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Encountering Jesus

Sixteen-year-old Nick Markush of St. Vincent de Paul Church in North Troy has made his confirmation. But unlike many people who equate confirmation with graduation from religious education, he is continuing to learn about his faith as part of Encountering Jesus, a youth group for those in seventh grade through college.

"You can't get enough learning," Nick said. "If you come here, you definitely learn something."

But it's not the traditional classroom religious education.

As many as 21 participants meet year-round, weekly for about two hours; on three Wednesdays a month they meet at the home of their group leader, Theresa McAvinney, for prayer, Scripture study, catechetical instruction and social time.

Topics covered include sacraments, vocations, liturgy, morality, the Ten Commandments and pro-life issues.

"We're getting the kids where they are at. That is precisely how Jesus taught," she said.

At least two unrelated chaperones attend the gatherings.

"The two most important books are the Bible and the Catechism" of the Catholic Church, said McAvinney, the new director of religious education at Sacred Heart Church in Troy.

On the third Friday of each month the youth participate in adoration and benediction at Sacred Heart Church then have social time in the parish hall.

McAvinney currently works with students from that parish as well as from the parishes of St. Vincent de Paul, St. Ignatius of Loyola in Lowell and St. Paul in Barton.

"Encountering Jesus has no boundaries," she said. "Any teenager who loves their faith and wants to be active in their faith is welcome."

Sometimes participants bring friends.

"This is filling a need," McAvinney said.

In addition to their weekly commitment to Encountering Jesus, members participate in a variety of activities like youth rallies, retreats, the annual Rally for Life in Montpelier, Pro-life Lobby Day and the year of Mercy Jubilee for Young Adults in Burlington.

McAvinney keeps parishioners informed of what the youth are doing through bulletin announcements.

"I always try to see with Jesus' eyes," she said. "Jesus loves them and wants them to know Him."

For her, Encountering Jesus–a program she said she was inspired by the Holy Spirit to develop and begin last year–is "not religious education in an academic mode but it is a lifestyle."

The goals of the program include helping youth develop a better understanding of who Jesus is, to love Him more deeply and to want to serve others and the Church for love of Him. It also seeks to inspire youth with a true love of the Church that will encourage them to be active disciples for life and to develop a sense of ministry.

The program is an opportunity for youth to gather in trust and faith that will enable them to grow a life of prayer devotion and worship within the heart of the Church.

It also helps to strengthen the evangelical spirit given to all the baptized to bring the God News of Jesus to all people and to help youth see ways to accomplish this in their daily lives.

Father Timothy Naples, pastor of Most Holy Trinity Parish that includes St. Paul Church in Barton, praised the program. "I see it combining two essential elements for growing in the faith in a spectacular way," he said, noting the family atmosphere of the gatherings and the "heartfelt study and dialogue about the scriptures and the faith."

Aulani Morris, 17, of St. Paul Church in Barton, continues her religious education with Encountering Jesus even though she has been confirmed. "I've always wanted to be involved with the Church. I love being a Catholic, and this is kind of like a second family," she said.

Other participants like the small-group atmosphere and sharing with teens who have the same faith; some even mentioned wishing the group met for more than two hours.

"They seem to be very comfortable with the group and are always ready to go . . . with no complaints," commented Sara LeBlanc, one of the mothers.

Another mother, Maria Morris, said her children are "always bubbling over with enthusiasm about their faith" when they return home from an Encountering Jesus event. "Their faith is alive and growing."

Nick said participating in the group is helping him become a stronger Catholic: "It'll make me a better Catholic when I am an adult."

Article written by Cori Fugere Urban, Vermont Catholic staff writer.

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