Longtime director offers personal perspective on local youth ministry

| April 25, 2012 | 0 Comments

Mark Berchem, executive director of NET Ministries, was serving on the youth retreat team with the Catholic Youth Center in St. Paul when NET Ministries was formed in 1981. Following are edited excerpts of an hour-long interview about the past, present and future of the Catholic youth ministry organization.

Bercham

A couple of things: One was my own faith, and the faith of other people at the Catholic Youth Center, had been reinvigorated. I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic grade school and Catholic high school, got excellent instruction but I don’t know that I made my faith my own until I was finishing high school and into college, where it clicked internally.

All of a sudden I began to experience God’s presence, that he was alive, that he loved me, he had a plan for my life. The Scriptures kind of came alive. The things I had to learn growing up, now, I had someplace to hang them. They became meaningful. Along with that renewal of faith, came this desire — I want to show this to other people.

I had majored in social work in college with the intention of helping people solve problems. I realized that we spend a lot of time, as a society, trying to deal with problems after they occurred and not as much time trying to prevent problems.

One of the things I came to see working with young people is that young people who discover that God loves them, who grab onto their dignity as a person, who belong to an active or strong faith community, they tend to do better in life with other things.

It was my interest in faith and spreading faith and my desire to help people — especially young people — that kind of intersected.

I found myself at the Catholic Youth Center as part of the retreat team, doing retreats locally.

A lot of parishes would bus kids up to the old CYC on Smith Avenue for retreats. Over a period of time some of them said, “Would you ever send a team out to our town, rather than us busing our kids up?”

We started doing that. One of the staff would take a group of college volunteers and go down to Winona, or Sioux Falls [S.D.] or Rochester or Albert Lea, conduct a retreat and come back to the Twin Cities.

I was one of the new guys on staff, so, guess who got asked to do a lot of the traveling? After doing that for a couple of years, one day, I took out a map and made X’s on all these little towns I visited.

I said to the director that it would be more efficient if we got a team together to go down to Winona and do all these retreats consecutively and then come back. I wasn’t trying to start something. I was just looking for a way to make life a little easier.

In January 1980, I took 11 college students down to the diocese of Winona and we did 16 retreats in 21 days – we weren’t trying to start something. We just did it. We got back and the people in Winona said, “that was great, will you do it again next year” and I said, “absolutely.”

We got a call from bishop Dudley in Sioux Falls — “will you come and do that in Sioux Falls?” Another week went by and I got a call from a priest in Fargo – a priest named Bernie Pfau – he said, “you don’t know me but I heard what you did in Winona, will you come and do that in Fargo?”

In January 1981, we sent out three teams just for the month.

I went to Winona, someone else went to Sioux Falls, someone when to Fargo. As we were debriefing, evaluating and praying it was like a light bulb went off. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this for the whole year? As a young man, I remember praying “God, if you will give me the help I need to put together a team that can go out for a year, I’ll consider my life to be successful.”

I thought it would take years. Within nine months, the first team was trained and sent out – mainly in the Midwest, though we scoop down to Louisiana.

The first year we sent out an advertisement across the country

Very few people took us up on it. That was the last time that we advertised. It’s all been word of mouth and people calling us to say “can we get a team to come to our area?”

The first year, we were in nine dioceses. Now we’re in 90-plus, each year, that the teams will visit. It’s been exciting. I get to see every year, over 100 young adults who love Christ – they are proud to be Catholic. They want to serve. They think they can change the world and all I need to do is give them an opportunity, some training and guidance.

You mentioned earlier, it’s like the first apostles, they want to go out and do mission and they know when they come here that they may be sent anyplace. They all hope they get sent to California or Florida or someplace more exotic. But they get sent to rural North Dakota or Nebraska or small town USA and they come saying “I’ll go wherever you send me. I want to serve, I want to share my faith, I want to help other young people discover what I’ve discovered — that God is alive and interested.”

It’s contagious being around young people of faith.

You seem to have had a favorable response doing retreats in southern Minnesota. Did you expect that? What do you think accounted for the success?

I don’t know if I had great expectations because there was so much unknown. We were excited and I thought we had something valuable to share.

It was prior to John Paul II and the new evangelization. Now, there is a lot of talk about the new evangelization — back in the early ’80s, not so much. One thing we got asked all the time is, “Are you Catholic.” The notion of Catholic people going out and directly sharing their faith with other people, it wasn’t part of our world view, although, historically, that’s always been the Catholic world view.

