Helping youths encounter Christ

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By Bob De Witt 

Correspondent

For nearly two decades, youth minister Emily Belchick has seen young people who are raised Catholic drift away from the church as they head off to college and into the workforce.

Many are swept up in cultural currents because they lack a spiritual anchor, never having experienced a personal relationship with Jesus.

That’s why Belchick, youth minister at St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in East McKeesport and coordinator of faith formation at SS. John and Paul Parish in Franklin Park/Marshall Township, is excited and hopeful about On Mission for The Church Alive!, in which Bishop David Zubik emphasizes the need to learn, love and live Jesus.

“To know that we’re losing 85 percent of young people after confirmation; that fires me up,” Belchick said. “Change can be hard, but we can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting different results.”

So when Kenny Weaver, 21, struggled upon returning home after switching colleges, Belchick invited him to join St. Robert’s young adult group and teach sixth-grade faith formation. Weaver is thriving through both experiences, and said he is back on track in his faith and in life.

“It used to be that I would go on retreat, or even to a World Youth Day, but later the ‘holy high,’ as I call it, would die off,” Weaver said. “Now I am starting to feel the pull of God’s love. I try to talk to him more and listen better, to have his will be done and not mine.”

Weaver’s sister, Kelly, 24, admits it’s not easy practicing the faith.

“There’s a transition period from youth and campus ministry to getting married and having children,” Kelly said. “There’s not always a clear path to feeling connected and being fed spiritually.”

She feels the influence of the culture and sometimes gets too busy, but she is growing in her faith, especially through conversations in the young adult group led by Belchick.

“St. Robert’s is a small parish, but we make the most of our limited resources,” Belchick said. “We’re sustaining a youth program and we raised $85,000 to send our kids to World Youth Day.”

“In a lot of places there are people coming to Mass who have no experience of Jesus. First you have to encounter him, then comes the curiosity, then learning the faith,” she said.

St. Robert parishioner Tori Fedora, a college senior, comes alive in her faith through service projects — spending summers in Appalachia with high school students, working on a farm, cleaning the houses of people who are ill, and visiting nursing homes.

Why is the church losing so many young people?

“I think many of them see the Catholic Church as old-fashioned,” Fedora said. “A lot of parishes aren’t on social media. They’re old school.

“Also, confirmation is kind of the end point in learning about the faith. Young people just don’t know enough about it,” she said.

Belchick agreed.

“Many parents also don’t fully know their faith, so how can they teach it to their kids?” she asked. “I don’t blame them, because we allow them to drop off their children at faith formation and not be engaged. Often we’re not helping parents to be the primary teachers of the faith.”

Belchick asked a series of challenging questions. Are we using all of our resources to teach the faith? Do we see it as a lifelong learning process? Why did you get your children baptized? And, are we bringing souls to Christ?

She said more parishes can be a positive force in the lives of young families, starting with baptism preparation.

Kenny Weaver, for his part, keeps his eyes on the prize.

“I’d like to continue to follow God’s plan and listen to what he has to say, instead of the world,” he said.