Six Diocesan Parishes selected for national youth accompaniment pilot program

Looking at new ways to approach youth ministry at the Parish-level, representatives from six Diocese of Venice Parishes are taking part in a national pilot program focused on accompanying youth into developing a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ and His Holy Catholic Church.

The Accompaniment Project is a grant-funded initiative of the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry (NFCYM) that seeks to guide parishes through reimagining how to accompany all young people encountering Christ and growing in discipleship. The Accompaniment Project is an experimental approach to youth ministry that helps Parishes meet the needs of the young people in their communities.

Of the more than 17,000 Parishes nationally, only 43 Parishes were selected by the NFCYM to take part in the pilot program nationally. The Diocese of Venice is blessed to have six participating, including: Epiphany Cathedral in Venice; St. Paul in Arcadia; St. Peter the Apostle in Naples; St. Joseph in Bradenton; Our Lady Queen of Heaven in LaBelle; and St. Catherine in Sebring. The program with the Diocese is being facilitated through the Youth and Young Adult Outreach Office, under the auspices of the Office of Evangelization.

To help facilitate the program for the six Parishes, an introductory workshop took place on May 4, 2024, at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat Center in Venice. The workshop was led by Juan Carlos Montenegro and Luis Chacon, Salesian Lay Ministers from the Los Angeles area.

“Sometimes the way we do youth ministry is not necessarily what is best for young people,” Montenegro said. “For 23 years I have seen plenty of young people coming through the Confirmation program and right after they are confirmed they act as if they graduated from the Catholic Church, and they don’t come back anymore. Or, after they go to university, and someone challenges them on their faith, that’s it, they don’t know how to believe anymore. The reason why I am here is because I also want to see how we can help young people get engaged to the Catholic Church.”

Montenegro and Chacon provided the Parish representatives information about Catholic youth and reasons why they leave the Church, and more importantly why they don’t feel welcome. Throughout the day, the presentation shifted focus to accompaniment, or walking with the youth on their personal spiritual journey of growth and understanding.

“Often, we want to choose for our youth, to tell them something because we think we know what is best for them,” Montenegro said. “Unfortunately, that approach leads to a spiritual dryness. To quench their thirst, they will seek truth anywhere they can find it (internet, friends, other religions, etc.), because they don’t know where to find it. The most important thing to remember is, Christ leads while we accompany.”

The Accompaniment Project is a three-year initiative in which the first six months is devoted to Strategic Planning to design effective youth ministry at the Parish level. This plan will be implemented for two years. Finally, there will be a six-months phase for evaluation of the plan. The NFCYM coordinates and coaches the entire process.

In that time, the Parish leaders hope to educate the adults in their communities on what it means to accompany young people in faith as well as to provide them with the practical skills they need to do so. In this effort, these Parishes will be testing a new model of ministering with young people which focuses on developing a community of faith companions.

When asked why the different Parishes are participating in the pilot program, several representatives explained how they want to better connect to their youth which would solidify their faith and encourages other young people to become involved.

At St. Joseph Parish, the Pastor, Father Rafal Ligenza, participated in the training session and brought with him two from his youth ministry.

St. Joseph, and the other Parishes, hope with their Parish participation in the Accompaniment Project, the teens will describe their faith experience as having a deep sense of spiritual peace and strong relationship with God as well as a sense of gratitude and desire to attend the Mass weekly.

Ultimately, the true goal is to have these students want to give back and become future catechists. But above all, that they develop and grow towards a mature faith reorienting their lives to live for God and for eternity within the community of Faith.

Each Parish noted how they are conscious of the responsibility this participation in the pilot program brings, so that many more Parishes will benefit from the lessons learned.

During this initial gathering, Montenegro and Chacon offered the Parishes numerous resources to get started. In the fall, they will meet with different Parishes and begin the planning for the next steps of creating this unique outreach to our youth.