Dedham Life Teen program prepares for silver anniversary
DEDHAM -- Elizabeth DeRosa knows the importance of invitation. When she was a teenager, her youth minister invited her to attend Life Teen, the weekly meetings of teenagers for Mass, talks, and fellowship at St. Mary of the Assumption Parish. Now, she is the director of the parish's Life Teen program, which is inviting not only current members but also alumni and friends to celebrate their 25th anniversary this month.
Life Teen is an international program to help parishes draw teenagers closer to Christ. Based in Arizona, Life Teen provides training and resources for parish staffs to equip them to minister to teens through special Masses, retreats, and times for fun and fellowship.
Speaking to The Pilot in early September, DeRosa said she believes the draw of Life Teen starts with "an experience or encounter," either with an adult volunteer -- called "core members" -- or another teen in the program.
"Ultimately, the other teens recognize something that piques their interest or they want to see more of. And we know that's God's goodness, but for the teens who might not know that, they just see something good and fun and something they want to be a part of," DeRosa said.
St. Mary of the Assumption Parish adopted Life Teen in 1997, when Bishop John Dooher was pastor and Father Chris Hickey was serving his first assignment there.
Father Wayne Belschner, the current pastor of St. Mary's, noted that all the Life Teen content is Christocentric, revolving around the Mass and the Eucharist.
"I think that in and of itself is probably the reason for the longevity of the program," he said.
A central part of Life Teen is having a specific Mass dedicated to teenagers. At St. Mary's, this takes place each Sunday evening. Although all are welcome, the teens have key roles in this Mass, serving as ushers, lectors, and musicians. Father Belschner said that this "really gives them a part to own."
"They're fully involved in the Mass themselves. They're immersed in the Mass, which gives them a sense of belonging and a sense of ownership," he said.
After the Mass, they typically have dinner in the rectory, followed by a "Life Night" with lessons and fun activities.
Life Teen also holds "pizza and prayer" each Wednesday evening. They have a period of prayer and reflection in the chapel, during which confessions are available. This gives teens the opportunity to experience different types of prayer, such as the rosary and Eucharistic adoration. Then they eat pizza and play games in the Life House, a space just for them, furnished with couches, sports tables, a refrigerator, and a TV.
In addition to these two weekly meetings, there are also two retreats each year -- one in the spring and another in the fall -- as well as various activities during the summer, such as movie nights and beach days. Occasionally, they go on trips that can be as close by as the North End or as distant as World Youth Day. A few years ago, they went on a service trip to Nicaragua.
During the coronavirus, the parish kept Life Teen going through Zoom meetings and outdoor activities within the restrictions that were then in place.
DeRosa said that what makes Life Teen unique is that its adult leaders not only lead teens closer to Christ but also journey alongside them.
"As they're growing in a relationship with God, we're with them growing in relationship with them and trying to be the face of Christ," she said.
The Life Teen talks cover topics in the teens' day-to-day lives, and how to live a life of faith in the world.
"The more we get to know the teens, the more we can cater towards the things that they might be struggling with or interested in, so that way they can dive deeper into those topics," DeRosa said.
Father Belschner said the program can show them "what an authentic life of faith looks like, and how to live that."
"In the world there's so much competition, so many voices against that. And they have an opportunity to be serious about it," he said.
A number of vocations have come out of the Life Teen program. Several priests and seminarians for the archdiocese were participants as teenagers. Some alumni have entered religious life, and one became a consecrated virgin. Others have met their future spouses in the program.
"It really fosters a sense of vocations, both to the priesthood, religious life, marriage, and just to answer the call to holiness," Father Belschner said.
Brian Ladino, 16, grew up in the parish and sometimes attended the Life Teen Mass with his family. He said they loved the music, and so he knew he would participate when he was old enough. He has now been part of Life Teen for three years.
"I like being able to socialize afterwards, and also having an experience where I can live my faith with other people my age that are doing that too," he said.
Bernadette Snore, 16, has been coming to Life Teen since August of last year, and said her faith life has "totally changed" as a result. Before, she did not think or care much about her relationship with God.
"I've gotten to the point where I want to be Catholic, I want to serve God, I want to be closer to God, and Life Teen has helped me with that so much," she said.
Olivia LeSavage's older siblings went through Life Teen before she did. When she was little, she would sit with the teens at the Mass. But, she said, she was not close to God, and only went to church because her parents made her. That changed when she began attending Life Teen in high school.
"Once I started coming here, I took it into my own hands. The connections that I've made to God and that I've made to people here, it's been absolutely amazing, and I love it here," said Olivia, who is now a senior in high school.
There will be multiple events to mark Life Teen's silver anniversary the weekend of Sept. 24-25.
On Sept 23, there will be a trivia night about Life Teen's history in the parish. The following day, there will be a cookout for Life Teen alumni, with a 25-item raffle to raise funds for the program.
"It's an opportunity for those who have been through (it) to give back to the program," Father Belschner said.
On Sept 25, there will be a special Mass followed by the unveiling of the Life House's yearly renovations and an anniversary dinner.
More information about Life Teen can be found at www.lifeteen.com. Information about St. Mary of the Assumption Parish's Life Teen program is available at www.stmarysdedham.com/life-teen.