||A girls High School Ministry small group at St. Christopher Parish in Verona meets to grow closer to God, along with eating pizza and snuggling in blankets (above). A boys small group (below) explores the meaning of faith through discussion and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (Catholic Herald photos/Kevin Wondrash)
VERONA -- Now in its second year, the High School Ministry program at St. Christopher Parish in Verona is striving to be a community where all teens can be heard, feel like they belong, and form authentic friendships through discussions, prayer, study, and social activities.
The program is a separate entity from the parish's Confirmation program for teens, who are confirmed in the fall of their 10th grade year.
For Youth Ministry and Confirmation Coordinator Doug Ulaszek, High School Ministry is about the teens "being formed beyond Confirmation" and striving to "change the mentality" from teens being done with their faith formation following the Sacrament of Confirmation.
While many of the teens are nearing their Confirmation, some of them are upperclassmen that have remained with the program.
About the program
About 40 teens are currently in the High School Ministry program at the parish. The "backbone" of the program, according to Ulaszek, is the Wednesday evening small groups.
The groups, led by adult leaders of varying ages, meet every other week and discuss important topics of the faith while enabling real friendships to develop over time while teens live the faith together.
Ulaszek called the groups "self-sufficient" and able to conform to what's best for its members.
They meet in different spaces around the parish, making it "their" space.
One girls small group made the atmosphere as comfortable as possible, sitting on the floor with shoes off, wrapped in blankets, and sometimes ordering pizza while talking about their highs and lows, the week before diving into a certain topic.
A boys group, who met in the parish library, gathered in a circle and strived to define what "faith" meant through discussion, experience, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a reference.
Some of the teens and leaders meet on different days and times, in order to be flexible to accommodate the teens' busy schedules and still give them an opportunity to grow in their faith.
"We have to go to them," said Ulaszek, and meet the teens where they are to bring them to Christ.
Other aspects of the program include service projects, retreats, and special events to start and end the year.
There was also a question and answer session with St. Christopher Pastor Fr. William Vernon.
The teens "got to see the human side" of him, said Ulaszek.
Senior Alec Michael Ochowski is nearing the end of his time as part of the High School Ministry program and has found it to be a rewarding experience, saying he felt called to "finish what I started."
"We learn about the faith while growing as a community," he said.
Ochowski added, "The catechists and the leaders really care about us" and "here, people are comfortable sharing things that they wouldn't be in a larger group setting," saying the atmosphere is "open and relaxed when they're around a small number of people that they know well."
Taking the next steps in faith following Confirmation, he said there are more in-depth discussions that take place and "new approaches to the stuff we learned before . . . talking through it and trying to make things especially meaningful for us and trying to make connections between different parts of the faith."
He said his small group has studied the Bible, the Catechism, and also a video series, along with discussions that tie into a weekly topic.
Fellow senior Clayton Jannusch commented that High School Ministry is all about "coming here, growing as a community, and learning how to live a better life."
He added that "I like being able to hang out with people that want to push me to be the best version of me I can be . . . having people encourage you to learn -- it's something special."
Jannusch said he's always studied Scripture in settings like High School Ministry throughout his school-age years, but "now we're seeing how to bring that to every day life and how to act . . . being able to ask questions that you may have and get answers by people who have been in your shoes."
Ulaszek added that the small group leaders are people he sees as "intentional in what they do" in their faith and serve as good examples to the teens.
They range in age from young adults to middle-aged parents with children.
They share their own life and faith experiences with the teens and help push them to be better, stronger Catholics.
"That's what wins teens for Christ," Ulaszek said.
Ochowski encouraged more teens to be a part of the program in the future.
"What we have here is more than just theology," he said.
"Right now, what we're making is connections with other people our age . . . everything we do, the theology and the community building, is helping us grow as people . . . we want you to feel that you have somewhere where you belong."
"I'm sure I'll look back on spending every other Wednesday night here and say I'm really happy I was able to do that," said Jannusch. "I made some good friends and I learned a lot about myself and Jesus."
For more information on St. Christopher Parish's High School Ministry program, go to saintchristopherparish.com/faith-formation/high-school/