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Youth Formation Programs Teach Teens To ‘Reach For Sainthood’

How do you make the Christian faith accessible and alive for young people? Ten years ago, that question spawned a youth-oriented faith formation program initiative funded by the Lilly Endowment and located at colleges and seminaries across the United States. One of those programs is Notre Dame Vision, housed at the University of Notre Dame. “It is an intensive program that helps high school-aged youth explore their faith through personal reflections on topics that affect young Christians,” according to ND Vision’s Leonard DeLorenzo in an article written by Tara Hunt for Faith and Leadership, an online offering of Duke Divinity School. The students explore a range of issues, from eating disorders and pornography to addictions, jealousy and uncertainty about prayer, all through small group discussions, musical and theatrical interpretations of Scripture, and by participating in the sacraments.

A key element of the ND Vision program — and what sets it apart from its many Lilly-supported companion programs — is the role of college-student mentors in modeling the ongoing development of spiritual life. “[T]he 70 mentors are purposely diverse, so that every teenager can find someone to relate to, and are joyful in a way that is infectious and irresistible to the campers,” notes Hunt. By 2014, Madeline Lewis was twice a camper when in high school, and was now a first-time mentor. Reflecting on her experience being mentored, Lewis said, “It felt really personal coming from a college student who had very recently experienced a lot of the same struggles I was experiencing. Seeing someone just a few years older than me using their gifts so well and so passionately stuck with me a little more than hearing an adult talk about it.”

Mentors are selected from about 400 annual applicants. Beginning six months before the summer sessions open, mentors are given 12 hours of pastoral training and 10 hours of small group experiences, and must complete a three-credit Notre Dame theology course on “The Christian Experience: Vocation and the Theological Imagination.” DeLorenzo says the course addresses the reality that “we in modern life have to create or re-create the space in our imagination to think along with the tradition, with God’s revelation,” and “there are all manner of obstacles, particularly in our time and place, that obstruct that.” Students must “diagnose the very milieu in which we all live and the assumptions we all make,” he says. It involves “a sort of self-indictment” of cultural behaviors like binge drinking, the hookup culture and technology, exploring how those practices could be affecting their relationships with God. In addition, they get a solid grounding in Scripture, read about inspiring Christians through history, and begin to explore “what they can do with their specific gifts to reach for sainthood.”

As a result of the intense Scriptural introspection and conversation, “you end up with 60 or 70 very visionary undergraduate students who are in the process of thinking about how to help younger people think about these issues, and are thinking about them themselves,” said John Cavandini, the director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life, which oversees ND Vision. It is “a picture of a life of faith in progress, with trials and successes, times of reflection and of fun. It’s compelling,” he said. For more youth faith formation resources see our article, “Best Resources on Youth and Youth Programming for Congregations.” You might also appreciate our feature article, “Christian Education Programs Vital to Congregational Health.”

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