The Jesuit High School of Tampa is achieving something extraordinary.
A recent report in America Magazine shared some very encouraging news, which Aleteia passed along last month.
With the numbers of faithful apparently dwindling across the world, a Jesuit high school in Tampa welcomed 22 young men into the Catholic faith this year.
It most certainly was a bumper year for the school, which has welcomed 69 students into the faith since the program first began over a decade ago, according to the school’s website. And in fact these sorts of initiations into the Catholic Church are rare, especially in Jesuit schools across the United States.
So you may ask what is the Jesuit High School of Tampa doing to achieve these incredible numbers? After all, 14 students from across the different school grades were baptized into the faith, having received no religion at home. And a further eight students who’d been previously baptized in other Christian denominations decided to have their first Reconciliation, Confirmation, and first Holy Communion.
The school “has gradually built a culture of actively inviting students to share the Catholic faith,” according to the school’s communication director, Pete Young. It can be broken down into three key stages.
Jimmy Mitchell, the school’s campus minister, who joined the school a year ago, has had a huge influence, according to Young. Mitchell had a decade-long experience as a Catholic youth conference speaker and organizer. While ordinarily he’d have been able to organize lots of spiritual activities, with COVID it wasn’t so easy.
“Students have felt heightened levels of anxiety, frustration and sadness over canceled activities both secular and spiritual,” the report shared after an interview with Mitchell. However, at the same time, the restrictions of the pandemic might have been key to leading these youths to their faith.
“Given that we were still reeling from COVID-19, we didn’t want to wait for retreats and international pilgrimages to come back before we started helping students encounter the love of God for them. We wanted to bring the spirit of those retreats and pilgrimages to campus in a new way: the spirit of brotherhood, vulnerability and conversion,” explained Mitchell.
Aside from the pandemic, the school also has a policy of giving out key leadership roles to students who are respected by other classmates and who have a deep faith. These peer ministers can help students in finding a connection with God, with their peers, and even themselves.
“We have a ton of upperclassmen who take their faith seriously and are very zealous. They’ve been pretty profound witnesses as peer ministers for these underclassmen,” pointed out Mitchell.
Mitchell also pointed out the importance of discipleship groups that meet weekly to discuss in depth the concerns and struggles of students in their everyday lives — especially with the various temptations today’s youth are confronted with on the internet, such as pornography.
The groups of 8-12 students will talk during their lunch hour and challenge and support each other in prayer and discussion. There are 12 groups in total of young men encouraging each other to live pure and chaste lives.
“Right now it is a cool thing on campus to be into your faith. Living a virtuous life, engaging in a consistent personal prayer life and participating in the sacraments are not fringe ideas here,” Mitchell further explained.
And it’s paying off. As the newly baptized Knight can attest to after he joined the RICA program (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) in November 2020:
“Most of those kids at the meeting were already Catholic, but I didn’t consider myself Catholic,” adding “I never had that connection, never understood how to pray or how to connect with God.”
These group meetings had a profound effect on Knight, and really gave him a desire to be like these other devout young men. ““Every time we went to adoration, we would look at each other and say: They seem like such great people, so happy and full of faith. My buddy Wade and I wanted to be like that, to have that connection with faith.”
Knight believes the group also helped him develop a great prayer routine and the chance to delve deeper into the Catholic faith. This “easy-access manner” of discovering the faith was an open invitation to join other faithful, and had a positive impact on him.
So what role can parents play?
Obviously not everyone will have access to such a positive faith education. However, the lesson to be gleaned from the Tampa high school is to really encourage our teens to enter into a deeper relationship with God, accompanied by like-minded peers. In creating prayer and discussion routines, they’ll have a sense of belonging and support that is so crucial during oft-difficult teen years.