At that period of time people thought faith was a private thing.

Here we were — a group of young people traveling around with a couple of guitars and a lot of energy and talking about Jesus — and it caught people off guard.

The first retreat we did in January 1980 was at Winona Cotter High School and we were scheduled to do a retreat every day of the week – seniors, juniors then the sophomores.

When we got there, the school principal, the head of the religion department and a bunch of people wanted to talk with us about what we were going to do and what would happen. I tried to answer them to the best of my ability. It was kind of planned out, but at the time I had a master’s degree in social work but I didn’t have any formal training in theology. I’ve since gone back and got some. I realized that as I answered their questions, I wasn’t satisfying their concerns. At one point I said, “I’m not answering all your concerns. Let us do the retreat tomorrow and if you like us we’ll stay and if you don’t we’ll leave,” which was a really stupid thing to say. I’d talked 11 college students into giving up their J term to come and do this.

We did the retreat and there was nothing unusual about the retreat. Young people shared about God’s love, there were talks, small groups, faith testimonies, praying with the kids, had Mass.

The retreat was over and we cleaned up and went to have a meeting with the school authorities. Before the meeting was to begin, the receptionist knocks on the door and beckons the principal to come over and whispers something to him. He comes back over and says she had already gotten three phone calls wanting to know what happened today at school. Parents said, “This is the most excited my son or daughter has ever been about their faith.” That was the end of the meeting. He said, “you can stay.”

Because it was so novel, there were a lot of questions they had.

We weren’t a well-oiled machine then. Now, we have a lot more things in place and prep material we send out. Then, it was an adventure. I think in the early years, God protected us from our ignorance. I think there’s a special grace the first couple of years where things that could have gone wrong didn’t go wrong. After a few years I think God said OK now you’ve got some experience start using your head. Start writing some stuff down.

Was it a challenge to convince pastors, bishops and others about the value of this ministry?

The challenge was that it was new and people had to break out of their mindset of how you do ministry with young people.

What was working in our favor was a lot of bishops, priests and so on would look around church on Sunday and not see too many young people. When they had a NET retreat and they saw the excitement that the retreatants left with, they said, “I like the end results.”

Jesus says, “you’ll be known by your fruit.” That was what was convincing. Kids were energized about their faith. They wanted to get back involved in church. That’s a good thing. That was really the key to our growth — the positive results. And it was contagious.

Shortly after we got started, along comes John Paul and he starts talking about the new evangelization and evangelization became more normative and a part of our everyday vocabulary. Then when we talked about the national evangelization teams, they go “I get it.” The first couple of years evangelization was treated like “that is an evangelical word, not a Catholic word.”

Tell me about the people who helped support you.

When we started Archbishop John Roach was archbishop here. He gave us enough support to get started. I took it as let’s see what happens. As it looked like it was gaining traction, he asked Bishop [now Archbishop] Robert Carlson to get involved and so bishop Carlson became the first president of our board. I worked with now Archbishop Carlson for many years and he was a great help, very encouraging. He gave us some good guidance. He walked with us from moving from the St. Paul CYC, to Brady High School, to getting this property. He was instrumental with helping me with the purchase of this property and a subsequent addition to the back. We bought this and there was no place to sleep people so we added dorms for 144 and a large meeting room. That all happened when Bishop Carlson was president of the board.

When Archbishop Harry Flynn came he was wonderful, very pastoral, great with young people. I asked him to do a lot and he was extremely accommodating, coming to the commissioning Mass to commission the teams at the beginning of the year. He would host a lunch for us with the U.S. bishops in Baltimore. He would help with a fundraising thing in Naples, Fla., a fundraising thing here. He would come to a thanksgiving Mass with the team members, come to a Lifeline event, talk about vocations, plus he served as president of the board for a couple of board meetings. He was very involved.

Archbishop John Nienstedt has followed suit. He is equally involved and he’s been great and has done many of the same things that I just mentioned about Archbishop Flynn. He will keynote our banquet. He will preside at the public anniversary celebration at St. Joe. He’s been great. He’s been very supportive. We’ve been very fortunate that all the bishops, locally, that have been involved have been very generous in giving of their time with all sorts of different events. I think that carries over to the bishops across the country. A good word from one of the bishops here helps other bishops to see that “these are good people, let’s have them in our diocese as well.”

What else does net offer young people, today?

