According to national surveys, only about two-thirds or fewer millennials who were raised Catholic remain Catholic as adults. Franciscan Sister Jane Venhaus is determined to help young people beat this troubling statistic.

In the Diocese of Lubbock, Texas, where she directs the youth ministry program, about half of those confirmed continue to be involved in activities, she said. “We’re not finished yet, but we’re seeing results.”

Having spent her entire ministry in the formation of young people, she took over as diocesan director in 2009. “If we don’t strengthen the youth, we will have no Church,” she said.

The Diocese of Lubbock faces challenges in fostering young Catholics. There are only two Catholic schools in the diocese, with a third new grade school opening this fall.

The office of youth ministry has only two people: Sister Venhaus and her part-time assistant, D’Maris Murillo. They cover a diocese about the size of West Virginia in the rolling plains of western Texas. It has nearly 140,000 Catholics in 63 parishes served by 43 priests. Eighty-five percent of its youth are Hispanic.

In the last two years, Catholic Extension provided a combined $21,500 to help with operating expenses for the Office of Youth Ministry, including leader training, retreats, rallies, and other activities.

Youth minister, D’Maris Murillo leads a group of high schoolers at the Diocese of Lubbock Catholic Renewal Center.

Three top youth programs

Each year the diocese holds a youth rally for grades six to 12 to evangelize, praise and worship. It runs Friday to Saturday night. Typically 500 attend. This year in May about 800 came.

Sophomore students attend a confirmation retreat before they receive the sacrament. Four retreats are offered annually. “We do a weekend retreat because young people need time to reflect,” Sister Venhaus said. “They need to ask, ‘What do I want my life to be?’”

She points out that youth are not used to silence. “They are normally restless and constantly moving,” she said. “Retreats offer a chance to look at life and not run through it.”

After confirmation, about half the youth join the “CIA,” standing for Confirmed in Action, to meet weekly to socialize, study and lead service outreach. The goal is to further nurture their faith and shepherd them into parish life in adult roles, such as lectors, Eucharistic ministers and teacher’s aides in the CCD programs. Why this continued discipleship? “Small Christian communities need to bond or they won’t come back,” she said.

Offering alternatives

Young people are hungry for substance. “The media and social media push so many messages on them that it is hard to see the value of their lives beyond material things,” said Sister Venhaus.

“But they see that the things in this world don’t last,” she said. “They want something more meaningful.” When they attend a diocesan event, “they experience a community where Christ is the center,” she added.

The young people of the diocese face challenges — poverty, peer pressure, drug and alcohol use and broken families. “They are up against so much,” she said. “They need to know that Jesus loves them in a personal way and that He will stay with them.”

Becoming a youth leader

Raised in a Catholic family, Murillo attended her first youth rally when she was 13 years old. But as she went through her teen years, faith became a little fuzzy.

Along the way she met Sister Venhaus, who kept calling her back to Christ. When she was 24, Father John Ohlig of St. Theresa Church in Lubbock told her, “Find friends who love Jesus.”

She did just that. Today she is going one step further by helping young people see the path to Jesus as well. “Teens need someone to believe in them,” she said. “They need a safe place where they can ask tough questions.”

Murillo works part time at the diocese with Sister Venhaus and as coordinator of youth events at St. Theresa. Murillo is also pursuing a certificate in youth ministry at a Center for Ministry Development program in Dallas.

“We do a weekend retreat because young people need time to reflect, They need to ask. ‘What do I want my life to be?’”

“People say the youth are the future of the church,” she said. “But we need them now! They are part of the current Church and also future leaders.”

She is learning from Sister Venhaus. “She does not give up on us,” Murillo said. “She doesn’t let anybody slip through the cracks.”

Sister Venhaus, who retires this year after more than 50 years, has changed the scope of youth ministry in Lubbock. When she started, only five parishes offered CIA. Now 25 parishes do. In a world of uncertainties, she is making sure that young people know that the Church has their back.

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