and comprehensive ministry with younger and older adolescents,” said Colbert. The program was recently revised to reflect current research, in addition to adding a new hybrid online and in-person coursework.

The coordinator of youth ministry at St. Peter and Paul Church in Bellville, Cynthia Luongo, has attended several of OACE’s adult leadership training programs since 2009. She said she feels well-trained and educated by its staff through certification programs, catechetical days, youth programming, retreats, conferences, webinars and personal support.

“From the very beginning, I have been supported on both a professional and personal level by the staff at OACE,” said Luongo. “They are incredibly responsive, eager and knowledgeable, and my role at the parish would be greatly diminished without them. Also, OACE’s youth programming has enabled me to grow our parish youth ministry in ways I could not have done in our rural, isolated setting alone.”

Luongo said OACE also has helped her with crisis management so the parish can continue ministering to the youth amid the strict COVID-19 modifications.

This year, because of these restrictions, Colbert said most of OACE’s large-group events and training were either postponed or moved to an online format. He said staff and volunteers have been moved out of their comfort zones to learn new methods and technology, which has ultimately allowed them to gather more regularly with both parish leaders and young people.

“We now have a much greater capacity to serve our [Church],” said Colbert. More than 700 joined for the online experience. Colbert said he was grateful to Cardinal DiNardo for offering the resources to provide the conference free of charge during the pandemic.

Supporting parishes

One of more than 60 ministries supported by the Diocesan Services Fund (DSF), OACE directly benefits from the efforts of the faithful in the Archdiocese that contribute each year. Colbert said support from the DSF ensures that parishes receive the support they need from OACE and other ministries to effectively proclaim God’s word and grow lifelong disciples at all levels of the Archdiocese.

“Supporting the DSF is an acknowledgment that we are united as a diocesan Church,” said Colbert. “We are a community of communities ready, willing, and able to reach beyond our own parish boundaries to ensure the needs of our sisters and brothers in Christ are met. Although the focus of ministry to the people of God is in the parishes, parishes rely on the diocesan offices and ministries to support their work.”

Colbert said the DSF helps fund resources to support OACE’s Archdiocesan Youth Council and the development of life-changing moments of evangelization for younger and older adolescents through large programming efforts. He said the office is also enabled to develop and implement training and formation programs to youth ministry leaders and volunteers in parishes to ensure that the Archdiocesan youth are receiving safe, healthy, developmentally appropriate, culturally appropriate and Christ-centered formation.

Luongo agreed it is important to support the DSF to help ministries like OACE.

It’s already an uphill battle in the days of social media, misinformation about the faith and evangelical youth programming to distract our youth,” said Luongo. She said OACE, in its events and programming, helps provide tools and opportunities “to encourage and excite the youth about our incredible faith” and also helps care for those who teach the youth.