Pope Francis has waved off the idea that young people are the future, saying they are the "now" and should be treated as such. In parishes across Western New York, high school-aged teenagers are taking leadership roles, guiding their peers, and aiding the younger members of the Church.
The Wyoming Association of Catholic Youth, known as WACY, has seen nearly all its peer youth group prepared for leadership roles by attending the Christian Leadership Institute, a weeklong program offered by the diocesan Department of Youth & Young Adult Ministry that teaches leadership styles, communication and group planning.
"I have worked with CLI graduates for years," said Debbie Zielonka, youth mentor for WACY. "What lies ahead is spectacular. I have seen these young people get planted with the seed and blossom into a phenomenal tree of hope and strength for the Church."
The CLI program helps young people to understand that to lead others as Christ led people, they must be servant leaders. Participants experience various styles of leadership - such as democratic, directive and participating - and learn how to be a servant leader by understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each style. They will learn that the best style of leadership depends on the situation, the needs of the group, the time available, and other factors.
Each day's lesson builds on the previous days', with themes including Leadership styles, Communications, Planning, Group Dynamics and Decision Making.
Madalyn Cardillo came with four of her classmates from Sacred Heart Academy, who serve on the Amherst high school's student council. By coming together, the team gained the same set of skills and vocabulary so they can create a cohesive student council to meet the needs of the Sacred Heart community.
"I really like having everyone here," she said. "I feel that it's a bonding experience for us all."
The week has many small group gatherings to discuss ideas and topics. Usually the students are in mixed groups, but in the "planning session," they are put in with parish and school groups to work on the real-life needs and objectives for their specific community. They start the process at CLI, then take it home.
"I felt like that was really powerful because it really put us back into how it will be when we get back home, so it was a good connection to make," Cardillo said.
Halfway through the week, Cardillo learned the most important part of planning is to analyze the needs of the group. "While that might take a while, it's important, because it is the process that really matters. That will make the product better, but it is also how you get there that matters," she explained.
The Department for Youth & Young Adult Ministry encourages parishes and high schools to send groups of teens so that core teams can be formed to serve the institution. The skills can also be used by individuals in all aspects of life.
Mark Gojevic saw a change in his siblings that he can identify now that he has been through the program. They went from a directive (because I said so) style to a democratic (what does everyone think) way of handling family duties.
"They weren't so directive in the way they treated their little siblings (after CLI)," he said. "That worked out well compared to their previous style of watching us. 'Sit down and do what I want.'"
As one of those younger siblings, he admits he liked things after the older kids went to CLI.
Laura Fontaine, from Our Lady of Good Counsel parish in Darien Center, knew a lot of people, including her three siblings, who have attended CLI in the past.
"I've heard a lot of amazing things about it, and have seen how it influences the parish that I'm a part of based on the other people who went from my parish," she said.
Her siblings are a big part of leading the parish youth group. "After CLI, they seem to have a better sense how to do it overall. It was more of a fluid motion," she said. "They did seem very changed after they came home. They seem more sure of themselves. One of my brothers seemed more confident."
Sarah Wellence attended CLI a few years ago. When she started college, she wanted to participate in sports and student council at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. She found those skills she learned coming back to her as she tried to make friends and contribute to group discussions.
"I was by myself at Tennessee and it was just, 'I've done this once before at CLI. Let me just take that first step. I need to be able to communicate, so let me bring back those I-statements. Let me think if I need to be more maintenance or task as I go about this," she said. "It was really helpful."
The program started in the Diocese of Buffalo in 1979 to prepare people for service to the Church. In recent years, there has been a shift to use these skills in all walks of life, not just when handling a certain project. So, to be able to be a leader in my family, in my group of friends, in a club, in a sports team, just being able to use these skills throughout life.