Kaitlyn Elpedes’ days reflect the life of a busy teenager. A junior at Aliso Niguel High School in Aliso Viejo, Kaitlyn is the artistic director of her school’s 80-member, student-run theater company, all the while hitting the books to keep her grades up and leading the Confirmation 1 class at her parish.
“It’s all very stressful,” she said. And she’s not alone. Today, teens are feeling the pressure to achieve in academics, athletics or other activities with their eye toward college acceptances.
But Kaitlyn has a secret weapon: her faith and her community at St. Timothy Catholic Church in Laguna Niguel.
“My faith has helped me through so much,” Kaitlyn said. “It’s easy to get caught up in everyday worldly tasks, and put God in the back of your mind. But it’s important to step back, take a deep breath, and know that there’s nothing that God can’t do.”
Youth ministry directors at parishes across the Diocese of Orange believe the Gospel message and a vibrant youth ministry outreach is the counter message in the high-stakes world that teens live in today.
“I think the biggest obstacle for teens is the immense amount of pressure to be hyper-involved, to perform at a higher level, and this idea that you are what you achieve,” said Matthew Zemanek, director of Youth & Young Adult Ministry at St. Timothy. “But God’s message is, ‘You are enough.’ You are created in the likeness and image of God. He is not waiting for you to get A’s; he loves you as you are and he’s interested in exactly the person you are, not the things you achieve.”
Zemanek is also an Orange County representative for Life Teen, a parish-based program that provides resources to youth ministries to engage teens in their Catholic faith. Life Nights, an evening of faith and community at a parish, connects teens to like-minded peers looking to have deeper and more meaningful conversations about their faith.
“It operates on a relational ministry,” Zemanek said. “We focus on building relationships with young people to help them build their relationship with Jesus Christ.” Twenty-two parishes in the diocese use Life Teen resources, he said.
Along with teen-focused programs, parishes offer one of the most powerful experiences in a teenager’s life: retreats during their two-year Confirmation program, said Catherine Ord, programs coordinator, Youth Ministry, at the Diocese of Orange.
“Their retreat experience is definitely the most impactful,” Ord said. “Any time teens are given the opportunity to go away, hear and share in their faith and be intentional is the most fruitful time.”
Away from their phones, devices and social media, teens are given time to slow down and focus on their relationship with God, she said. More than 12,110 Confirmation students in the Diocese of Orange attended a retreat in 2017-2018.
“Kids today are missing out by being only involved in online communities,” Ord said. “But youth ministry is the time for young people to have community, make eye contact with somebody, and have authentic relationships and communication. We as a Church provide that.”