A lot of sharing and caring took place at Christ the King Seminary recently, along with a lot of learning and square dancing, as 40 teens took part in the Christian Leadership Institute.
The annual event, held June 24-30 and sponsored by the Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, aims to foster the leadership potential of each individual, to teach practical skills, and to increase each participant's knowledge about the responsibilities of leadership.
For public school students, CLI provides a safe haven of sorts, a place where they can openly share their questions and concerns about the Catholic faith without fear of ridicule.
Juan Ramos attends a public high school where students scoff at those who go to Church, while putting their values into athleticism over spirituality. At CLI, Ramos made friends with people who accepted him. He found he could talk about his faith and have the trust of others.
"I came here today to find a second home in my faith, to learn how to lead different ways, to lead the Church, and find ways to make the Church a little advanced in getting more people to come in and celebrate God," said the 16-year-old from St. Anthony Parish in Lackawanna.
Victoria Faltisco, from Our Lady of Charity Parish, Buffalo, is also a public school student, but in her school people talk about religion openly, often talking about the aspects of different faiths.
"We have many various religions, but it's like asking people what it's about, rather than deep faithful talks with others," the 17-year-old explained.
Faltisco calls CLI a "no judgment zone," which makes it easy for participants who come alone, like Matt Bermingham, 16, the only member this year representing SS. Peter & Paul, Hamburg.
"If I came here with four other people, I would have been talking with them, but since I'm alone, it kind of forced me to get out there and talk to people and meet new people," he said.
The participants in this year's program heard lessons from Youth Department leaders and used small group sessions to hone those planning and decision-making skills. Through the week the students work together to plan prayer sessions, liturgies and a square dance, as well as exploring group dynamics in the community life they live during their six-day stay. There's also self-discovery as they learn what kind of leaders they are: the focused Task Leaders or the compassionate Maintenance Leaders.
"It taught me that even though you're the leader, depending on the situations, you can't always do the work. You need to involve other people. You have to care about the group you work with in order to make the task successful," said Ramos.
"I think a big thing we learned here is about communication, and as Juan said, with leadership, you must be flexible and it depends on the situation, which is a really big thing. Normally I'm a certain style of leadership. I've learned about the other style also, which makes me a better leader. We've learned how to communicate in different styles and be flexible with your communication: one-way or two-way depending on the situation," said Faltisco, who learned she is a task leader and needs to consider the needs of the group more.
Communication is key to leading. Participants learned not only how to better get their message across, but how to decipher and understand the words of others.
"I think what stuck with me were the communications skills and the reflective statements with the 'I statements,'" said Maura Graham, 17, from Our Lady of Charity Parish. "I've learned to better interpret people's real feelings. I've learned how to take someone's I statement and turn it around, so that they can better understand their own feelings, and deepen their understanding of what is going on in their lives. I think that is so valuable in everyday life. I'm going to use that in youth group, at school, with friends and family. I think it will be really powerful."
About halfway through the week, youth ministers visited the East Aurora seminary to see how their kids were progressing. Many parishes continue to send kids after seeing the benefits when they return to their youth groups.
"What I think is great about this whole experience for them is that they are so enthusiastic when they come back, and they want to use their new skills to help the rest of the kids to become better leaders as well, to become more involved in the parish," said Laura Kazmierczak, youth minister for Our Lady of Charity Parish. "So, it's always wonderful to see all of these young people develop these skills under the guidance of the Youth Department because they really are the leaders of tomorrow, they really are the ones who are going to help to carry us forward as we develop the youth ministry programs in various parishes."
Jeremy Dolph, of SS. Peter & Paul Parish in Hamburg, has been sending kids for years. "They come back on fire, which, selfishly, I catch. So, it's a refresher for me every year. Then the young person who attended will go back and talk about how awesome it is and help recruit next year. It becomes like a domino effect," he said.
All members of the diocesan Youth Board must attend CLI. They take their new-found skills and put them into action throughout the year, while planning the annual convention and other programs.
"With the Youth Board, the main thing is the communication skills help us to have a common language to speak while we're going about the work of our year, whether that is convention, our social media outreach, or some of the other things we are doing, we have a common language to speak in terms of how to function as a group," explained Michael Slish, program coordinator for the Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry and moderator of the Diocesan Youth Board. "Also, something we talked about today, as a board when we met, everyone is able to find there place and know how their leadership styles, their gifts, their preference for task or maintenance, all fit together to make us work. It's fascinating over the course of the year, and this is one of my favorite parts, is to watch people grow into those gifts. People come to CLI and discover what they're good at. Over the year, I try to be intentional with the board members too, to help people have a chance to grow and become better in the gifts that they have. It's really incredible to watch, over the course of the year, leadership being something that's forced or awkward here to something that's natural."