Discipleship for a lifetime: Cabrini youth ministry

Creating a culture of real relationships and traditions

Ten years after completely overhauling their youth ministry program, St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Littleton can officially label it a success.

Youth minister Steve Nepil said they weren’t satisfied with the retention and depth of their old youth ministry model. He said their old model centered around trying to entertain teens, which put the Church in competition with smart phones, Call of Duty, and other forms of modern entertainment. The youth ministers were finding it difficult to keep the nights entertaining and still present the deeper truths of the faith.

“We were in a cool opportunity to try something new,” Nepil said.

Now, instead of entertainment nights, Cabrini youth ministry is centered on creating an atmosphere of real relationships, tradition, and a sense of belonging to something greater.

“These are things that the 21st century teenager wants,” Nepil said. “Instead of doing programs, we’re trying to form culture.”

This culture is formed through discipleship. Middle school students are placed into confirmation groups, where older high school students help teach. After confirmation, teens who want to participate in youth ministry are sorted into fraternities and sororities, which are subdivided into individual Bible studies. The Bible studies meet once a week, and the whole youth group gathers for retreats and recreation.

“When a high school kid walks into our youth group, they can say I belong to this young adult who personally mentors me. They very much know where they belong,” Nepil said.

This process has led to an average of one vocation a year from the program, including the former youth minister, Shannon Gunning. Nepil said that they have also seen increased retention of upperclassmen and guys. He said he thinks that much of the success comes from the fact that every Bible study can be adapted to the people in it.

“If you make discipleship a program, it doesn’t work. Mentorship just has to be natural relationships,” Nepil said. “Every group is different. Some will be more ordered to the academic, and some are more interested in hanging out. There’s a social dimension, and then there’s also an academic side. It’s a mix between a relationship and formation.”

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St. Frances Cabrini’s youth ministry hosts an annual dodgeball tournament.  Andrew Wright/DenverCatholic

Although he said they saw deeper transformation begin with the first Bible studies 10 years ago, it’s only recently that the deeper culture has become an established part of Cabrini youth ministry.

“It’s these houses [sororities and fraternities] that have been around. Their older siblings were a part of them. They get kind of introduced to these fraternities at a younger and younger age. They get to be a part of this thing that they’ve seen since they were little,” Nepil said.

The teens in the program say that their parish isn’t just a place for Sunday worship. Through their fraternities and sororities, they’ve found a community.

Jayden Jones is a sophomore at Denver School of the Arts. She came to Cabrini when she was in sixth grade, and said she is the only person from her school involved in the youth group.

“When I came here, I was definitely kind of scared. You come here and you see that they’re individuals who are interacting in such a way that is so much more communal and so much more respectful and loving. I wanted to be a part of it, but I wasn’t sure how, because I didn’t know anyone,” Jones said.

However, after going through confirmation, she said she found her place in her sorority.

“You have a young adult that is caring about you and is walking with you. You’re talking about things that no one else will talk about anywhere else. I love talking about the faith,” Jones said.

Jones and the other teens also said that being part of an established parish culture helps them navigate high school and evangelize their peers.

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One of Cabrini’s sororities, the Militia Immaculata, poses for a picture.  Andrew Wright/DenverCatholic

“It definitely strengthens me and motivates me to go out and to be braver and to be more joyful, because I have them here, and even if people hate me at school, I have people who know Christ, who love me, regardless. Once people start to see that you’re Catholic and you’re really happy, they’ll start to ask you,” Jones said.

Other members of the youth group said it will help them to evangelize in college.

“I’m so grateful for what I’ve had here, because it taught me in so many ways how to live my faith. Now when I go to college, I can spread that and live it even more,” said Landon Baird, a senior at Heritage High School.

Nepil said that’s the beauty of Cabrini’s discipleship approach to youth ministry: because it requires such commitment, the results are deeper.

“The kids that we win are far deeper in their faith. They have a prayer life, they’ve overcome chastity, they know theology,” Nepil said.

Baird agreed that discipleship is a way of life.

“Community’s great when you’re just at the Church, but if you don’t put it out in the world, it really has no impact. That’s what discipleship is. It brings the faith out into the world,” Baird said.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.