Francine Costantini, director of youth ministry for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, is passionate about her work and she shared that with the First Friday Club of Greater Akron on Sept. 3.
Students from Archbishop Hoban and St. Vincent-St. Mary high schools led the opening and closing prayers at the lunchtime program.
Costantini told the group she was born in Canada and her family moved to Singapore when she was 10. After a few years, they relocated to Greater Cleveland. A friend invited her to church and to the youth group. “It changed my life,” Costantini said, noting she’s been involved with youth ministry ever since.
After earning a degree in religious studies from John Carroll University, Costantini worked in youth ministry and with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at St. Clarence Parish before spending several years as a stay-at-home mom. When the family moved to Sagamore Hills, She became the youth minister at St. Barnabas Parish for more than a decade before being named director of youth ministry for the diocese. Costantini and her husband Michael, who is in formation for the permanent diaconate, have three children: one a teacher, one discerning the priesthood and one in high school.
She said Bishop Nelson Perez began the momentum to reinvigorate youth ministry when he convened a think tank during his time in Cleveland. One result was splitting youth ministry into three offices: CYO, which remained under Catholic Charities, and young adult ministry and youth ministry, which shifted to the Secretariat for Parish Life and Development.
She began her new position a year ago during the pandemic. “The blessing of the pandemic is that we could take things slowly. There was no pressure of events,” Costantini said, adding that her office exists to serve youth ministers and young people across the eight-county diocese. “I work for you,” she said.
Pope Francis released his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, “Christus Vivit” (“Christ is Alive”) in 2019, a document that Costantini said is important to the future of youth ministry. “Christ is alive and he wants you to be alive,” she said. “Each young person’s heart is holy ground.”
She stressed the importance of involving young people in the Church. Studies show that people who are engaged in their faith are less likely to suffer from depression or to use drugs, Costantini said.
She showed a video clip that said thousands of babies are baptized into the Catholic Church every Sunday. Eighty-five percent will make their first Communion and 58% will be confirmed. However, at age 22, only 9% will be practicing their faith.
“These are heartbreaking numbers. This is not OK,” Costantini said, adding that we all play a role in this. Young people make lifelong decisions at ages 13 and 19, she said, and if they have not had an encounter with Christ by age 19, it’s unlikely they will stay in the Church. The most likely places an encounter can occur is at a retreat, a Catholic conference or a Catholic camp, she noted, reinforcing the need to keep young people engaged with a parish.
“Youth ministry is the most common way to have an encounter with Christ,” Costantini said. Unfortunately, only about 48% of parishes have a youth minister, yet 74% of the seminarians come from parishes with youth ministry. “This is significant,” she pointed out.
Costantini also mentioned another surprising fact: studies show 29% of young Catholics without an adult mentor feel their life has no meaning or purpose. Having a relationship with one adult reduces that number to 4%. “Young people need more trusted adult relationships in their lives,” she said, noting this reduces loneliness, isolation and stress. “Five or more trusted adults in a youth’s life is a game-changer.”
Costantini also said it’s important to find the youth where they are and to invite them to be part of the Church. “Don’t ignore them. Greet them by name at church so they feel noticed, named and known, which causes an increased sense of belonging. Get to know the teens around you. Walk with them; learn their story; ask how you can pray for them; be joyful and share your story,” she added.
Greeters at the parish play an important role, Costantini said, since they often are the first people encountered.
“Be joyful,” she said again, adding that after listening to a teen’s story, they know you care. “Then you have the right to share your story and the best story: that Jesus loves you, gave his life to save you and is at your side every day,”
She stressed that the entire community must be involved in evangelizing.
“Teens, you’re also called to serve at your parish. You can be lectors and can help improve youth ministry. Ask what you can do to help, volunteer,” she added. If the parish doesn’t have a youth minister, Costantini urged youth to advocate for one and to be part of the solution. She invited them to reach out to her office for help. Donations also can be earmarked for youth ministry. People can fund and provide scholarships for training youth ministers or financing a retreat or special program. “There are many ways to be involved and to help,” she added.
“Pray for teens and youth ministers by name and pray for vocations,” she said. “Everyone can pray. We have to be reminded every day to follow Jesus. We can’t do anything unless we love Christ. Do that and the rest will come.”
Frank O’Linn, superintendent of schools for the diocese, will present the program on Oct. 1. Click here for more information, reservations or for a link to recordings of previous programs. The club's new meeting location is Our Lady of Cedars in Fairlawn.