In Changing Culture, Youth Faith Formation Team Seeks to ‘Boldly Form Disciples’ 


At the New York Catholic Center in Manhattan, Ela Milewska and her dedicated youth faith formation team seek to implement and oversee youth programs and activities to “boldly form disciples” so that they “live that Catholic faith the rest of their lives.”

“And we want to boldly form adults who will boldly form youths and their families,” added Ms. Milewska, executive director of the archdiocesan Department of Youth Faith Formation, in an interview last week in her office.

“The culture is changing, technology, media, families, everything is changing; and we have to be able to respond with Christ to that.”

She told CNY that bold, new formation models, such as virtual gatherings, “came out of necessity from the pandemic, and why not build on what we’ve learned—parents finding out that they actually liked learning with their kids.” She noted that the department is “building upon the absolutely incredible work” of past youth ministry and catechetical directors and coordinators, to “navigate this change in culture.”

In addition to virtual gatherings, she said that some parishes “would bring them in once a month into the church building so they can socially distance and do formation for the whole family, and give the parents tools to do formation for the rest of the month. They were doing this out of necessity, but it became something that a lot of parents really found wonderful. Some of these models come from building on what we actually learned during the pandemic.” 

Ms. Milewska, serving the archdiocese since 2015, became executive director of youth faith formation last September. With the change in societal culture in general, she said, came decreased enrollments in religious education and youth ministry. The new approach is designed to help address this. 

The Department of Youth Faith Formation had formerly consisted of the Catechetical Office and the Office of Youth Ministry. The two offices have been completely integrated into one department with several new directors and regional specialists. The director of children’s faith formation oversees ministry from baptism formation througho fifth grade. The director of youth ministry works with grades 6 to 12, including formation for confirmation. The director of ministry formation oversees the leadership formation for all areas. 

Last summer Cardinal Dolan shared his vision for parish faith formation, encouraging the Department of Youth Faith Formation to be creative and bold in forming young people and their families in their faith. The cardinal’s vision featured:

  • Beginning at formation of parents for the sacrament of baptism, inspiring and empowering them to be effective as the first witnesses of the faith.
  • Encouraging families in the early childhood years to support them in growing a family of faith.
  • Implementing models of religious education that reflect the gifts and needs of the local parish community.
  • Fostering increased engagement of middle school youth in their own faith formation and in the parish community.
  • Providing for the support and apprenticeship of young people post-confirmation as they continue to grow and live their Catholic faith.

The Youth Faith Formation Department notes that each parish has its own unique charism and needs. This is also true for families of that parish community. To meet these needs, parishes are encouraged to examine their religious education efforts and discern if modifications, new models or a whole new approach are needed.

The department has identified many potential models for parishes. Here are some models: 

  • Traditional Model: a classroom model with a small group of children working with a catechist using textbooks as a primary tool.
  • Integrated Traditional Model: traditional model with extensive opportunities for service and parent/guardian formation. (St. Columba’s parish, Hopewell Junction, was cited as an example of this model..
  • Family-centered Models: parents and guardians are formed to become the primary catechists of their young people. (Example: St. Marianne Cope parish, Cornwall-on-Hudson).
  • Catechumenal-inspired Model: focus on the Word, worship, community and service. Monthly themes are guided by the content of a chosen textbook series and the liturgical year. 
  • Summer-intensive Model: young people gather daily for one to two weeks for an intensive immersion experience that includes liturgies and music.
  • Catechesis of the Good Shepherd: using Montessori educational principles, this program has three age levels: ages 3 to 6, 6 to 9 and 9 to 12. (Example: St. Vincent Ferrer and St. Catherine of Siena, Manhattan).
  • Afterschool Model: partnering with the local charter or Catholic school, the parish would offer faith formation as part of an afterschool program. 
  • Flipped/gamification Model: using either a website or an app, young people complete lessons at home before joining the in-person class, where catechists supplement and reinforce the lessons.
  • To help reach these bold new goals, the department has three new key members: Joe Long, Christina Davis and Bertha Peralta-Rodriguez.

Long, who was hired in December, is director of children’s faith formation. He brings more than 30 years of parish ministry to support archdiocesan parish communities in ministry to young people and families from baptism to fifth grade. Long, who most recently served at St. Agnes Cathedral parish in Rockville Centre, told CNY that it’s important to focus on “recognizing the value of a child, and recognizing how the Church can best form them into disciples of Jesus.”

Ms. Davis, who began in June, will bring her passion, creativity and experience as a parish and diocesan director of youth ministry into her new role as director of youth ministry. She will work with parishes in their ministry with young people and their families from grades 6 to 12. “We want young people to have an encounter with Christ, and to walk with Christ—and to be engaged with their parish communities, to live out their faith life,” said Ms. Davis, who has served in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Diocese of Reno, Nev.

Ms. Peralta-Rodriguez, who started last November, is director of ministry formation. She works with the directors of children’s faith formation and youth ministry and experienced leaders in the field to develop, implement and support formation for directors and coordinators of religious education, coordinators of youth ministry, parish catechists and youth ministry team members. More than 6,000 adults are ministering with parish young people in the Archdicoese of New York. 

Born and raised in Manhattan, she mostly recently taught adult lay leaders in the Diocese of Rockville Centre’s School of Missionary Disciples. “We have a great opportunity to look at formation in new ways, and use new mediums to really echo what our faith is…not only in English but also in Spanish,” she said.