Diocese’s high school youth ministry program keeps the faith in uncertain times

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Youth Leadership Workshop participants pray during the summer 2020 retreat for the Diocese of Nashville’s high school student leaders. The Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry has had to pivot often during the COVID-19 pandemic, planning smaller retreats and events to keep young people safe and connected to their faith. They will pivot again this month, quickly planning a new local pro-life event in Nashville rather than traveling to Washington, D.C. for the March for Life.

If Libby Byrnes, the coordinator of high school youth ministry for the Diocese of Nashville, has learned anything in her first six months on the job, it’s adaptability. That’s been true in the previous positions she’s held in education and youth ministry, and certainly now, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Even before March for Life organizers shifted the annual event to a virtual one for 2021, Byrnes and her colleagues in the Diocese of Nashville’s Youth Office had decided that due to the fallout from the Jan. 6 violent riot and breach of the U.S. Capitol, paired with ongoing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, they needed to cancel the annual pilgrimage to Washington, D.C.

“Our primary motivation is always the safety of our participants,” Byrnes said. So, “we pivoted to plan a new experience in Nashville.”

Byrnes had planned to chaperone about 80 high school students from local Catholic high schools and across the diocese to the “Pro-life and human dignity pilgrimage” in Washington and Baltimore the last weekend of January. Now, the youth office is instead planning a new event, “48 Hours for Life: Nashville,” which Byrnes said will be an opportunity for young people “to see the pro-life movement in action in their neighborhood.”

The full slate of activities is not yet finalized, but events will center around the Catholic Church’s “teaching on the sanctity of life from womb to tomb,” said Byrnes, a lifelong Catholic originally from Green Bay, Wisconsin, now a parishioner at Cathedral of the Incarnation.

The group will stay at a downtown hotel for the weekend, Friday evening, Jan. 29, through Sunday, Jan. 31. Some activities include: a Mass with Bishop J. Mark Spalding at the Cathedral on Friday evening; a rosary walk from Legislative Plaza to Planned Parenthood; a tour of Mulier Care’s mobile “Pregnancy Help Center”; a talk from Julie Bolles, Catholic Charities’ Supervisor of Adoptions and Pregnancy Counseling; an encounter with the Schachle family, whose son Mikey was miraculously cured in the womb from a fatal health condition; a talk from a representative of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty; a talk from a representative of Room In The Inn.

Libby Byrnes, coordinator of high school youth ministry for the Diocese of Nashville, is busy planning a number of upcoming, in-person retreats and experiences for Catholic high school students. The youth office was forced to cancel their planned trip to Washington, D.C. for the March for Life, and are now hosting a new local pro-life event, “48 Hours for Life: Nashville,” which will take place Jan. 29-31.

All activities and speakers are designed to promote the dignity of life at all stages, Byrnes said. Participating in a pilgrimage in Nashville will help participants see that “pro-life does not live in one weekend in D.C., it’s something we’re always fighting for,” she said.

Father Gervan Menezes, chaplain for University Catholic, the Diocese of Nashville’s college ministry, had planned to make the pilgrimage to the March for Life with about 35 students, but they are shifting their plans to participate in local and virtual events instead. They plan to attend

the Jan. 29 Mass at the Cathedral with Bishop Spalding, and are still finalizing plans for the rest of the weekend.

Quickly planning the “48 Hours for Life: Nashville,” is keeping Byrnes and her team busy, but they have a number of other in-person events for high school youth coming up in the spring semester.

First up is the Girls’ Retreat, a new retreat for girls in the diocese designed to “create a unique space for girls to grow in fellowship and their own personal faith journey through reflecting on the lives of female saints and how their own emotions and feelings impact their relationship with God and others,” according to the Youth Office’s website, https://soundscatholic.com/high-school-youth.

The 2021 Girls’ Retreat is open to all current 10th-12th grade girls and will be held Jan. 22-24, 2021, at a retreat center in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Byrnes has helped add another new event to the calendar this year, an overnight retreat for freshmen, The Call, “based on the lives of the Twelve Apostles and their call to establish Christ’s Church,” which was offered in September and will take place again in early February.

The popular SEARCH retreat weekends for high school students will start again in February and run one weekend a month until the end of the school year. They will have a smaller number of participants and leaders than in the past, and they are almost completely booked through the end of the year.

“Our office is seeing a real desire for formation,” Byrnes said. “The kids are respectful of the guidelines” in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus, she added, enabling them to continue to safely host in-person events.

In addition to planning retreat weekends for high school students, Byrnes, a former teacher at Pope John Paul II High School and Pearl-Cohn High School in Nashville, spends time in the two diocesan high schools, Father Ryan and JPII, to build relationships with the students. She attends daily Mass in the high school chapels and sits in the student section at sporting events.

These efforts are designed “to put a face with the youth office,” Byrnes said, and “make them feel comfortable about getting involved.”

“My position was created to be ‘boots on the ground,’” she said. That stalled somewhat due to the rise in coronavirus, she added, requiring a shift to building community online.

Byrnes has relied heavily on social media to make virtual connections. “It’s really cool to see people interacting that way,” she said, responding to the different content she’s been posting, including trivia questions and surveys.

Online or in person, “I’ve really loved all of my job so far,” she said.

Byrnes, who has a master’s degree in education from Vanderbilt University and master’s certificate in Catholic school leadership from Creighton University, is passionate about working with young people in ministry. In everything she does, the goal is to keep young people connected to their Catholic faith, “so they have a strong connection into adulthood.”

“Our biggest challenge is equipping the kids with the faith formation necessary to maintain their Catholic faith through their college years,” Byrnes said.

Registration open for “48 Hours for Life: Nashville”

With the national March for Life going virtual this year, the Diocese of Nashville’s Youth Office has quickly planned a local event for high school students.

“We do not want to miss the opportunity to provide an experience for our young people to grow in faith and understanding of what our Church teaches when it comes to the God-given dignity of every human life,” the youth office posted on its website, www.soundscatholic.com.

“We have quickly pivoted and created a local experience here in Nashville! We will be staying at a hotel in downtown Nashville Jan. 29-31 for the first-ever ‘48 Hours for Life: Nashville.’ This event will have much of the same content that we provide when in D.C. and will explore the history of human dignity challenges in Nashville. We will be visiting several sites by foot and will have opportunities to pray for those who are marginalized.”

The full cost per participant is $200 which includes hotel accommodations, some provided meals, and event apparel. To reserve a spot, fill out the registration form at https://soundscatholic.com/pro-life, and make the payment of $200. Registrations for high school students will be honored on a first-come, first-serve basis. A full itinerary and more details will be available soon.

“We are grateful for this opportunity to again lead this pilgrimage and hope you will consider joining us. We are aware of the continuing circumstances surrounding COVID-19 and the health and safety of our participants,” the Youth Office posted on its website. “We have been working diligently to ensure all precautions are taken to protect the spread of the coronavirus and have carefully selected vendors and experiences that are doing the same.”

For questions or more information, contact Libby Byrnes at Libby.Byrnes@dioceseofnashville.com or Robert Strobel at Robert.Strobel@dioceseofnashville.com.

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