For the Church, evangelization to today’s youth poses many challenges. How is this generation different from those prior? How can we best impart the faith to children and teens in such a way that they embrace and make it their own – that they keep the faith? Frank Mercadante, author and Executive Director of Cultivation Ministries, shares his insights with SPES’ Marion Sarte in a recent interview.
Can you please describe your life-altering conversion as a teenager and how it led you to your work today?
I was a 5th grade CCD drop-out. I was not the kid who was going to church weekly and hung around with probably the roughest crowd in my school, but it was the persistence of a few young people who kept inviting me to go on a retreat weekend and initially I resisted that. Eventually they won through with their persistence and I went. It was on that weekend that I had a profound encounter with Christ that was the beginning of an incredible transformation. As that relationship with Christ grew, I really came to the conclusion that there was no other thing that I wanted best in my life and more than sharing that same Good News that changed my own life.
What’s interesting is it happened when I was making a lot of major decisions in life – vocation, career – and after that conversion and putting Christ at the center of my life, I was able to seek God’s will on some of the most important matters that you’ll ever make. That had a lot to do with why I went into youth ministry because I really wanted young people to have a close, deep relationship with Christ where they can discern Christ’s will for their lives because it’s made all the difference in the world. I actually met my wife on that retreat weekend. I’ve been blessed with a wonderful marriage, a wonderful family, and just blessed with being able to invest my life in something that’s not “work.” I want young people to have that same experience where they can really follow the Lord at a young age and discern His will for their lives because I do think it’s a great blessing.
For 10 years, you served as Director of Youth Ministry at St. John Neumann in St. Charles, Illinois, which was recognized as one of the most successful Catholic youth ministries nationwide. What are the keys to its success?
It was 1981-1991 that I was there, so it was Gen-X’ers that were the teens of that time. One of the initial keys was that I really began praying for kids by name everyday. So many young people would come up and ask some of those classical spiritual questions. They’d say, “Something’s missing in my life, and I think it’s God. Could you help me have a relationship with God?” So we saw an explosion occur and just saw young people really experiencing conversion. Back then, we were focusing on discipleship and helping young people really develop the spiritual disciplines in their lives. We were doing some things I think that weren’t real common in many Catholic youth ministries. We had regular evangelistic events. We had retreats and overnights every month. There’s about 18 kids from that parish that went into full-time ministry, whether it be youth ministry, priesthood, religious ed – we had about 6 or 7 serve on national evangelization teams. It started out with my wife and I and the adult leaders, then it grew to about 75 adult leaders and about 500 young people involved. It was a great team. It had lots of adults who were highly involved in kids’ lives. It wasn’t like one youth minister doing it all. Those were some key elements, along with the prayer piece, that I think really fertilized the soil.