I want to talk about the teams first. The core of NET, the bread and butter, if you will, has been the NET teams that go out and conduct the evangelistic retreats across the country. This year, we have seven teams traveling around the U.S. in 90-plus dioceses, and their main ministry is just doing retreat work with the Catholic young people.

We have one team that stays here in the archdiocese and does retreat work here for the young people in the parishes and high school as well as assists in our monthly Lifeline, our youth Mass.

So, once a month we have a youth Mass here, the first Saturday of the month we have Mass, a little break and some kind of presentation geared to helping young people with their faith and daily life. That’s attended by 1,000-plus young people every month. It’s exciting. The gym is packed. It’s lively. The music is reverent but lively. It’s amazing — at the moment of consecration you will have 1,000 young people on their knees on a hard gym floor and it will be totally silent, focused on what is happening on the altar.

It’s very impressive. It’s one of those things you wish you could invite more people to see, because people think young people aren’t interested in their faith. It’s there; we just have to do a better job of making it available to them.

We have two teams that work strictly in parishes. This is a relatively recent development. About six years ago we started an experiment with Divine Mercy Catholic Church in Faribault. We had a team dedicated entirely to that one parish. Rather than doing retreat work, they went out and made contact with every young person who was no longer involved. Anybody who got confirmed and wasn’t going to youth group, our team members found, and talked with them, met with them, went out to their school, went to their sporting events, went to their concerts, went to the youth hangouts, established a relationship and looked for ways to invite them to re-engage with their faith. At the same time, we worked with some of the kids who were involved in the parish to mentor and disciple them to become the leaders in the parish program.

We come into a parish and make a three year commitment — the idea is get the young people who aren’t involved, get them re-engaged — let’s fortify the youth program and let’s train up the young people involved here to carry it on once the team is done. We’ve been at Divine Mercy, at St. Michael in St. Michael, we are finishing our third year at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Hastings. We’re finishing our second year at All Saints in Lakeville.

The last team works full time at Providence Academy. We’ve started inserting a team into a high school as part of the campus ministry program. They do a lot of the same work as they would in the parish, but now it’s in the high school setting. They are doing a lot of relational ministry, trying to connect young people and students that have been involved to get them more involved. We go into some of their classes. We’ll sit in their theology classes and listen to the same lecture and carry the conversation out into the hallway and they’ll have a chance to process it more. We go to some of the sporting events and other things. We run small groups. We run bible studies. We have faith sharing groups so young people can meet in small groups with team members to grow in their faith. We have extra time for communal prayer in the chapel.

Those are some of the newer things working in the parishes and high schools.

Besides the NET team, we have Lifeline, the monthly youth Mass for young people in our area.

We run a gathering for youth ministers. It’s a monthly morning for people working with youth, we provide some training and support for them in their role as youth workers.

In the summer, we run Discipleship Week, which is a four-to-five-day to a week-long retreat. It’s a follow-up for kids who have been on a retreat. It’s geared to help a person develop some of the daily practices you need to live your faith, like how to pray, how to make prayer time, understanding the sacraments, how to live a chaste life when you’re 16-17. It’s geared for young people who’ve experienced an initial conversion; they’re living their faith but they are looking for more hands-on help. Those are held here, in northern Minnesota, one in Texas and one in California.

How does NET embody the call to new evangelization?

One of the main tenents that John Paul offered was that the new evangelization isn’t a new message, it’s the message that has been saving people for 2,000 years, but presented with new methods and new vitality. I think that’s what NET does.

It’s a peer to peer ministry. It’s young people sharing with young people about their faith. Obviously it comes with high energy because young people come with high energy. We take the basic Gospel message that the church has been handing down for 2,000 years and we put that in language that a young person can understand. One of the keys for us is that we invite young people to make a response. We invite them to entrust their life in Christ, to pray for grace to understand God’s love more. It’s not just throwing out the message and hoping it sticks. You present the message, but you invite a response on the part of the young person

Young people need to be encouraged and coached on here’s how you respond to God, here’s how you pray, here’s how you can entrust your life to God. They just need a little bit of help. You can’t just say to them, you should pray.

One of the ways we embody the new evangelization is the call to present the consistent message of the church in a new way and with new vitality.

The second way we embody it is John Paul’s call to us was to start with the people in the pew. When we talk about the new evangelization, we’re not talking about going out to people who never heard about Christ. Let’s present the Gospel to people who have been born Catholic, raised Catholic, but for a variety of reasons have quit practicing. It’s going back and starting with our own and reinvigorating their faith. That’s where we work. We work with primarily Catholic young people in parishes and schools.

