When a Sunday Mass starts out with pulsating contemporary hymns enhanced by guitars and drums, you know you’re in for a special kind of liturgy.
Welcome to Life Teen, an international youth-ministry program featured at two parishes in the Diocese of Rochester — Church of the Assumption in Fairport and St. Leo in Hilton. Both offer weekly Life Teen liturgies at 6 p.m. on Sundays.
The youth emphasis was evident during well-attended Masses Sept. 3 at St. Leo and Oct. 1 at Assumption. Young people assisted in several aspects of the liturgy, serving as lectors, greeters, ushers, gift-bearers and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion; some lent their talents to the musical ensembles as well. Groups of teens sat together in front pews, clearly enjoying the upbeat atmosphere.
“It has kind of a pop-culture feel to it,” said Mikey Sausa, 16, a drummer and singer for St. Leo’s Life Teen liturgies.
“There’s a vibrancy, and it’s beautiful,” added Michele Pechie, St. Leo’s youth minister.
Homilies at Life Teen Masses are typically directed at youths. Another example of the teen-oriented focus — one that Sarah Salamida, a singer for St. Leo, calls “my favorite part” — is when young people approach the altar to join hands during the Lord’s Prayer.
Though aimed at young people, Life Teen Masses generate a sizable number of adult attendees who embrace the energetic environment as well. The overall atmosphere is so appealing to Assumption’s Lily Ryan that “in the past two or three years, I have not gone to another Mass,” she said.
“There’s always a smile on everyone’s face. It seems like everyone likes to come to Mass,” added Lily, 17, who serves as a gift-bearer at the liturgies.
Life Teen Masses at Assumption and St. Leo lead into Life Night, the weekly meeting for parish youths. Using Life Teen curricula as a guide, participants combine social time with discussion of how Scripture and catechetical topics play out in their daily lives.
Liturgies and Life Nights have been taking place at Assumption since 2003, when it became the first diocesan parish to offer Life Teen programming. St. Leo followed suit beginning in 2008.
Incorporating Life Teen was not an idle decision. Before doing so, officials from both parishes observed Life Teen and Life Night gatherings firsthand at Life Teen headquarters in Mesa, Ariz., where the movement was founded in 1985. Leaders who visited Arizona included Marie Claus, Assumption’s now-retired youth minister, and Father Edward Palumbos, pastor; as well as St. Leo’s Pechie and Father Joseph Catanise, pastor.
Father Catanise, for one, found the Life Teen approach ideal for getting young people excited about their Catholic faith and taking ownership of it.
“I was convinced that this was what we needed to do,” he said. Father Catanise added that young folks come to Life Teen from other parishes and “we have kids who aren’t even Catholic.”
Mikey said that much of the teen population is “on the fence” about regular church involvement and so he, Sarah and other St. Leo teens go out of their way to introduce peers to Life Teen.
“We really try our best to invite them,” Sarah said.
Ted Bianculli, youth minister at Assumption, agreed that Life Teen can be a powerful evangelizing tool.
“We live the call to bring Jesus Christ to others, and bring Jesus Christ to one another. It’s second nature to Life Teen,” he said.
Parishes can even experience the positive aspects of Life Teen without offering a Mass. For instance, Michelle Hunzek, youth minister at Fairport’s St. John of Rochester Parish, said she leans heavily on Life Teen resources for youth-group meetings.
“It just gives a wealth of curriculum,” she said.
Hunzek does wish her parish could offer a weekly Life Teen liturgy as well: “I would love it,” she remarked. Yet she noted that St. John of Rochester already has five weekend Masses and only one full-time priest (Father Peter Clifford, pastor). Indeed, with a weekly commitment required from clergy and contemporary musicians, it’s no simple task to launch Life Teen at diocesan parishes.
On the other hand, big payoffs have occurred at the two places where this investment has been made. In addition to engaging teens more deeply in their faith, Bianculli pointed out that Life Teen also has helped foster close friendships among Assumption’s teens even though they attend different high schools.
“They’re all hanging out together outside of church,” he said.
“All my friends are here,” Sarah, who is homeschooled, added about her fellow Life Teen participants at St. Leo.
Lily, meanwhile, said the support of Assumption’s Life Teen contingent has helped her endure a difficult time in her life and turn it around for the better.
“This is like a family,” she stated.