by Joe Bollig
LENEXA — There’s one taboo that almost always causes teenagers to clam up: God.
“A lot of kids, and most of their friends, really don’t talk about having faith in their lives,” said J.J. Luck-Smith, 13, an 8th-grader at Holy Trinity School in Lenexa.
“They mostly care about school and other things,” he continued. “And some people don’t want to be the odd one out. They want to blend in, instead of being ‘that one Catholic person.’”
But not J.J. He’s proud to be known as “that one Catholic person.” And he’s bold enough to help his fellow students break the “God talk” taboo.
In the final months of 2015, J.J. led several of his classmates, some teachers and families in Father Michael E. Gaitley’s “33 Days to Morning Glory” total consecration to Jesus through Mary program.
Being in a Catholic school helped. Nevertheless, it took some boldness and leadership on the part of J.J. to approach his peers and ask the school to let him launch the program.
“I’ve had students come to me before to request a change in uniform policy, a canned food drive and just a variety of things that are good,” said Martha Concannon, Holy Trinity School principal. “This is the first time I’ve had a student ask to call kids together to pray and build that relationship with God.”
It all began with good examples: J.J.’s father Jesse and his mother Ly. Jesse Luck-Smith initiated the “That Man Is You” program in his parish, and his mother is one of the leaders of the Militia of the Immaculata Village at the parish.
“My mom and dad are both leaders, and I kind of wanted to continue that leadership in our family,” said J.J. “I asked my mom [about things I could do] and she gave me the idea of ‘33 Days.’ So I thought about it and asked Mrs. [Kathy] Morton (7th-8th grade religion teacher), and we set it up.”
His mother had all the necessary materials, which she gave to J.J. After J.J. got permission from the school, he used social media to get out the word and handed out brochures. Associate principal Amy Johnson sent out a group email blast to teachers.
The “33 Days to Morning Glory” is a self-guided retreat that can be done individually or as a group.
“Each day [for 33 days], there is a reading and a prayer at the end that you read to yourself,” said J.J. “It’s a self retreat, but you can have meetings and groups, and watch a video and have a discussion about the week’s readings and how to ponder those things.”
J.J. and his mother made snacks for the group and Morton facilitated group discussions.
“The students were very receptive and respectful of J.J.’s organizing,” said Morton.
As it turned out, this was a busy fall for the 8th grade. Many of them could not attend the weekly Wednesday meetings held at the school from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. An average of 6-8 students would come to the meetings. Nevertheless, lots of students participated on their own — about 25.
“I know one student did it with his family,” said J.J. “They read it each day at their dinner table, so the whole family got consecrated.”
The students talked about the growth in their spiritual life and in the recognition that they needed time for stillness and prayer. And they also learned how this could be a struggle.
“They talked about the struggles we all have making time for prayer,” said Morton.
One student said she placed her “33 Days” book on her clothes, and another planned it for the trip to school each morning.
The consecration is supposed to take place on a Marian feast day. They chose the feast of Our Lady of the Expectation on Dec. 18 during a Mass celebrated by Holy Trinity pastor Father Mike Koller.
“I was so impressed at the depth of understanding of the students,” said Morton. “Because we weren’t in school for a week because of Thanksgiving, and it was a frenzied activity time, we gathered that last week to talk about where we were — if we were ready and wanting to make that consecration.”
“We did not as a group have that consecration at that Mass with Father Koller because the students felt they weren’t really quite ready,” she continued.
They didn’t consider it a failure. Far from it. The students thought they needed more time, possibly making the consecration during Lent.
“I was just very moved and impressed,” said Morton. “You’d think they’d say, ‘Yes, we’re ready.’ The students realized . . . when you say you are consecrating yourself to the Blessed Mother, you are making a vow and not making it lightly, with full understanding and preparation. They shared with me that they saw themselves as needing to pray, to reflect and to ponder before they seriously consecrated themselves.”
The project really had an effect on his fellow students, said J.J., causing them to have more respect for the Mass and retreats. And it helped him get a better understanding of people’s hunger for God.
“It pretty much changed the way I think about everything,” said J.J.
It went so well that J.J. is thinking of doing the same thing at his school for Lent.
Concannon is very proud of J.J. and what he has done for himself and the school.
“Kids who have been given the gift of leadership will exhibit that leadership in ways that are acceptable to their peers, not always acceptable to adults,” said Concannon.
“Oftentimes, we see that leadership in ways that are negative and challenging,” she continued. “To see J.J. exhibit his natural gift of leadership in a way to evangelize his peers is what we are about as a Catholic school. I’m very impressed and proud, and I’m sitting here wishing we had 10 J.J.s in our building to keep the fire going!”