“Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” – 1 Tim 4:12

Vanessa was only fourteen years old when her pastor invited her and her mother to join a group of parishioners receiving Mission Training from the Evangelical Catholic. Despite her youth, her pastor recognized that Vanessa had the qualifications needed to begin: she was faithful, available, and teachable. 

Over the course of a few months, Vanessa and her mother received training to deepen their own practice of discipleship, to love others well, and to facilitate small group Scripture discussions. But according to Vanessa, now sixteen years old, the biggest thing she took away from the training was the ability to pray out loud in a group. “It helped me let God take control, relax, and let the Holy Spirit just speak.”

This skill has come in handy frequently as Vanessa now leads a weekly small group for her friends. “We go over the readings for Mass for the next Sunday. We read it over, read it again trying to listen to the Holy Spirit, see what He’s putting on our hearts to share. It just gives us a good place to be able to connect and deepen our friendship.” Vanessa met the girls in her group in a variety of places including at church, school, and on sports teams. She started with three or four people in the group, but now it has grown so that six or seven show up each week. “It has given us a place to connect with each other about our faith and allowed us to grow closer as friends.”

The group has given these young Catholic women a space to encourage each other to stay committed to Jesus and their beliefs amid the many pressures of middle and high school life. Vanessa’s mom has seen the value of the community the girls have formed. “I’ve seen the group growing together. It creates a place where it’s normalized to love Jesus, it’s normalized to love Scripture. In this group we are kind, in this group we listen, in this group we break open the Word and we pray.”

Leading the group has challenged Vanessa to grow as a Catholic and as a leader. “Taking on the leadership of the group and feeling the responsibility for making people feel comfortable has been difficult at times. I’m learning how to manage people’s expectations.” Despite the challenge, Vanessa clearly loves her fellow group members and has been excited to see how they’ve grown over time. One girl who is heavily involved in sports and is something of a partier recently experienced a powerful night of worship with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a Protestant group. After that experience, she texted her Catholic friends in Vanessa’s group and shared vulnerably about her experience of God. A big step for her.

Like this young woman, many of the girls in Vanessa’s group spend their days in secular or Protestant environments. “I think the group has helped them to have a pool of friends that have the same interests and spiritual goals.” Vanessa herself attends a Protestant high school. “Leading a small group has helped me be able to articulate why I believe the things I believe a bit more. I can take more of a forward position and be assertive about what I believe while also respecting other people.” As the girls begin making big decisions about college or the more day-to-day decisions about what to wear or how to treat other girls at school, the small group has been grounding for them. Vanessa’s mom shares, “It prevents some of the girls from being able to say ‘everyone’s doing it’ because even when they go back to their public schools, or wherever, they know that truly not everyone is doing that. They have a choice to live differently.”

Vanessa and her friends are going strong with their small group, now in its third year. They recently welcomed a new girl to the group, a middle schooler who is “hungry for it.” Vanessa sees the group as a “safety net” for her friends, a place where they can be built up and strengthened to be “example[s] in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4:12).