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At Northglenn parish youth group, a high schooler seeks his vocation

A 70’s-patterned carpet, a game of ultimate spoons, and a St. Nicholas-themed side quest don’t usually point to a vocation to the monastery. But after his experience at a youth group in north Denver, a high schooler named Jake Thomas is seeking his vocation.

The Youth Group at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Northglenn offers a peaceful, fun, and educational hideaway for teenage students. The banter and joy of the teens at the IHM youth group leave no doubt about why Jake wanted to pursue his faith.

Down to his Marian baseball cap, Jake’s enthusiasm for the faith is obvious. After learning about the Immaculate Conception in a youth group meeting, Jake and Korinna, another IHM teen, joked about starting a podcast inspired by Father Mike Schmitz. All that was left was to find the perfect name…

But Jake didn’t always want to be Catholic.

When his parents decided to join the Catholic Church, Jake was not enthused. After he faced some challenges in his life, he recalled that he “abandoned the whole idea of God.” But, forced to attend sacramental preparation by his parents, he eventually began to grow in his faith.

“I’m not gonna lie, I did not like it,” Jake said of the prep program. “But towards the end, it definitely opened my heart up a little bit more. I got my sacraments, joined youth group right after that, and it’s been a slippery slope ever since. I love it.”

After a life-changing experience at Steubenville of the Rockies, Jake Thomas is now actively involved in the youth group at Immaculate Heart of Mary and is discerning whether or not God may be calling him to a religious vocation. (Photo by Kate Quiñones)

Attending the annual Steubenville of the Rockies youth conference with the youth group was a turning point for Jake.

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“I would say if there’s any turning point that happened in my faith, it would have been there, because that was single handedly, hands down, the best experience I ever had in my life,” Jake said. “So after that, I made some life changes [to] things that were holding me back in my faith.”

“I resolved to get my life together. I still haven’t,” he chuckled. “But it’s a lot better.”

With the sacraments, the IHM youth group, and a Steubenville retreat as a foundation, Jake began to pursue questions of religious life and priesthood.

A big decision

Jake currently feels called to join a community of cloistered Carmelites in Wyoming but has not yet made his final decision.

“I’ve been discerning with them for some time. I had the opportunity to go up there last summer. And I have the application to them now, although I’m kind of sitting on it,” he said.

Though he feels called towards the cloistered life, he acknowledges that “it’s intense.”

“I have moments where I reconsider [my vocation],” he said. “In terms of where I want to be, [my goals] are kind of polar opposites: either a monk or a family of, like, six kids.”

“Various elements,” such as family and, of course, girls, are still playing into Jake’s final decision.

Whether Jake joins the cloistered life or pursues another vocation, his experience at the youth group has helped him grow.

“My family often comments about how they’ve seen very visible changes in my life… because I was at a very very different place in my life than where I am now,” Jake said. “Just a couple of years ago, there were a lot of bad things that I was caught up in… And now, you’re free of that through Christ, and to be freed of that is like, I’m a lot more calm, a lot more organized and I try to be a lot more peaceful.”

Youth Group: Behind the Scenes

Katelyn Swisher, the youth group leader, says she’s proud of Jake and “the young man he has become.”

“When he first got here, he didn’t really want to be here,” she recalled. “And now he is so faithful and so good. It’s been really cool to see how he’s faced things that have come along with such faith.”

Swisher is down-to-earth, casual, and kind, joking around with the students while also making space for the Holy Spirit to move.

She often begins the youth group by playing a game with the teens. A St. Nicholas-themed “side quest” interrupted one of December’s youth group meetings. To celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas, the teens snuck up to the sacramental prep room to leave candy in the kids’ shoes.

Then, Swisher led a check-in with the teens. After sharing how their weeks have been, the group prays together and Katelyn gives a theology lesson. The group often practices Lectio Divina, where the teens read scripture slowly and take time to reflect.

“The Holy Spirit has really just been working,” observed IHM youth minister Kate Swisher. “God’s really been moving in kids’ lives. We’re seeing a lot of teenagers coming in, just entirely of their own volition, curious about the faith and about the church.”

Swisher said she has noticed the Holy Spirit playing a fundamental role in the youth group. But in terms of her own strategies, she says it’s the “simple things”: community time, giving the teens a space to get to know each other better, and making sure that the adult volunteers focus on building relationships with the teens.

“The Holy Spirit has really just been working,” she observed. “God’s really been moving in kids’ lives. We’re seeing a lot of teenagers coming in, just entirely of their own volition, curious about the faith and about the church.”

IHM’s sacramental prep program this year involves 50 teens, 10 preparing to be baptized, five coming from other denominations, and the rest receiving First Communion and confirmation.

Swisher says she has spoken with many teenagers who don’t have a faith background or a Catholic background. The students are often reached by another person in their life, whether it’s a fellow teenager or a family member.

“We’re at a point where a lot of people are just lost and looking for something,” she said. “And by the grace of God, they’re showing up on our doorstep.”

Kate Quiñones
Kate Quiñones
Kate Cavanaugh Quiñones is a journalist who has been published by Catholic News Agency, CatholicVote, and the Wall Street Journal. She graduated from Hillsdale College with a B.A. in English.

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