Catholic College Prepared Youth Minister to Overcome COVID Separation

At Walsh University in Canton, Ohio, which is recommended in The Newman Guide, Cari Shell was able to pursue her interests, especially theology and digital media. Now—less than a year after graduation—Shell has been able to put her knowledge into action in an important way.

Shell currently serves as the director of youth ministry at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Gates Mills, Ohio. With public Masses suspended across the country due to COVID-19, Shell has been able to find creative ways to keep parishioners engaged with their faith.

The Cardinal Newman Society is grateful to Shell for sharing about how her faithful Catholic education prepared her to respond to the crisis, as a part of our “Profiles in Faithful Catholic Education” series.

Newman Society: What was your experience like at Walsh University, and how did it prepare you for ministry work?

My time at Walsh University formed and prepared me for life after college. I was fortunate to have had many opportunities inside and outside of the classroom to prepare me for my future. One of these opportunities was the Honors Program. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the Honors Program at Walsh University, I was encouraged to explore my varying interests. I studied theology, with hopes of becoming a youth minister after college, but I also loved my communications classes and learning about media.  

My professors encouraged me to pursue my passions which turned into my thesis, Ministry in the Digital Age: The Use of New Media to Promote Fruitful Youth Ministry in the 21st Century.  I surveyed youth ministers in the Diocese of Cleveland on their use of new media, primarily social media, in their ministry. I was able to study and find the best practices for using new media within the context of ministry, which would not have been possible without the Honors Program. 

I was also able to be very involved in the Campus Ministry Program at Walsh, serving as the campus ministry intern, campus ministry club vice president, and Agape Retreat director during my senior year. Within Campus Ministry, I was able to learn ministry in a hands-on way. I organized the annual Agape Retreat, but also took time to brainstorm new ideas and initiatives within Campus Ministry. With a small team, we held the first women’s overnight retreat as well as a retreat especially for seniors. Those lessons in planning and preparing, working with a team, and ministering to the needs of the students are among many lessons learned that I have used in my role as a youth minister.

In the classroom, my professors across the disciplines encouraged me to study ministry. Of course, ministry was a topic that came up often in my theology classes, but professors all over campus worked to help prepare me. One semester I did an independent study course in Spanish for Pastoral Ministry, working to learn how I might be able to help the Hispanic community, especially in my work.  

In classes in history, English, psychology, sociology and communications, I was encouraged to write papers on topics that I was interested in, or would help in my future, creating an interdisciplinary nature to learning. I wrote a paper for a history class on how youth ministry and participation in religious activities can be a deterrent for juvenile delinquency. I presented at the National Collegiate Honors Council on a project comparing the Old Testament prophets and current popular faith beliefs found in mainstream Christian media.I was constantly encouraged to take the material I learned in any classroom and apply it to my future career. 

Newman Society: How are you helping keep parishioners connected to the Catholic faith during this COVID-19 crisis?

When the Ohio bishops made the difficult decision to suspend publicly celebrated Masses and our church building was closed, we began figuring out how to reach out to our parishioners at home. The first and biggest thing we did was setting up our daily Mass livestream.  

We were fortunate that our pastor already had a camera and other equipment to easily setup our livestream. In the beginning, there was quite a bit of troubleshooting and learning, but working as a team, our staff has been able to broadcast our livestream to the greater community. 

It is such an honor to be able to bring the Mass to our community during this time, and a blessing that I do not take lightly. It was hard to be in an empty church on Easter and sing of the joy of the Lord’s resurrection, but I know that everyone at home was praying and celebrating with us. 

One of my favorite ways that we have been able to digitally minister during this time is through adoration. Before the churches closed, St. Francis was going to be hosting an XLT, a night of adoration, praise and worship with the diocesan vocation office, CLE Priesthood.  With the closing of the churches, we were no longer able to gather people together in praise, so the event went digital.  

We streamed live on the CLE Priesthood Facebook page and reached over 6,000 people to join us in praise and thanksgiving. That night bore fruit in many hearts and we have continued to stream different adoration nights with CLE Priesthood, as well as our monthly adoration nights, “First Fridays at Francis.” It has been wonderful to hear from others about the gifts that God pours into their hearts even when we are not able to gather for adoration.

When our churches and schools closed, so did our youth ministry program. I asked some of our teens what they might be interested in tuning into to help them grow in their faith and stay connected to the church, and I came up with a “break schedule.”  

We had a weekly Bible study that we could no longer meet in-person for, so we met digitally instead.  Praying for an end to the pandemic and the needs and intentions of our teens, we have prayed the Rosary, Divine Mercy Chaplet, and Stations of the Cross on Instagram Live. We normally have Life Teen Sunday nights, but right now we cannot gather on Sunday nights, so we have joined in with Life Teen’s Global Life Night series and have our own Zoom call together, where we are able to catch up, pray together and even have a virtual game night! It has been wonderful to connect online, even though we are not able to connect in person.

Newman Society: How did your education at Walsh University help prepare you to respond to this crisis?

One of the biggest ways I was prepared for responding to the crisis was through my previous studies in ministry and media. When I began my job in ministry, I had wished I chose a different topic for my thesis, because I did not see how it was really helping, but God had bigger plans. As everything began shutting down, I was able to take the knowledge I had learned through my study for my thesis and apply it to the current situation to serve the teens and parish best. 

At Walsh, asking for collaboration was always encouraged. In Campus Ministry, we often worked with other groups and offices on campus for events. Through collaboration and working together we could find a new way to look at something. Collaborating with the parish staff and with other youth ministers throughout the diocese during this time has been a blessing. We have led Rosaries together on Instagram Live, shared ideas on what has worked and what has not, and led people in worship together. 

There are many valuable lessons I learned at Walsh, but one that I saw modeled so well for me by professors and staff all over campus was the important lesson of listening. They were always there to listen to me, to my stress and struggles, and to support me along the way. I think especially in this time, listening has been such an important lesson. Listening to the struggles that people are facing, praying with them, and asking how we can help them. There is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, but there is also a lot Good News to share.

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