by Robert Alan Glover
(OSV News) — Lay men and women carrying out missionary work in parishes, either on a full time or volunteer basis, are helping Catholic clergy expand the evangelizing reach of their ministry wherever they are, from urban centers to prairie towns.
In the Diocese of Memphis, Tennessee, Rebecca Talarico, the diocese’s associate director of youth ministry, told OSV News that programs vary from parish to parish and may use the catechism or the Bible “to create lessons that are suitable for young disciples.”
“The youth ministries under my direction employ various service projects and basic Catholic programs where the focus is on the lives that these teens are living,” she said.
Some youth ministers are paid — others are volunteers. But they have a missionary vocation to proclaim the Gospel to young people. So, first and foremost, in order to teach young people what it means to follow Jesus Christ, Talarico explained, “you want someone who is grounded in the Catholic faith.”
“Quite simply, you can’t give what you don’t have, and this especially applies to anyone who is living out their faith and not afraid to share it with others,” she said.
The youth ministers in Memphis Diocese run the entire social range, spanning age, gender and education. Some are retired, others are college graduates and several are priests.
However, a number of parishes — located in and outside of Memphis — rely largely on volunteers to form young disciples of Jesus, because, as Talarico explained, “they can’t afford to pay people.”
One of these parishes is St. Michael Catholic Church, located in midtown Memphis, which has an estimated 5,818 registered families.
“I became a youth minister eight years ago, after first getting Bible training from a Hispanic priest, Father Enrique Granados, along with other religious training,” Enrique Montiel, St. Michael’s youth director, who has belonged to the parish for 15 years, told OSV News.
Montiel shared how his missionary effort has seen transformation take place at his youth ministry where 80% of attendees are Hispanic, with the rest being of African American, “Anglo” or other ethnic backgrounds. Attendance at these weekly, two-hour evening meetings averages 50-75 people.
“We started with just 10 visitors and it grew from there,” he said. Montiel said the Hispanic youth are welcomed in Spanish, “and we try to meet everyone as friends by making them feel wanted and to be themselves.”
Additionally, Montiel is assisted in his ministry by a young couple who “attended our events as teenagers.”
“And now they provide music, organize games and help to form small groups together for talking and sharing experiences,” he said.
The ministry serves Catholic youth 13-18 years of age, including students in their senior year of high school. Montiel’s team tries to impart the lessons of faith to youth who “face constant pressure from social media and feel like they don’t belong.”
“We try to make them feel wanted and we stress that God is their best friend even in the hardest of times,” he said, “and that they can always find him (God) in their lives.”
Ordained a priest in 2001 for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska, Father James Keiter ministers to 12 parishes in the farthest flung parts of the archdiocese bordering South Dakota.
“I am absolutely focused on helping to create disciples: people who fall in love with and enter into a love with Jesus,” he told OSV News.
Father Keiter said his rural ministry started with three parishes nine years ago. “Then that number grew to seven churches by 2019 and five more in July of this year,” he said.
Father Keiter is working with missionaries from Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS, to build up disciples of Jesus in his parishes where the combined “flocks” total 1,600 families or 5,000 parishioners, with 30 weddings and 50 baptisms annually — all spread out over 1,500 square miles he covers by pickup truck.
This situation means that for Father Keiter’s parishioners having Sunday Mass celebrated in all of these parishes is simply not possible. In fact, as Keiter also explained, “six of my 12 parishes do not even have a weekend Mass.”
But Mass attendance has bounced back at all his churches since the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns. And in fact, he said, “at seven of them attendance is actually better now than before COVID arrived.”
The collaborative work of forming disciples with FOCUS, Father Keiter noted, has had a missionary impact.
“Each person that we disciple, you see, is part of a circle of influence, spreading out like a ripple in a pond, and touching all of those people who have been marginalized,” he said.
Sarah Horinek, FOCUS director of parish outreach and a full-time missionary at her parish, who is married with six children, shed more light on how lay men and women serving as dedicated missionaries in parishes have an evangelizing impact working with clergy.
Based at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, with its 350 registered families in rural Beloit, Kansas, Horinek said, “One of our greatest spiritual needs is opening the hearts of people to Jesus, in spite of the challenges and messiness that exists in their lives.”
“We serve as an extension of the church, reaching out to people in this remoteness and inviting them into a relationship with us, and through that relationship introducing them to Jesus Christ,” Horinek told OSV News.
“We do this by way of Bible studies, discussion groups, one on one interaction (visits) and taking our faith into all environments such as hospitals — and thereby demonstrating the corporal works of mercy to others,” Horinek said.
At the end of the day, the missionaries are forming disciples who become the apostles to those around them sharing the reconciliation that Jesus offers to every man and woman. Horinek said, “(We) teach them how to share that message — by building them up in terms of faith, and then sending them out to share the gospel message of Jesus with others.”