Campus ministry is well-known at colleges and universities, but youth leaders say it is equally important at the high school and middle school levels.
That is the age when youth start down the path to independence and find all sorts of interests that distract them from the Lord’s light.
Directors of campus ministry at three Catholic high schools say they do their best to keep teens within the fold, but it’s a challenge. When asked what pulls them away from their faith, one 13-year-old answered instantly: “Other kids.”
Justin Gaeta, director of campus ministry at Bishop England High School, agrees. He said teens look to people their own age for someone to emulate. But all those kids in turn are influenced by someone.
“There are a lot of things pulling our teens from Christ,” Gaeta said.
In his opinion, one of the biggest problems is a lack of good role models, and in general, he isn’t talking about parents.
Gaeta, who’s 24, said from his experience and what he sees on campus, teens are highly influenced by popular culture. They look up to musicians, sports figures and actors, and draw their thoughts and opinions from what they hear on the radio, in film and TV, he said.
Liz Loeffler, director of campus ministry at Cardinal Newman High School in Columbia, said this is a dangerous situation because even so-called family TV doesn’t support morals.
”Youth have too much information at their fingertips, and it’s not true information. There’s no filter for it,” she said.
Directors of campus ministry are using every tool at their disposal to wage a counter-attack.
Gaeta said he’ll try whatever crazy idea he can think of to engage youth in the faith. Retreats are a tried-and-true practice. He also holds a freshman lock-in and schoolwide ping-pong tournament.
He connects with students through music and fun activities, and promotes an open-door policy.
“I make sure no student falls through the cracks, that everyone is plugged into a group of friends,” Gaeta said.
That isn’t always easy to do. Guidance counselors say friendships at this age can end for the most trivial reasons. Some of the biggest issues adolescents deal with are feelings of not fitting in and being isolated, Loeffler said. The formation of cliques and the exclusion of others is an issue they constantly address at retreats and small-group sessions.
Loeffler has been involved with youth for over 20 years. She said the Cairos retreat has been one of the greatest experiences teens have.
On Cairos, there are no cell phones or any other contact with the outside world. Cliques are separated, and issues between individuals are addressed, she said. More than once, old angers have been healed, she said.
Because they are so powerful, one of the main priorities for campus ministry is planning retreats and days of reflection, said Jimmy Touzeau, dean of student life at St. Joseph’s Catholic in Greenville.
They also help organize annual events like the March for Life in Washington, D.C.
Loeffler, from Cardinal Newman, said it takes a lot of energy and activities to keep teens tuned into the right message.
“There’s so many different things that I do, I kind of feel like a jack-of-all-trades,” she said.
They do everything from plan community outreach to help set up for Mass.
One of the most effective measures is developing a program for the spiritual transition of students going into middle school, and working jointly with church youth group leaders, Loeffler said.
“We’re proactive in a lot of areas,” she said.