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YOUNG CHURCH Confirmation candidates and other teens gathered for a National Evangelization Team (NET) Retreat at St. Junipero Serra Parish in Phelan on March 11. NET is offering 15 retreats in the Diocese this year.

By Natalie Romano

On the weekend, most teens want to hang out with their friends, and 16-year-old Eder Pineda is no different. Except, instead of spending that time at the movies or the mall, he chooses to be in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

“Every time we do Adoration, I get closer to him,” said Pineda, confirmation candidate. “I feel that connection again. It motivates me to be a better person.”

Pineda was one of about 50 teens that attended a National Evangelization Teams (NET) retreat at St. Junipero Serra Parish in Phelan on March 11. The day-long event included skits, games and small group discussions to help teens encounter Christ and grow in their faith.

NET, based in Minnesota, currently has missionaries traveling through our diocese with plans to offer 15 different retreats here this year. With Bibles and props in tow, the group of eight offers different retreat themes like “Love One Another,” which is about friendship, and “Sealed & Sent,” which is about Confirmation. This allows parishes to select a meaningful topic for their teens. That decision was easy for Ernestina Zilius, St. Junipero Serra’s Confirmation and Youth Minister Coordinator, who chose “True Presence.”

“[The youth] have questions ... They say, ‘We take the Eucharist, we come to church but we don’t know what’s going on,’” explained Zilius. “So we picked the Eucharist theme ... so they can start comprehending what it means ... I hope this encourages them to want to continue that relationship with our Father.”

Part of the day’s lineup included the missionaries acting out a “drama” that takes place in a confessional. The “priest” reminds the repentant how Jesus died to save her from sin. 17-year-old Miguel Salmon said that part of the retreat will stick with him the most.

“We tend to take what Jesus did for us for granted,” said Salmon, confirmation candidate. “How he was nailed to the cross, all that pain and suffering just for us ... It’s amazing.”

Another part of the day that seemed to be impactful was a game about life choices. Teens had to find the correct path through a maze of cards on the floor. If they got it wrong, they would have to repeat the process until they got it right, a lesson on how God gives us second chances.

“I learned that no matter what, God will always love us,” said Maria Murillo Marro, confirmation candidate. “Sometimes we don’t make the right choice but we can always come back to him, talk to him and he’ll be there for us.”

The 15-year-old says it’s easier for her to stay on a good path because her friends are Catholic, too. Others say sometimes it’s hard to talk about faith at high school.

“I definitely think people bring you down about it,” said Yoseline Romero, confirmation candidate. “I just try to stay strong and keep coming. My mom encourages me and I like it.”
NET Ministries says the Catholic Church is losing young people at an “alarming rate,” citing a 2018 survey conducted by St. Mary’s Press. That research shows nearly 13 percent of young American adults aged 18-25 and nearly 7 percent of teenagers aged 15-17 consider themselves former Catholics. The average age of a young person that leaves the Church is just 13 years old.

Yet NET Missionary Jude Schaefer says our diocesan youth are full of joy and spirit. At 19 years old, he’s not much older than the attendees, but that’s by design. The missionaries range in age from 18 to 28 so the teens can see how others in their age bracket are choosing a life of faith. Schaefer, who hails from Texas, says connecting with the youth is key to NET’s relational or peer-to-peer style ministry.

“God can work through the little things,” said Schaefer. “Just us showing interest in their life ... hearing their stories ... that can bring them in. We want them to have a close relationship to God for the rest of their lives.”

NET officials say their missionaries have diverse backgrounds just like the teens; before becoming Catholic some came from Protestant homes, or even atheist ones. Some NET Missionaries have a squeaky-clean past, others not so much. 22-year-old NET Missionary Luke Klavins gave his testimony before the group at St. Junipero Serra. After growing up with an abusive stepfather, experimenting with drugs and generally feeling like an outcast, he decided to make a change.

“My home life wasn’t super easy. I was bullied and very lonely,” said Klavins. “[During Adoration] I decided to look straight into the Eucharist and I really felt like he was looking at me too ... God is happy that I’m here.”

As they travel, the missionaries live with host families which is considered part of the evangelization they are tasked with. Diana Martinez, Religious Education Coordinator at St. Junipero Serra and mother of three, had a full house hosting the eight missionaries plus two supervisors. Initially, her kids were not so sure about the arrangement.

“My older kids were saying, ‘Why are we doing this? We have to give up our rooms!’” described Martinez. “Then [the NET Missionaries] came and we played games, we ate together, we prayed together. To see my oldest interact with them so much with them is a blessing. So it’s been an amazing experience for all of us.”

Youth leaders at St. Joseph in Upland say the same. They held a NET retreat in February and have seen a transformation in their teens.

“We had a Mass afterwards and I noticed [the teens] were very reverent, very good. They participated,” said Martha Padilla-Thomas, Youth, Young Adult and Confirmation Coordinator. “Also after the retreat, in small group sharing, they tend to open up more.”

Some 70 NET missionaries have come from the Diocese of San Bernardino, and they are in need of more, particularly men. Interested young adults can go to netusa.org for more information. Corona resident Maria Ramirez says being a part of NET was a “launchpad” for her spiritual and professional life. After her missionary year was complete, Ramirez took that passion and experience back to her home parish of Corpus Christi where she now works as a Young Adult Minister.

“It sparked a brand-new flame in me,” said Maria Ramirez, NET alumni. “...It solidified in my heart, in the deepest way, that I am for Christ and love God and I want to serve him and build up his Kingdom.”

Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.