Students grow in faith through prayer, community, service during summer break

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Bright and early on a summer morning, seven teenagers stroll into your parish's daily Mass. You do a double take, blink a few times, but they're still there. Aren't they usually sleeping? Playing video games? Letting each day roll lazily by?

Some teens might, but not those from St. Louis LifeTeen. They're among the many St. Louis area youth groups in full swing, morning to evening, throughout summer break.

Prayer and Community

After the success of St. Louis LifeTeen's 6 a.m. Masses on Lenten Fridays (followed, of course, by breakfast at Bread Co.), the group decided to do it again this summer, attending 8 a.m. Masses at some of the dozen or so parishes that make up the group.

"If I can get up by 5:30, I can get up by 8," said Katie Kirner, a recent Ursuline Academy graduate from St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish. Her two friends agreed.

Their youth minister, Lauren Scharmer, let the teens take the lead in planning their summer activities and is impressed with their desire to do more.

"When they're like, 'Can we go to Mass tomorrow?' what are you going to say? No?" she said. "It's awesome!"

The morning Masses are just the beginning of the group's summer activities. It meets Wednesday nights to discuss Church issues and growth in holiness; have Tuesday "social days;" play Frisbee in the park; went to LifeTeen Summer Camp and will attend the Steubenville conference.

Other youth ministries are also swinging into summer with pickup soccer games at Incarnate Word LifeTeen or planning retreats for younger students at Jornadas, a Hispanic youth group based at St. Cecelia Parish.

A LifeTeen group Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Ferguson hangs out at coffee shops on Wednesday nights to reflect on the readings for the upcoming Sunday. It has planned outings to the City Museum and the Zoo, weekly "open youth rooms" where the teens spend time together and monthly XLT ("exalt") events featuring a speaker and Adoration.

XLTs were developed specifically for the summer, according to the parish's LifeTeen missionaries, but they hope it will continue into the school year. The June XLT featured Father Brian Fallon, assistant vocations director for the archdiocese.

No matter the flavor of their activities, each youth ministry is seeking at its core to offer opportunities for prayer and community.

Callie Ussery, a LifeTeen missionary at Blessed Teresa, explained that social events "create an opportunity to talk and build conversation and relationship and trust, and through that it allows greater opportunity for prayer, for speaking of the faith."

Scharmer agrees.

"Christianity only makes sense lived in community," she said. LifeTeen "empowers them to be able to pray in front of each other, to pray with each other, just for them to see what a real, lived Christian community is."

Tom Lancia, director of the archdiocesan office of youth ministry, said, "Sometimes I think that the temptations are greater in the summer than they are in the school year because there's no structure, so it becomes even more important for us to create a structure of prayer in community."

For many teens, the pinnacle of this prayer and community is the Steubenville Conference in Springfield, Mo.

This year, the conference -- affectionately nicknamed "Steubie" -- will be held the weekends of July 10-12 and July 17-19. St. Louis LifeTeen and Blessed Teresa LifeTeen will attend the second weekend.

Meredith Belrose, a St. Louis LifeTeen member from St. Gabriel Parish, heard from her friends that Steubenville was "life-changing, so before summer even started I put it on my calendar."

Scharmer lauded Steubenville for its effect on teens: "The notion of the Christian life being possible, the Christian life being worth it is magnified in such a glorious way at Steubenville, in that what Steubenville does is it just shows them that the Body of Christ is real, it's their age and it's not going anywhere.

"When you have this high schooler that could be wondering about ... why this is worth it, for them to enter into an arena of 6,000 teens their age praising God on high, it changes things."

And this pinnacle of community and worship prepares teens for the second part of summer ministry: service.

Going Forth

Youth groups all over the archdiocese, from Perryville to St. Charles and beyond, use the summer to make mission trips to other states and countries, while other organizations, like Project Life, gathers teens from various parishes to serve locally.

Running June 7-13 this year, Project Life hosted teens at Villa Duchesne/Oak Hill School, sending them out to serve charities around town during the day and gathering them for games, talks and prayer each night.

Beverley Watson, of Springfield, Ill., returned for her second Project Life this summer. "Oh, I loved it," she said, pulling weeds from a garden at Cardinal Ritter Senior Services."It was so much fun; I met so many great people.

"You can learn so much from the different people you work with, from different situations you're thrown into and have to help with, and they're so grateful for everything."

At the St. Louis LifeTeen's last Life Night before its summer kickoff the next week, Scharmer talked with the teens about "going forth."

She read the Gospel passage for the Ascension, when Jesus told the disciples to "go forth and make disciples of all nations," and she reminded them of the last thing Jesus said: "Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."

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