Their T-shirts said it all: “Do Something.”Marti Mertes, coordinator of religious education at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, Elkhart Lake, listens intently as Shannon Ausloos, director of youth and young adult ministry at the tri parish faith communities in Sheboygan, speaks during the Feb. 22 district nine synod gathering at St. Dominic Parish, Sheboygan. (Catholic Herald photo by Sam Arendt)

Thirteen Sheboygan County teenagers not only wore their hearts on their sleeves, they demonstrated the message on their bright red T-shirts as they participated in a district gathering at St. Dominic Church last Saturday.

The gathering was one of many that were or will be held throughout the Milwaukee Archdiocese during February and March in preparation for the Archdiocesan Synod, June 6-7.

But the Sheboygan event was different in one important – and impressive – way: the teens contributed their unique perspectives in a group separate from the adults.

According to Dianne Marshall, youth ministry director for Sheboygan’s north side parishes, the program was created by religious educators from the area who wanted to get the youth involved in the district gatherings. They contacted Gary Pokorny, archdiocesan director of catechesis and youth, and Randy Nohl, director of the John Paul II Center, and the head of the synod preparatory committee, for their thoughts. 

While other districts included teens with adults in the district gatherings, the Sheboygan group wanted to have “our own thing. We want to inspire people with this; we wanted the kids to get really engaged,” Marshall said.

“I thought it was great,” Nohl said. “It gets the young people involved and really gives them a voice.”

Dianne Marshall, youth ministry director for Sheboygan’s north side parishes, collects paperwork from the teens participating in the synod district gathering on Feb. 22 at St. Dominic Parish, Sheboygan. (Catholic Herald photo by Sam Arendt)Eventually, a format was developed in which 13 hand-selected teens from around Sheboygan County addressed four important issues, according to Marshall. 

“What do you think of as church today? What are the challenges of living your faith? How do we overcome those challenges? What do you envision the church of the future?” Marshall said.

With the theme, “Do Something,” the teens met separately from the adults to discuss these issues. 

“That was sort of their message. One of the questions was what can we do to get the church more involved … what should we be doing and the teens said, ‘Well, it’s simple. It’s on our T-shirts – Do Something,’” Marshall said.

The “something” that the teens came up with was presented to and discussed with their adult contemporaries at the conclusion of the day.

But the conclusion of the district gathering will not be the end of the teens’ contributions. 

“Our whole goal is to create a video to be played at all the parishes in the county basically giving the teens’ view on the church,” Marshall said. “Their inspiration … their imagining the church being something bigger, so sort of publicity to get people see that teens are excited for the future of the church … and we should be, too.”

All of the pastors in Sheboygan have agreed to show the video at Mass, according to Marshall. She estimated it will be edited to about five minutes and will hopefully be shown by May. 

“Their answers were so amazing it’s going to be hard to trim it down … they really are very inspiring,” she said.

Maureen Nickodem, a member of St. Clement Parish, Sheboygan, and an adult participant in the gathering, agreed. 

“I was so excited and moved,” she said. “They are so enthusiastic … and they are the future. It brought hope and happiness and a real love of Christ,” she said. “These kids were on fire with the Spirit. It lifted my spirits.”

As inspiring as the adults found the teens, so, too, were the teens inspired by the day. 

“It was a great day,” said Alex Kuehlmann, 17, a member of St. Clement Parish. “I got to learn a lot.” 

Kuehlmann said it was important for the teens to become involved and informed in their church. “Educate yourself about the church,” she said.

In return, she’d like to see the church make teens a priority. 

“It’s a new age and we think differently. With the technology shift there should be a shift in new, exciting ways to get involved with the church. Even the pope tweets,” she said. “I follow him!”

Kuehlmann explained her vision for the future church. 

“A church that is appealing to a lot of younger generations … a church that teens can get excited about and excited about faith, and all kinds of stuff,” she said.

Jimmy Balistreri, 16, a member of St. John the Baptist Parish, Plymouth, said that one of the conclusions from his group was that the church needed to connect more with teenagers. 

“A lot of the people making decisions were older men who don’t connect all that well with us. I feel like part of the reason all of us here really enjoy the faith is because we had youthful ministers, or they had kids who were younger, and they know what kids like to do. They can connect and set up things that we love to do,” he said. “Like for me, it’s mission trips – going on mission trips and meeting with other people who are like you and have the same general interests,” 

“Just really focus on the teens,” Balistreri continued. “We’re the future. If you want to have the church continue, you really have to have that strong teen base. It’s evident that there are a good number of us that are into it; it’s just a matter of keeping it going.”

Sam Pelzel, 17, a member of St. Dominic Parish, said it was a “tremendous day. It was nice to be with other teens to discuss things that we all have thoughts on.” Pelzel said he would like to see more kids involved in the church. 

“It’s more fun to do anything with your peers, so why is church limited to that?” he said.

Morgan Ottman, a member of Blessed Trinity Paris, Sheboygan Falls, said the day was “pretty awesome. It’s just building on my faith and seeing that other people do have the same ideas and challenges. I would like to see youth become more interested in their faith.” 

She added that things like more relevant religious music at the Masses and activities and speakers more inspirational to teens would be helpful.

Marshall said she was impressed with how much the teens wanted to be involved in the church. “They really have a desire for the people in the parish to reach out to them … to engage them,” she said. “They don’t just want to sit in the pews and not be noticed. They want to be known.”