Discipleship program builds community of faith
September 6, 2019
It was 6:30 a.m. and Maggie Kramer was still wiping the sleep from her eyes. But it was important for her to get to school early, because that hour had become one of the best parts of her week.
“I’m involved in a lot at school,” Kramer said, “so it’s hard to find time to think and be still. It’s been a really great time to relax and be centered on my faith. My days are calmer and happier when centered around God.”
For Kramer, a member of St. Stephen the Martyr Parish and now a senior at V.J. and Angela Skutt Catholic High School, both in Omaha, participation in her school’s discipleship program has been a boon. It has helped her deepen her relationship with God and share her faith with others.
Beginning its second year, the program uses small groups to help students explore their faith with the guidance of an adult mentor.
And for Kramer, who is involved in her school’s pro-life group, Skyhawks for Life, she also gained more confidence to talk to others about the pro-life cause as well as her relationship with Jesus.
For another Skutt senior, Julia Brockhouse, a member of St. Cecilia Parish in Omaha, the program helped her begin looking to the saints as models of holiness and discipleship to emulate.
Her group, which last year met every Monday after school, compiled a list of favorite saints to study and discuss.
“The saints are models for our own lives so we try to embody discipleship as these people did,” she said.
During their meetings, her group also prayed the rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet, and set goals for their personal prayer, including daily Scripture readings and Lectio Divina.
THE HOLY SPIRIT’S ACTION
The idea of helping students like Kramer and Brockhouse become disciples of Christ began as wishful thinking for campus minister Christine French. But in only nine months, the Holy Spirit made her dream a reality.
In January 2018, French attended the Fellowship of Catholic University Students’ (FOCUS) Student Leadership Summit in Chicago. During that week, she went to one of the campus ministry breakout sessions entitled, “How to Bring FOCUS to Your Campus.”
During the session she learned more about how FOCUS invites college students into deeper relationship with Jesus through authentic friendships and one-on-one discipleship. Moved by the presentation, French asked the representatives from FOCUS how she could give her high school students the same experience.
She was informed there was a FOCUS-trained missionary at Dowling Catholic High School in Des Moines, Iowa, and the two were put in contact. Over the phone, the missionary, Addie Magruder, pitched the discipleship program “Ut Fidem” (Latin for “Keep the Faith”) she used at Dowling Catholic, and French knew this was exactly what she wanted for Skutt.
“It really became clear to me that year that I couldn’t actually minister to everyone as a campus minister. I needed to set up a structure that could minister to everyone because I couldn’t by myself,” French said.
The only problem was the money. She didn’t know how she would get approval and funds for such a program, yet she persisted.
In April 2018, Magruder was in Omaha pitching “Ut Fidem” at French’s invitation for a small group of theology teachers, parents, an administrator and Skutt’s chaplain. At the end of the presentation, everyone was convinced of the value of the program, but French would presumably have to coordinate it for it to become a reality. She knew she needed more help, so she turned to prayer. Little did she know that God would answer her in short order.
A week after the “Ut Fidem,” presentation, Skutt Catholic’s future discipleship coordinator paid French a visit. Quinlan Couri, an intern for the Archdiocese of Omaha’s Office of Evangelization and Catechesis at the time, was meeting with French to discuss some witness talks she’d outlined for Skutt’s campus ministry.
Couri did not have a job for the following year, so she also wanted to ask French about opportunities in the ministry field.
“I think it was a Holy Spirit moment,” French said. “We’re talking about something completely different and in the middle of our conversation she just leans forward and asks, ‘Do you have a job for me?’ And I was like, ‘Maybe!’”
With a prospective candidate to lead the program, French pitched the idea of a discipleship program to Skutt’s president, Jeremy Moore, and principal, Rob Myers. The program was funded by May 2018 and in July, Couri was hired as Skutt Catholic’s discipleship coordinator.
Couri started formation and promotion of the discipleship program in August and by October the first groups had started meeting with their adult mentors on a weekly basis. The program’s stated mission was to “help students be formed as disciples of Jesus Christ, committed to growing in authentic friendship with Christ and his church through personal habits of discipleship and growth in authentic human friendships.”
Groups of approximately four to seven friends, divided by gender, had a variety of methods for meeting this goal. Some studied Scripture, others followed the Alpha program that examines an important question about the Catholic faith each week for 11 weeks. Still others watched and discussed Father Mike Schmitz videos, Couri said.
“That’s what’s so cool about this program – it’s really catered to the individuals in the group and it’s usually a group of friends,” she said. “They already have this basis of support and knowing each other and they’re all in one mind about how to go about knowing Jesus.”
NETWORK OF SUPPORT
Luke Capoun, a senior at Skutt Catholic entering his second year of discipleship, said being part of these groups has given him new ways to develop his faith. At the end of their meetings, his mentor would ask each of the young men to work on a personal challenge for the week. They would return the next week and report their progress.
“One thing I’d wanted to do was go to daily Mass more often,” said Capoun. “I hadn’t done anything about it for a while, but then my group leader challenged me to do it. And when he did, I was like, ‘All right, I’ve got to do it now.’ So I went to daily Mass,” he said. In taking up that challenge, Capoun discovered how much he enjoyed daily Mass and how much more personal it felt to him than the larger crowds at Sunday Mass.
For Skutt junior Sarah Gregory, meeting with her discipleship group meant spending high-quality time with a tight-knit group of friends all striving to grow in relationship with the Lord. Whenever she or one of her friends was having a difficult week, struggling emotionally, socially or academically, her group would usually meet up in the school’s chapel to pray together and encourage one another, she said.
Gregory’s mentor, Amy McCuller, a former Spanish teacher at Skutt, went out of her way to make a personal connection with each of the girls in her group, she said. Whether McCuller had taught them or not, she made sure to greet the girls in her group as they passed in the hallway and check in with them on a regular basis, Gregory said.
READY TO GO FORTH
As the discipleship program enters its second year this school year, Couri continues to raise the bar in hopes of expanding the program. “Last year we had 14 groups meeting every week by the end of the year and a couple groups that were wanting to launch this fall,” said Couri. “We lost six senior groups, so we’ll have nine groups to start with, which is pretty incredible, and our goal is to get to 17 by the end of the year,” she said.
Couri would like to see students getting more personally involved in outreach to their peers as the discipleship program grows. “Last year the goal, and this will still be true, the goal of the groups was really to build them before we send them,” Couri said.
A lot of what happens at Steubenville conferences and retreats is that the hearts of these young people are won over, but they’re told to go out, to take action as disciples of Christ before being taught how to be in relationship with him and how to pray, she said.
“But once they get to a certain point, if we don’t teach them how to be sent, then we do them a huge disservice,” Couri said. “So the goal of this year is to start pushing that a little bit more and just encouraging them to stretch in that way. Learn how to bring up Jesus at the lunch table.”
Assistant Editor Mike May contributed to this story.