By Beth Donze
Mission is to church as burning is to fire.
This analogy was used to illustrate the church’s intrinsically missionary character throughout a four-day mission camp organized by the “ROCK” middle school and junior high youth ministry at St. Peter Parish in Covington. The church and all its members are automatically expected to be missionaries through baptism.
“You cannot be the church unless you are a missionary. We are all called to bring the joy of the Gospel to the world,” said ROCK youth leader Rafael “Rafi” Flores, speaking to his 45 campers, ages 10-13, from Catholic school, public school and homeschool families from across the northshore.
From July 10-13, the ‘tweens were immersed in the missionary charge of the church through icebreakers, games, skits, talks and small-group sharing. They learned that being a missionary almost always means leaving one’s comfortable world to step into discomfort, whether it is serving the homeless and hungry out in the margins, or simply helping someone near to them – a family member or a friend who might need their active concern when others are afraid to intervene.
“The way the church calls us individually as missionaries is to really make a mess,” said Flores, adopting words Pope Francis used to spark Catholics to take Christ’s message of unconditional love beyond the confines of their geographical parishes.
“You weren’t made for comfort; you were made for greatness,” Flores told the young people. “Make a mess, but also help to tidy it up. You have to be OK with being uncomfortable and being messy so you can shine a light of hope into (the messy situation). Ask God, how can you make me a little uncomfortable – take me out of my complacency – so I can bring joy out to a world that needs it?” Flores said, adding, “Make a mess! Stir the pot! Be courageous, because that’s what God calls us to!”
Learning through games
St. Paul’s sophomore Luke Vargas, a St. Peter altar server, junior master of ceremonies and a “Lasallian” youth leader at his high school, was among the mission camp’s 16 teenage counselors.
Vargas was impressed by the way Flores used fun and games as a gateway for teaching abstract concepts such as solidarity and empathy to the middle schoolers. For example, the camp’s obstacle course featured real-life struggles faced by children in developing countries. It included “soccer balls” made out of discarded shopping bags to remind the American youngsters of the lengths poor children go to create their own games.
“(The obstacle course involved) filling buckets with water, something kids in some countries do every day so their families can have fresh water,” Vargas said. “So, our campers were having a really great time, but they were also learning about kids’ struggles in other countries.”
Vargas’ favorite day of programming was when Flores split the campers into two groups by gender for talks and activities on what it meant to be a “woman of God” or a “man of God.”
“(Flores) used the Holy Family as an example,” said Vargas, describing how a statue of Mary and Baby Jesus, wrapped protectively in Joseph’s arms, was used as a visual to illustrate role models of a “woman of God” and “man of God.”
“I thought the kids would be all about fun and games, but they really listened to the talks. They were even excited to go to confession!” Vargas said. “A lot of the boys talked about their fathers being men of God. One thing that kept coming through was how they considered their dads to be men of action who did things in a way that was charitable and courageous.”
Another mission camp counselor, St. Scholastica Academy senior and Our Lady of the Lake youth group member Gabbie Angelle, said she was blown away by the campers’ attentiveness and intelligent questions.
“They’re so smart!” Angelle said. “They knew a lot more than I thought they would – they knew what a monstrance was! I didn’t know what that was until about three years ago!”
She was also impressed when a camper gave the following answer to what it meant to be a man of God.
“He said, ‘We are created in God’s image and likeness,’” Angelle said. “I was like, wow! It was refreshing and amazing that they knew this at such a young age.”
Show them church’s ‘beauty’
Flores, who also works as St. Scholastica’s junior theology teacher, has found that one key to forming middle schoolers in the faith is to keep presentations short and to the point. Flores also deliberately incorporates lots of physical activities into his programming, so pre-teens can “get the energy out of their systems” before hunkering down for the day’s lesson.
“With my middle-school kids (we focus on) the experience of just being with them. We’re here together. We’re here to experience church,” Flores said. “Middle-school age is such a beautiful age for that. They’re open to everything. It lights up my heart!”
Flores also observed that youth leaders often feel they have to accomplish so much in their brief time with their young charges and, because of this, barrage them with theology.
“I think with middle school, you just need to show them the beauty of Christ, the beauty of church,” Flores said. “I don’t remember what I was taught at retreat when I was their age, but I do remember what I experienced. For instance, they might make a good confession (at mission camp) and they’ll remember that and they’ll think, ‘That was good! I should do that more often!’”
Flores said adults should not underestimate the spiritual potential of middle schoolers. This age group’s spirituality can definitely rise to the level of its characteristic physical energy if parents and other formational leaders only unlock it, he said.
“The more we disciple middle schoolers – not by diving into super controversial, intense stuff, but by reminding them that they’re called for something better – it creates a spark,” Flores said. “Once they get to high school and start tackling those really big questions, they’ll already have a love for Christ and his church. Imagine what spirituality will develop within them as they become teenagers! Being a missionary will be second nature to them.”
ROCK, the middle school and junior high youth ministry at St. Peter Parish in Covington, stands for Radically Outrageous Catholic Kids.
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.