Teens strengthen their faith by learning to teach others

Rita Dlug, director of religious education at St. Joseph the Worker, East Patchogue, makes a presentation.

MANORVILLE — Teenagers who want to deepen their faith and share it with others gathered at Our Lady of the Island Shrine here Saturday, September 22, to kick off a new diocesan program for high school students. Another group gathered last week at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, for the same purpose.

Although children in faith formation programs are often reminded that their “religion” doesn’t end with confirmation, there are only a few parishes offering religious education classes after confirmation and, while Catholic high schools have programs to train students as catechists, there is no equivalent for students in public schools.

“Bishop Murphy asked us to look into getting something going for these kids,” who want to keep learning and teach others, said Ellen Zafonte, associate director, children & youth, for the Office of Faith Formation. A committee of youth ministers and catechetical leaders has been meeting for over a year to come up with an innovative and inviting program that teens can take back to their parishes, she said.

The pilot program will consist of five sessions based on the Creed and using the Catechism of the Catholic Church and YOUCAT, a catechism especially written by and for young people.  Zafonte explained that the sessions will review the basics of the faith and provide a forum to discuss how these beliefs can be lived out and how the teens “would present these ideas to third-grade students.”

Teens who came to the kick-off sessions were under no obligation to remain involved, but it was hoped they will be interested and tell their friends about it. The locations of the sessions will be determined after seeing where the interested students live.

Some of the teens at the shrine on Saturday came from neighboring parishes St. Mark’s in Shoreham and St. Jude’s in Mastic Beach, but Nylett Lopez came all the way from Queen of the Most Holy Rosary in Roosevelt. Nylett already helps at her parish as a catechist for children preparing for first Communion. “I spend most of my time in church,” she said. “I’m still taking classes and it’s fun to work with younger kids.”

Michael Walker, a tenth-grader, is also already active in his parish, St. Jude, where he leads the children’s choir. “I would love to help assist teachers and encourage the kids” in religious education classes, he said. “I am always willing to help the Church.”

Katelyn Tuzzolo attends Holy Trinity Diocesan High School in Hicksville, but “thought this program might be good for me to learn more,” since she has grown up assisting teachers at St. Ignatius Loyola Parish where her mother is the director of religious education.

Some of the teens from St. Mark’s have been volunteers at the parish summer camp and wanted to continue their parish involvement. “I thought it would be fun to be a religion teacher,” said Nicole Cortina, who enjoys working with the children at camp.

Fellow parishioner Manuela Cortes said she needs to be involved in community service for her college applications and chose being a catechist because “I want to be closer to my Church.”

Her sister Isabella Cortes came to find out more about the program because “it is fun meeting other people.”

During the day, the teens got a chance to know each other through ice-breakers and in groups where they discussed topics like who brought them to their faith and what excites them about being Catholic.

Rita Dlug, director of religious education at St.  Joseph the Worker, East Patchogue, who gave a presentation during the kick off, noted that these teens “might not be able to have these kind of conversations anywhere else.”

That interaction is one of the goals of the program, said Zafonte — to bring together teens who share an interest in their Church and might think “they are the only ones.”

The program hopes to provide teens with a sense of “empowerment, and then they can go back and get more friends involved and we can build on this,” she said. Teens interested in learning more about the High School Catechesis program can contact Zafonte at the Office of Faith Formation, 516-678-5800 ext. 506 or ezafonte@drvc.org.