A third way we embody the new evangelization goes back to Paul VI. Paul VI said: “Is there any more effective way to evangelize then by having one person share with another person their experience of Christ.” That’s what the NET teams are doing. It’s a young person who is 18, 19, 20-22, sitting down with someone who is 13, 14 and 15 and sharing how “God has worked in my life. This is why I’m following Christ; this is why I’m Catholic. It’s worth it and I invite you to do the same thing.”

It’s that person-to-person transmittal of our faith story and that invitation to join the family.

Those are 3 ways we embody the new evangelization.

What are you most proud of regarding NET Ministries?

Changed lives. One of the things we hear a lot from young people on retreat is “I never knew there were other kids that believed this.” There are a lot of young people who have faith handed down from their parents but they often feel they are the only one. When they realize there are other young people, it gives them a new found confidence, a new found courage.

One of the most profound experiences for me, early on, is when we were at a retreat and there was a young man there who had a deformity in his forehead. It was wavy. He was the butt of a lot of teasing, a lot of jokes. Unbeknownst to us, he brought with him a weapon. It was a piece of metal shaped like a “t.”

You grab it and it pokes out for punching – it was the early ’80s. He had decided that the next kid that made a comment about his forehead, he was going to beat up. We didn’t know any of this.

The retreat was focused on God’s love and self-image and our dignity. He listened to the talks, was part of the small groups, saw one or two dramas, and was prayed with.

When the retreat ended, he walked up to me and took that metal weapon, handed it to me and said, “I don’t need this anymore.”

He said he realized on this retreat that “God loves me just the way I am and I don’t need to lash out at people because they tease me.”

It made me realize that we don’t know what hurts and junk a young person carries in with them when they come on retreat. But we do know that whatever it is, the message of God’s love and mercy can begin to give that young person freedom, can give them healing and hope, that whatever junk they are carrying because of their past life, or past activities or bad families or no friends, that Christ can begin to take that away from them.

I think about that incident every year we train the teams. We won’t know the junk these kids have when we start with them. We may find out because they may tell us. We do know the power of God. The love of God can answer the challenge those young people  have.

It has also been exciting for me to see what our team members do after they leave NET. We have team members teaching at the seminary here in St. Paul: Father Thomas Margevicius, Father Andrew Cozzens, Father Michael Becker, the rector of SJV, Bill Dill at the archdiocese’s office of Marriage and Family and Life.

At our 30th anniversary we will honor three alumni – Gordy DeMarais, founder of St. Paul’s Outreach; John Bolieau, director of the youth office at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio; Sister Consolata, vocations director for the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George. We could pick from hundreds of alumni who have continued to serve the church in all sorts of different ways and are committed to the new evangelization — the new springtime that John Paul talked about. I’ve seen the first fruits of that springtime in what our alumni are doing. Most of them don’t go into full-time ministry. Most of them get married and are raising beautiful families. I’m starting to get second generation kids now on NET. For the last four years, we’ve have kids whose parents have served with NET. This year, we have three kids whose parents served on the first team. That’s pretty exciting.

There’s more to do. Each year we reach 60,000 or 70,000 young people but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to how many young people there are in the United States.

As we move forward we want to put more teams on the road, we want to recruit more young people to serve. We want to touch more parishes. One thing we are looking seriously about is offices in other parts of the country to make our work more efficient and effective in the local area. One reason we can do more here in the archdiocese is because we office here, we have a team based here. So, we’d like to replicate that in other parts of the country, have a small office and another team in another locale so they can do the NET retreat, but also help develop some of the local programming we are able to do here.

What are the challenges fro NET today?

I think the greatest challenge. There’s always more to do then there are resources to do it. For us the challenge is can we recruit more and more team members and then can we support them.

If someone would say, what do you need to do more ministry? I’d say, I need more people, I need more money – it’s both. Need more vans, more insurance, more training.

Any new things for NET in the next five to 10 years?

We’d like to expand the number of parish teams, increase the overall number of teams, establish some satellite offices.

We are always open to the possibility of helping other countries get started. We’ve replicated NET in Canada and Australia. They’ve gone on and replicated NET in Ireland and Uganda.

That’s something we are open and excited about.

I look at it and scratch my head and say “how did this happen?”

I’ve had the privilege of working with young people and a super, dedicated staff – a lot have been with me 10 and 20 years.

