by Jessica Langdon
ATCHISON — Outside, the day was sunny and warm — the perfect summer afternoon — but teenagers from across the country were happy to crowd together inside, filling the pews at St. Benedict’s Abbey here.
“They thank me for coming,” said Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, who celebrated a Mass on June 25 for the Life Teen Leadership Conference.
“But really it’s quite edifying and inspiring to see their faith and their love for the Lord and the church,” he said.
In his homily, Archbishop Naumann thanked the teens — many leaders in their parishes and in their local Life Teen programs — for their participation in their communities.
He emphasized the need for community in practicing one’s faith.
Comparing it to a team sport like basketball, he said there are certain parts of the sport an individual can take part in — dribbling, shooting, dunking the ball — but to truly play the game, a team is necessary.
“We need that community to be able to share the Gospel and witness the Gospel,” said Archbishop Naumann. “We also need that community to support us and give us strength.”
One reason for that, he said, is that if they’re going to follow Jesus, they’re going to find themselves counter to what today’s world expects.
He told the group — gathered at Benedictine College June 22-26 for talks, worship and sacraments — they have the opportunity to reach their peers.
And those could be people that he and other bishops and priests might never have the chance to encounter.
“One of the things that I’ve always admired about Life Teen is that it’s very focused on the Eucharist and the sacramental life, and it draws kids to a love for the Eucharist,” he said. “That’s one of the great strengths of the program, but they’ve developed a good model, I think, over the years that helps to feed the souls of young people.”
It’s not merely about being a leader, points out the Life Teen website; it’s about learning to be a disciple.
“From the beginning when we started the Life Teen Leadership Conference, it was always about how do you make sure that a kid is going to say, ‘I’m going to follow Jesus completely and will lead like Jesus led,’” said Phil Baniewicz, now president of Maur Hill-Mount Academy in Atchison and one of the original founders of Life Teen (who has since passed leadership of the program on to others).
Baniewicz accepted a priest’s invitation to help years ago while he was playing college baseball and feeling a call to work in the church. Working with a musician, as well, they launched this program centered on the Eucharist and initially were trying to do something great in one parish — and it took off.
“So the Holy Spirit had much bigger plans than we did,” said Baniewicz.
Life Teen encourages youth to not only go to Mass, but to celebrate fully. It teaches the teenagers about the truth of the church and the Catholic Church’s teaching — “with love, not in a harsh way,” he said.
And it reaches out to “let them know that they are welcome, that they belong as part of the church,” added Baniewicz.
A number of parishes across the archdiocese have Life Teen programs.
When rural parishes want to start programs like Life Teen, Angie Bittner, rural youth ministry outreach coordinator for the archdiocese, said her office offers some scholarship assistance to help.
Bittner attended the leadership conference in Atchison in June for a second year in a row with the Northeast Kansas Rural Youth Council, made up of teens from across the archdiocese.
She sees a lot of flexibility in the way Life Teen can work at different parishes.
The conference itself provided understanding on tough topics, she said, adding that, in addition to worship and prayer, the conference sent the teens back home with a call to action to share their faith in their homes, parishes, schools and communities.
“But it also talked a lot about humility,” she said.
And the teens heard about being agents of joy.
“Will they be a foot washer? Will they inspire others to follow Christ by their life?” said Baniewicz.
For more information about Life Teen, visit the movement’s website at: www.lifeteen.com.