By NANCY SCHWERIN
CHARLESTON — Teens across the United States are expressing themselves through music and learning about their faith with their peers. They are coming together for weekly Mass — teen-style.
Life Teen is giving young adults a place of their own in the church. The 15-year-old program, based in Mesa, Ariz., has planted firm roots for the future. It took 13 years to build a list of 400 parishes, but two years later nearly 600 parishes participate in the Life Teen program.
The number of parishes participating from state to state differs tremendously. In the Southeast, 39 parishes host Life Teen in Georgia, 9 in Virginia, 4 in Tennessee, 8 in Mississippi, 26 in Louisiana, 11 in Alabama, 38 in Florida, 6 in North Carolina and 6 in South Carolina. Of the 49 states that participate most are still under 25, but the numbers get as high as 59 and 71, in Texas and California, respectively.
In South Carolina the first parish to venture into the world of Life Teen was St. Mary Magdalene in Simpsonville. The program began five years ago with a bang and has been going strong ever since.
Joe Maggio, director of youth, says, “It’s a total youth ministry that’s adaptable to each parish. It gives kids ownership; they feel involved and that it’s their program.”
The concept for Life Teen came about in 1977 when Father Dale Fushek found that kids didn’t feel connected to their church.
Through the Life Teen program, which includes a weekly Mass, teens are able to find their place in the Catholic church. They conduct the Mass, ministering, reading, and singing. And through specially formulated Life Nights, they learn about their faith.
“Mass is so important. It’s the focal point of everything we do,” says Terese Soliman, director of youth at Blessed Sacrament in Charleston.
Susan Starr, youth director at St. Michael’s in Garden City, explains: “The music draws them initially; it’s a little less traditional, more energetic and contemporary. Then Life Nights invite them to experience the mysteries of their faith in a real, tangible way. Their eyes get opened a little bit at a time. They then go back to the Mass and see it in a new light.”
By all accounts, the music ministry’s unique flare plays an important role in the success of the program.
In January Blessed Sacrament is hosting a workshop for music ministers. Ed Bolduc, a regional representative of Life Teen from Marietta, Ga., will discuss reaching teens through music.
Soliman describes Bolduc’s music: “It takes you from the hoopla then quiets you down and opens your heart. It can really move teens and adults.”
Life Nights spice up the traditional religious education material that’s straight from the book and puts the faith into action. Through skits and games the teens learn their faith in ways that are fun and direct.
“It’s religious education on their level,” says Maggio. “It’s a fun-loving atmosphere built in Christ; a safe atmosphere where they can be themselves.”
In Aiken, the newest S.C. chapter of Life Teen got underway recently at St. Mary Help of Christians. They are working in conjunction with Our Lady of Peace in North Augusta and are even attracting teens from the Columbia area.
Carolann Horton, director of youth at St. Mary’s along with her husband, Chip, says they were drawn to Life Teen because of its success rate. She explains that in the Aiken area youth groups are very successful, and they felt their fizzled group needed a lift.
“(Life Teen) has a unique Catholic essence,” says Horton. “We could offer a Mass, whereas the other groups didn’t.”
The success of the program is greatly dependent on the core team — a group of adults, whose only requirement is that they’re out of high school — who act as role models for the teens. The spend several months in training, learning about the program and mentoring.
St. Michael’s in Garden City is going into its second year with Life Teen. Starr says, “The common thread (among core team members) is they like working with teens, and they have a faith experience that they want to share with them.”
Starr emphasizes that for teens and mentors alike the benefits are far greater than they expect.
While parents are involved as core members, Starr says that under Life Teen guidelines it’s suggested that parental involvement may stifle the candor in the discussions.
“It may be the first time that they’re exposed to someone that says, ‘It’s cool to be Catholic,'” says Starr.
Weekly gatherings in South Carolina, which includes St. Peter’s in Beaufort and St. Philip Neri in Fort Mill, attract anywhere from 20 to 45 kids. The lively Mass, however, draws other students and young adults to the liturgy. Across the United States in more established programs, the Life Teen attendance reaches the triple figures.
Starr recalls meeting veteran Life Teen members at training in Colorado: “Programs that have been established for 10 or 12 years have vocations to the priesthood and sisterhood coming out of the program; kids are on fire with the faith; there are kids who are probably leaps and bounds above me in their faith.”
Life Teen groups plan trips together and participate in retreats and diocesan events as a group.
The Life Teen challenge, “Get a life … in Christ,” is based on experiences, and the program’s format allows teens to gain experiences in their faith firsthand.
“It’s tremendously energizing for the whole parish when the program is working,” said Starr.