Youth participate in small group discussions outdoors at the March 20 High School Discipleship Day in Rhinelander. The weekend event had to be canceled last year due to the coronavirus shutdown; the event – shortened to just one day – was the first in-person gathering for diocesan youths in more than a year. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

“The teens and adults all seemed to be greatly blessed to be together.”

This was how Chris Hurtubise, newly named Director of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship, described the first in-person gathering for Diocese of Superior youths in months. The event took place in Rhinelander on a warm Saturday in March.

In a normal year, high school discipleship weekends are held twice a year.

“Our spring weekend last March was the first in-person diocesan youth event we canceled due to COVID,” Hurtubise stated. “So, we felt it was fitting that this be our first in-person youth event as we begin to come out of the COVID pandemic.”

There were 45 youths in attendance representing Catholic parish clusters in Hudson, Rhinelander, Eagle River, Medford, Merrill, Catawba and Hayward.

“Being mid-March, you never know what the weather is going to be like,” Hurtubise said, “And God answered our prayers so graciously. It was sunny and 63 degrees. We had everyone bring camp chairs and spent almost the whole day outside. It was such a gift.”

Annamarie Novak, parishioner at St. Paul’s in Catawba, brought three teens from the youth group she organizes in their local cluster.

Novak helped start the group – who call themselves CIA, Christians in Action – in 2015, when her daughter Molly, now a junior in high school, was in sixth grade.

Molly had attended a high school discipleship weekend in 2019, so her mom was familiar with it when the opportunity presented itself for members of the youth group to go. Although only three youths could attend (a fourth was very interested but had a schedule conflict), Novak knew it would be a good chance for them to connect with like-minded teens and be encouraged in their faith outside of their small parish and cluster circle.

The pandemic has presented challenges to the youth group, which draws from the Catholic parishes in Phillips, Prentice and Catawba. Before that, they had met monthly.

Without events at the diocesan level to take part in, CIA has gathered locally and served by decorating St. Paul’s and helping sort donations for the U.S. Postal Service’s food drive for the local food pantry.

Novak wasn’t sure how Hurtubise and his team would fit an entire weekend’s content into one day, but she thought it was “wonderful.” She complimented Hurtubise and Fr. Adam Laski for their relatability with the kids. She also shared the teens’ experience from their ride home.

Adoration and the praise and worship were highlights, as well as Mass with Fr. Laski. They also liked playing ultimate Frisbee and the small group discussions.

For Novak, both as a mom and youth leader wanting to keep exposing the youths beyond their circle, she was particularly impacted by the small-group experience.

She said, “Evangelization and the future of our church is going to happen in small groups.”

Calling the gathering a “next-level experience” for the youths, Novak said she was impressed with how open and honest they were in the small-group conversations she took part in.

She noted how easy it was for the teens and for her to make connections right away with other participants and leaders and to feel comfortable sharing with others.

Everyone needs to know they’re not alone, she said, and recounted how, as one kid would be telling a story or sharing a struggle, the others were nodding their heads in agreement.

“It gives them sense of normalcy” in the practice of the faith, Novak said.

She could sense that everyone who was there really wanted to be there, that they were further along in their journey with the Lord. Novak also believes that opportunities like these, where youths are exposed to a larger sense of their Catholic faith and able to connect with others through small-group discussions, are where transformation will continue to be seen.

“When you’re in tiny little Catawba,” Novak noted it can be hard to experience the larger church and especially a youthful church.

“It’s nice to have a sense that there are others kids out there in the diocese that are fully on board with living out our faith,” Novak affirmed.

She added, “It gives us old people hope for the future.”

The mom of three acknowledged that in some of the parishes, it’s uncommon to see anyone under the age of 50.

“They’re out there,” she said referring to young Catholics hungry for learning and living their faith.
Her participation in the High School Discipleship Day was a motivation for her to keep doing what she is doing to provide her children and other local Catholic youths with these touchpoints, especially after the toll of the pandemic.

Hurtubise admitted being sobered by his interactions with the teens, directly seeing “just what a dire cost the pandemic has had on their faith. Many have had little-to-none in-person experience with the church since last winter,” he stated. “Accordingly, their sacramental lives have been largely non-existent and their prayer lives have suffered a lot in turn.

“As difficult as that was to see and come to terms with, I think for most of the leaders it left us just much more inspired to find ways to get families back to practicing the faith as fully as possible,” he added.
“Our motto is ‘all good ministry is relational ministry,’” Hurtubise said, “And it was such a huge gift to everyone to be together seeing each other’s faces and hearing each other’s voices – to enjoy being fully human together.”