‘If you touch their hearts, you will touch their souls’

High school youth group members pose for a photo with those staying at the Ronald McDonald House of Southern NJ in Camden.

I have a stone on my desk given to me by our Camden Diocese’s Youth & Young Adult Ministries director, Greg Coogan, which reads “touch hearts.” I often think about how important that idea is within my ministry. There is also a phrase that I like to use that goes a step beyond the stone’s words, “If you touch their hearts, you will touch their souls.”

Youth ministry is a relational ministry. It is something different than being a teacher or a coach, although at times you can be in these roles. It is about building relationships with youth and young adults to walk with them in their faith journey and guide them deeper into their Catholic faith and closer to Christ.

There are so many ways a youth’s heart can be touched. This can be through a simple conversation, a guest speaker’s presentation or a service opportunity. It is at these moments that something stand outs to them, reaches into the depths of their hearts and changes their soul. These are the times that often after you hear, “I will never forget that moment” or “what they said really struck me” or “visiting with those kids really changed me.” These are the moments that are never forgotten and, in fact, help shape a young person’s faith.

I have seen hearts touched at many different points throughout my years of ministry. However, often it is through the hands-on service work opportunities, specifically through living out the Corporal Work of Mercy of visiting the sick.

Two places that our ministries regularly visit sick children are at The Ronald McDonald House in Camden and the Voorhees Pediatric Facility.

The Ronald McDonald House is a fun, home-like setting which hosts families from all over the world who have a loved one receiving treatments or surgeries at local hospitals. Since CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania) is close by, we tend to see many families with children visiting the Ronald McDonald House. While there, we first cook a meal for the families and after dinner is served, we entertain the kids with crafts, games, face painting and fun costume character visits.

Similarly at Voorhees Pediatric Facility, we see many long-term and some permanent pediatric residents who are physically incapable of sometimes even walking or talking. To see the children who are in wheelchairs or back braces, or those with physical deformities, laughing and smiling with our group leaves a lasting impression on us all.

We have so many youth who leave these places saying, “I can’t wait to go back — that changed me.” This is where our youth truly can be Christ’s hands and feet on this earth.

Another example where the hearts of the youth are deeply touched are through what we call “mountain top experiences.” These are larger events, such as being on a retreat or at a Catholic conference like the Steubenville Youth Conference or The National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC).

Offering experiences such as these, which are usually weekend-long events, allows youth to submerge themselves in the Catholic faith. From hearing talks by famous Catholic speakers (and sometimes meeting them), to participating in the sacraments of confession and Communion —all of which can be anywhere from an intimate group of 25 people to 25,000 people which is the case at NCYC — these experiences give teens and young adults many opportunities to learn and deepen their faith.

This past November we had a group of 32 youth, young adults and chaperones from Our Lady of Peace Parish join other youth groups from the Diocese of Camden to attend the bi-annual NCYC (National Catholic Youth Conference) event in Indianapolis with the theme of being “Called.” Our teens walked away with amazing experiences such as being able to introduce Catholic music artist Matt Maher in his Mega Session, participating in adoration and Mass with 25,000 other young Catholics and hearing talks from various priests, sisters and lay people from around the country. The youth all leave with their hearts and souls touched. They deepen and strengthen their faith and reaffirm that they are not alone in being young practicing Catholics.

Below are comments from some of the youth and young adults who attended the trip about their experiences, and you can see how their hearts and souls were touched and transformed.

“The experience I had was so amazing and I thank God for giving me the urge to say ‘yes’ on going to this trip. I mainly loved being able to grow my faith with 25,000 other youth.”

— Jared, sophomore in high school

“I enjoyed my first NCYC very much. The atmosphere, the people I met, the sacraments celebrated and the speakers were great!”

— Clare, junior in high school

“As my first NCYC experience, it is safe to say that it was such a great blessing to be able to go and see 25,000 people who believed the same as me.”

— Jus, senior in high school

“NCYC was a great experience to grow deeper in my faith and meet new people. I loved being an ambassador and listening to the amazing keynote speakers and all their messages they shared with us.”

— Janelle, freshman in high school

“NCYC was an experience I will never forget. I feel I got closer with God and my faith. I am beyond thankful I got the opportunity to go. I also loved being an ambassador because it helped me with public speaking and I view things differently now.”

— Natalie, freshman in high school

“NCYC was such an amazing experience that I will forever remember! I am so thankful that I got to spend a few days with beautiful people! Being in one room with 25,000 people seeing them all care and love God was just absolutely perfect!”

— Marissa, junior in high school

“NCYC will always be one of the greatest experiences in my life. Meeting new people to be a part of your family who loves the faith so much is amazing. One big happy family!”

— Chris, senior in high school

“What a blessing this NCYC trip was! The future of the church is in good hands with the youth fully alive. Thank you God!”

— Kate, young adult chaperone

“NCYC was such an amazing opportunity for both the youth and adults alike! I personally feel so alive in the faith and able to take on all the temptations that college and the world throw at us! Thanks and prayers for all who helped make this happen!”

— Alicia, young adult chaperone

Kari Janisse has been the coordinator of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Our Lady of Peace Parish in Williamstown since 2009. She leads programs for youth starting in third grade through young adults up to 28 years old. She also leads programs outside of the parish called “+he ROCK,” which are Catholic clubs at local high schools.