Pope Francis recently wrote that young people are called to be witnesses of the Gospel, wherever they find themselves, by the way they live. That served as a call to arms for the new members of the diocesan Youth Board, a group of teenagers who act as advocates for teens across the diocese and work to foster personal growth of each young person in the diocese.
The diocesan Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry welcomed and installed a dozen teens for the 2019-2020 board during a reception that proved to be both reflective and introspective on June 11.
As a way of fostering growth, each member of the outgoing board presented each member of the incoming board with a small plant, with the wish that they will grow in faith, patience and understanding.
"Let these plants be a reminder to each of you to carefully nurture your faith and help it to grow. Don't hide it away in a dark room but offer it water, food and light," said Samantha Michel, who assists the Youth Board. "As you journey through this year, ask the Lord to help you plant deep roots in Him, and to use those roots to nourish you in faith so that we may share your gifts with others."
Daniel Schiffauer, a member of last year's board, feels he has grown spiritually.
"I've learned things that in a normal church setting I couldn't have," he said. "This chance that I've been given was huge for me in the fact that it allowed me to see church as something a lot more than something I go to every Sunday. I always thought it was something about me, but now I realize it's not just a way of life, it is my life. I grew a lot closer to God in that regard."
The 17-year-old is now filtering his college choices through his faith.
"I will remain Catholic through college. It's heavily influenced the schools I'm looking at and the organizations that I want to join," he said.
The Youth Board helps create a for youth/by youth form of ministry. A big role each member has is to organize the annual diocesan youth convention, which takes place in late winter. They also try to bring information to their parish on youth-related issues and resources, such as the National Dialogue on youth ministry.
"During my time on Youth Board we did a bunch of fun things like planning for convention and we talked about the National Dialogue, which was learning about each other's views about the things that are going on in the Church. I really enjoyed that. With that I grew in understanding of other people and of the Church. It was a really good experience," said Megan Frawley, one of the outgoing board members.
Ronald Thaler is a pastoral associate at Our Lady of Hope in Buffalo, a parish known for its refugee population. He nominates someone from the parish nearly every year to be on the board. He has seen the transformative abilities of working and learning with other youth.
"For us, it is an opportunity to get all the kids that we have, most of them are refugees and immigrants, to have a place at the table, and from there we encourage them to become part of the diocesan youth group," he said, adding he sends parishioners to other youth programs such as the Christian Leadership Institute and On the Road.
"All of these opportunities have been a great experience. There is nothing that I think has been more positive in their lives then their involvement on the diocesan level," he said.
The new board members come from as far away as Attica and Dunkirk, as well as Buffalo and the immediate suburbs. Some don't have outlets to share their faith outside of their parish.
Kelly Gullo went from a Catholic middle school to public high school in Dunkirk. She now has to reach out and search for ways to explore and deepen her faith.
"(My faith) gives me belonging and confidence and a source of knowledge and something I can believe in. I can turn to God for so many aspects of my life," said the new board member. "At this point in my life, I don't know what I would or who I would be without it."
Kathryn M. Goller, director of the Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, closed the evening by thanking the outgoing Youth Board for the ways they have lived the commitment to discipleship, and thanked the incoming board for courageously accepting their new role.
She also quoted Pope Francis' exhortation "Christus vivit (Christ is Alive)" as a reminder that we are all called to share our faith and to help and support these young people as they do the same.
"Filled with the love of Christ, young people are called to be witnesses of the Gospel wherever they find themselves by the way they live. Being an apostle of Christ does not mean wearing a lapel pin. It is not about speaking the truth, but living it, embodying it, being transformed in Christ. Being an apostle does not mean carrying a torch in hand, possessing the light, but being that light.
"Why should we not tell others that He gives us strength in life, that we enjoy talking with Him, that we benefit from meditating on His words?"