The board of directors has been great. Benefactors have been great. People that support us have been great. We have people that have been donating to us for 25 years. Others have made significant contributions. It’s a whole flood of families.

The host families, in the course of a year, 1,000 families across the country will house our teams. If we had to find hotel space and restaurants, it would be an astronomical cost. People have opened their homes and taken in two or three members a night. Team members then get to experience what Catholic family life looks like. The families love having 18-20 year-olds who are excited about their faith and they hope it rubs off on the kids they have in the house.

What was reasoning behind parish and school teams?

We serve in hundreds of parishes across the country. One of our observations is that the effectiveness of parish youth ministry is varied. Some parishes do a very good job. A lot don’t do well at all. It’s our observation that there is a huge drop-off in parish youth involvement after confirmation. Kids are involved during confirmation preparatory phases and 80 or 90 percent are then no longer active. We’re looking at what we can do to reverse that.

What many parishes are doing now is not connecting with young people. Can we help with what we’ve learned over three decades and apply that into a parish situation and help create a re-invigorated model of what parish youth ministry should look like?

That’s our hope — to help parishes light a fire with their young people and with their parish to be a strong inviting place for young people to get involved and to stay involved.

Most people make their lifelong faith decisions while they are teenagers. The teenagers that decide to not remain involved — most aren’t making a decisive decision, they are just drifting away. By focusing our efforts in some select parishes, we can help the broader church keep our young people engaged during those formative years, while they are making those lifelong decisions, whether they are going to live as a Christian and in the Catholic community.

Youth have always been a difficult group to attract. What does NET and the church need to do to attract and evangelize them?

A couple of things – one is to share the basic Gospel message unashamedly. We don’t need to sugar coat the Gospel We don’t need gimmicks We don’t need trickery. Young people are looking for something to base their life on. Today’s generation is looking at my generation, those of us who were products of the sexual revolution. We’re post Vatican II. Many of us weren’t catechized and they are looking at our life and saying “you don’t look all that happy.” Maybe, the casting off of faith and loosening of social morals is not the way to go. Maybe there is something else.

They are looking for something solid. I think we have that to offer as a church. We have the message of Christ. We have a faith community. We have to present it in a way that is straightforward, attractive. We use youthful means so if you come to a Lifeline Mass, the music will be more upbeat. We use drama as a way to help communicate. Young people listen with their eyes. Presenting the Gospel visually is important. The witness of faith being lived out is huge. Young people need to see us living out our faith. They should see that it makes a difference.

One of the most effective things NET does is just the witness of the team’s life. You see people in their 20s that are respectful and courteous and serve one another and love one another and they say “that’s not my experience of friendship.” It’s communicating the Gospel in word and in picture by shared life, using drama or social media. I think it’s critical.

Those of us who are older need to make sure we make room for young people. They are going to do things differently, but that’s OK. As we get older, we tend to get conservative, not risk-takers and it bugs us when young people do something more adventuresome. We need to make room for that to be involved.

If loud music gets them in, God has a chance to work on them.

What do you say about the people who want to keep the music and liturgy more conservative?

I think there’s a balance. One of the things that happened after Vatican II is we put on the shelf a lot of our traditional, pious  practices, like adoration, the rosary, stations of the cross, pious prayers. There is a certain attraction for young people with some things that are ancient, that are traditional. Reviving some of these lost devotional practices won’t drive young people away. It can be a part of their spirituality.

Where we get in trouble is when we try to make one thing the whole thing. The church has a treasure chest of pietistic practices.

We want to expose people to a variety of ways we can connect with Christ and support them in the ways they can connect to Christ. If a person experiences their faith coming alive through a Marian devotion, that’s a good thing. We should encourage that. Another young person may experience their faith coming alive in more expressive praise and worship. That’s a good thing. They are both legitimate. The way we get in trouble is when we try to say the way I experience my faith is the way you have to experience your faith. We don’t want to be afraid to share with young people the ancient treasures of the church.

If young people are looking to connect with the sacred, we have to give them opportunities to do that. Adoration is a chance to do that. It can happen at liturgy. It also can happen on a mission trip in the woods. I get nervous when somebody says we have to do it this way for everybody.

As long as we stay within the bounds, we need to be familiar with different avenues. They all lean to the same place. We get to a commitment to Christ. We get to a decision to live the Catholic faith. We get to the point of being part of the faith community. That is what we are aiming for. Which path we travel is less important than where we get to with our young people.

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