Evangelizing youth one parent at a time

By Becky Aubut
Anchor Staff

CHARLESTOWN, Mass. — Though she is currently an evangelization consultant for the Archdiocese of Boston, when Elizabeth Cotrupi was growing up in Arlington she never thought she would be in ministry.

“I didn’t know anyone in ministry,” she said. “I mean I knew my pastor and I had a great relationship with him. I earned a business degree and managed restaurants. I never forgot about God. I still had a relationship with Him, but I wasn’t necessarily in the Church as an active member. I think God had a plan. ”

Born and raised Catholic, Cotrupi admits drifting away from the faith as a young adult. When she married and began to have children, she made her way back into the Church fold.

“As the kids got older I enrolled them in Faith Formation classes, and so, like a lot of us moms, I ended up [volunteer] teaching,” she said.

She also reflected within herself, and went on a Cursillo weekend retreat: “I had a major reawakening to the faith,” said Cotrupi. “Growing up, I really had a relationship with God the Father, but I never really had a relationship with Jesus Christ, His Son. So that really opened my eyes. I had an amazing weekend. This was not just Good News but great news, and we really need to be sharing this.”

Within a few years of the retreat, she became the Faith Formation coordinator of her then-parish, St. Joseph’s of Charlton. Realizing her business degree hadn’t quite prepared her for her new role, Cotrupi earned her certification in catechetics and youth ministry, as well as a Master of Theological Studies for the New Evangelization at the Theological Institute in Brighton. 

In 2002, and still relatively new in her role as coordinator, Cotrupi attended a Life Teen Conference (www.LifeTeen.com), and it changed how she viewed the youth of the Catholic Church, and the potential the youth of her parish back in Massachusetts. Among the more than 2,000 attendees from all over the world, more than 500 teen-agers were in attendance.

“We were all crying,” recalled Cotrupi, as she thought, “this is what Mass and the Liturgy and being a disciple is all about. We’ve got to bring this back.”

Cotrupi said she always felt that the Faith Formation program could be done in a more vibrant and engaging way, “and when I saw it at the Life Teen conference,” she said she knew what she needed to do.

Six months later, Cotrupi kicked off the new high school Faith Formation program at St. Joseph’s Parish, where only a few weeks before the middle school program at the parish had begun. The comprehensive blueprint of the new Faith Formation program blended some old ways of doing things with some new ideas, creating a new and energetic setting.

“We wanted to get away from the classroom-based Faith Formation program,” said Cotrupi. “We came together as a large group — the ninth, 10th and 11th grades — and we prayed together. We created an evening Mass at five o’clock. It was very evangelistic. We made sure we had vibrant greeters. We had really wonderful music. We just made sure that every aspect of the Liturgy was going to do well. We were doing the New Evangelization before there was any buzz.”

From start to finish, it was all about engaging everyone in the Mass, not just in spirit but also in mind. That was never more present than right before each Mass when someone would present a “Mass Fact.”

“We found that if people understood what was going on [during Mass], it would help their participation,” said Cotrupi. “So we would offer in a minute or less before Mass started [with questions like], ‘Do you know why the priest breaks off a piece of the bread and puts it into the chalice?’”

It went over really well and helped explain what Catholics saw during Mass, said Cotrupi.

After Mass, dinner would be served. Parents of students would be asked to serve food once a year. A food coordinator would help oversee the feeding of roughly 125 students. By 6:30 p.m., teachers and students would have finished eating and were ready to learn. Opening with a prayer, there would be a lesson taught, then small groups allowed for more discussion, before coming back together to end the night by 8 p.m.

“A lot of programs end up being heavily catechetically-based — and not that we don’t want to stress catechism, it’s important — but we have to keep in mind that a lot of these kids haven’t been pre-evangelized,” said Cotrupi. “They don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, so if you throw them into catechesis only, you’re not getting them to encounter Christ in a way that will last.

“Life Teen is connected to youth culture. Having an evening Sunday Mass means competing less with sports. It was a safe night. There were hardly any sports on a Sunday night. Plus it’s at night, so they don’t have to get up early in the morning. When I hear of programs trying to do this at nine in the morning, it’s a little harder.”

For more than 10 years, Cotrupi continued to engage the youth at St. Joseph’s Parish with multiple engaging Faith Formation programs. She then moved to Charlestown where she became the director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of Worcester. During last year’s Faith Formation Ministry Convention for the Fall River Diocese, Cotrupi was a presenter and she talked about the “Mercy Challenge,” a program she introduced to the Diocese of Worcester that helped engage the youth of that diocese during the Year of Mercy.

Still found on the diocese’s website as of this writing (www.neworcester.org), The Mercy Challenge was a wide-ranging program that encompassed the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. A logo was created, silicone wristbands emblazoned with #MERCYchallenge were made, and giant posters and letters were sent to every parish, said Cotrupi, with the main idea of “taking the Year of Mercy to the next level.”

The connecting thread that Cotrupi made from her previous post was once again making sure that everyone was engaged at every age and level. For example, during Lent, Cotrupi offered up the idea that a student could create a calendar of things to do daily during those 40 days. The calendar could be sold to parishioners, then the money donated to a good cause. Meanwhile, after Mass, a student could stand up and share what it had been like to live out the Mercy Challenge during that week. 

“It’s great that we do nice things for people but a lot of times we do it in the parish, but we often never encounter those who are going to receive those items,” said Cotrupi. “We collect clothes, but never meet the person who will get the clothes. Part of the Mercy Challenge was taking it up a notch, and thinking about encountering our sisters and brothers in Christ.” 

A group in South Carolina picked up on their Mercy Challenge and they collected more than 200 backpacks for their Catholic Charities, so Cotrupi made sure that 200 bracelets were sent to them.

“The great thing was everything was online,” said Cotrupi, adding that some ideas were as simple as pray for the dead today or offer up a prayer for the imprisoned. “It wasn’t anything complicated.”

Involving full participation from everyone isn’t easy, but it’s important for the future of the Catholic Church. Many of the students of the Faith Formation program have limited exposure to the catechesis part of the Church. Faith Formation teachers have them for such a small amount of time and many are just thrown on “the Sacramental conveyor belt,” said Cotrupi. 

Parents are sorely needed and are the best evangelizers of the faith, and coordinators and directors of Faith Formation programs need to keep up with the changing times. Parents need to be included and become more than just the transportation to and from Faith Formation classes. 

“Nobody did it deliberately. We were just so used to them coming to us,” said Cotrupi. “After the war, in the 50s and 60s, Catholicism grew by leaps and bounds, so people inherited their faith, so you were automatically enrolled, and you believed, behaved and belonged. You didn’t question.”

Decades later, parents have memories of their faith and they want something good for their kids, but they didn’t necessarily want the whole package, said Cotrupi: “The idea is that the Faith Formation ministry should be an integral part of the whole parish, so [think about] what you can do to get everybody involved so that it’s an intergenerational thing.”

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts