FAIRFIELD—For one week early in the summer, sixteen high school students from around the diocese immersed themselves in charitable work, reflection, prayer and instruction as participants in the “Sacred Heart University Journey” Summer Theology Institute. Funded by the Lilly Endowment, this program, now in its fifth and final year, encouraged the youth to become leaders in their parish and community and to discover more about themselves as young Catholics.
The teens gathered each morning on the Sacred Heart campus in Fairfield for breakfast and Mass before embarkng on daily programs with themes such as “A Life of Meaning and Purpose” and “God’s Call to Love, Lead and Serve.” Though coming from diverse backgrounds among eight parishes, they bonded through a shared interest in faith and service.
Focusing on the theme of a journey, the adult facilitators and college-age mentors led the teens in experiences highlighting social justice issues, enhanced by small group discussions and journaling about their faith. According to Dr. Patrick Donovan, the executive director of The Leadership Instutite and a co-facilitator of this program, an important part of a young person’s journey is understanding what the church tells them and what the church asks of them. “They’re gaining a deeper sense of who they are as young Christians and what is expected of them,” said Donovan. “I’m fascinated by their responses to the activities and real life issues. They are not choosing from a place of ease but from what is right and what is good.”
Such activities included a financial decision-making simulation, a personality inventory which encouraged collaboration, and theological discussions in a socratic seminar format, modeled after the Sacred Heart University course “Catholic Intellectual Tradition.” Teens were challenged in the endeavors to consider questions such as what does social justice look like to you, how can you hold yourself accountable, and where did you find God today. It was their thoughtful and honest answers to these complex topics that most impressed co-facilitator and SHU Campus Minister Valerie Kisselback, who identified this group as very open, intentional, and receptive—even from day one.
“They are really interested in their faith and are sharing so deeply with each other,” she said, referencing their concerns about the pandemic and pressures at school. “After hearing about [different speakers’] faith journeys—all the stories, the twists, the turns—they are learning how to live their own.”
As part of their service component, students put their social justice learning to work one afternoon by making blankets for children in hospitals and shelters, realizing that they could personally affect change and directly impact others. Another day, they filled 130 drawstring bags with necessities such as toothbrushes, socks, tissues, and dry cereal which were later delivered to the Bridgeport Rescue Mission. Donovan also encouraged each teen to take a bag or two home with them to give to someone in need, an activity which profoundly impacted sophomore Travis Simon.
“It feels so good to help people who don’t have much, and it gives me a sense of gratification. I didn’t always think about the plight of the homeless, but now I am much more aware of these issues,” he said.
The combination of faith in action and classroom instruction gave junior Adrianna Barbee a better understanding of scripture and how it affects her personally. “I loved reading the Bible and learning more about the Gospels,” she said. “This has all empowered me on my journey as a young woman to get more involved in my parish.”
In addition to faith exploration and service, participants also had the chance to develop friendships by interacting socially at lunch, during free time, and on a trip one afternoon to The Adventure Park at the Discovery Museum in Bridgeport. Because of these opportunities and the depth of their discussions, Kisselbeck said, “They have created such a sense of community in just a few short days.”
During the closing ceremony, several students spoke of their similar faith journeys, their shared interests, and their responsibility as young Catholics, the purpose behind the original grant. Donovan then left the teens with a final charge: “Take the grace of God with you and be living icons of Christ.”
By Emily Clark