In order to serve the various concerns of our Diocese and elevate the voices of those working for and with youth and young adults around it, many of the posts on this page will be from guest contributors. Today’s is from Liz Donner, Coordinator of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at Ss. John & Paul parish in Altoona. Enjoy!
The season of Easter is upon us, and the days of Fish Fries and Stations of the Cross make way for celebrating our Risen Savior! It is easier to think about being an “Easter person” in the midst of this feast, but as Christians we are called to live the joy of Easter year-round. St. Pope John Paul II the Great, quoting St. Augustine, once said:
“We do not pretend that life is all beauty. We are aware of darkness and sin, of poverty and pain. But we know Jesus has conquered sin and passed through his own pain to the glory of the Resurrection. And we live in the light of his Paschal Mystery – the mystery of his Death and Resurrection. ‘We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song!’”
Easter is not merely a day, or even a season. It is way of living your life with authentic joy and love overflowing. We all know that life has cycles and seasons, ups and downs, beginnings and ends. I am not going to say that I am the perfect example of an Easter person: there are times that my joy is not so authentic, and my love is reserved. It is my goal, however, to be a witness to others of the love and joy of Christ. Here is a little bit of how I came to understand the importance of this goal.
I grew up the middle child of 3 in a pretty small town. My earliest memories of religion were made at the local Methodist Church. In 1st grade, I started attending the local Catholic school and my family began going to the Catholic Church, which was an easy transition because both of my parents were raised Catholic. By the time I graduated 8th grade in a class of 15 I had a strong community and many friends…that I had to leave behind when my family moved to the Des Moines area.
Many moments in high school were crucial for me: from the activities I was involved in, to the retreats I went on, to the job I had. These were all Easter moments insofar as they helped me truly make my faith my own. One element that wasn’t there, however, was being involved in my parish (which, as a youth minister, I am embarrassed to admit). In fact, I didn’t do much there at all until my Confirmation. I had missed the 8th grade Confirmation of my classmates, because I had moved right after 8th grade, and where I’d come from the Sacrament was celebrated later in high school.
My parents said it was up to my brother and I to decide when we were ready for the Sacrament. My brother seems to still not be ready at 28, but I decided it was something I wanted to do before I left home for college. I began preparation at the parish my senior year of high school, but it ended up being a terrible experience, as I left most of the sessions in tears. I was lucky, however, to have an amazing sponsor, who was also one of my high school teachers. She helped me through what I really needed at this point in my faith, and I was very happy upon actually receiving the Sacrament at the Easter Vigil. This was one of my most vivid, and literal Easter moments. All these years later, I look back on this experience and can see how it shaped me to do my best for the teens I work with today. I also continue to have a great relationship with my sponsor, who supports me in all my ministry efforts and was even able to be a part of my wedding, when I married Jordan. But that’s later in the story…
So off to UNI for college I go! I was ready to make my own way, and got involved at the Catholic student center on campus right away. I loved getting to know the campus ministers and other students involved there. They helped me through the rough transition into adulthood and in and out of a difficult relationship.
After my freshman year I knew my chosen major of Music Education was not going to give me life in the way I had hoped it would. Going home for that first summer after a messy break up, and not even sure what I would be studying when I returned to UNI, I prayed more than I had ever prayed: “God give me guidance, tell me what you want me to do with my life”. I am happy to say that God answered these prayers and called me to greatness. There was even a moment in prayer where I was so sure I heard God’s voice that it brought me to tears. It happened while I was counseling Catholic Youth Camp in the summer. I asked God want I should do with my life and clear as day he said:
“You could do this.”
Pretty vague, but thanks all the same, God! I knew he was calling me to serve the young people of the Church, and I entered the following semester as a “Leisure, Youth, and Human Services” major. Yes, I did actually study leisure in college–but it was a lot more than that, and it helped to shape me for what God was calling me to!
When I had been trying to make a profession work that didn’t really fit me, I was tired and always sick, both mentally and physically. I was getting worse grades than I ever had before and felt constantly like my wheels were spinning. Starting the new year with a new outlook and new career path lifted so much of the weight I had been feeling, and I was able to be more joyful than ever before. St. Catherine of Siena said “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire”. I was finally pursuing who God meant me to be, and this was truly an Easter season for me.
That same year two things happened that pushed me further into that Easter joy: I began dating this wonderful guy who showed me God’s love really does take so many forms in everyday things. God now was in pineapples, piles of snow, snuggly blankets and in someone who saw my amazing worth. I married him about 5 years later.
Additionally, I had the amazing opportunity to begin working in a Catholic setting for the first time at Catholic Youth Camp each summer, and at St. Stephens on campus during the school year. Being on Summer Staff at Camp was instrumental in developing my faith. It showed me that God was present in both the struggles and the joys, and that I could bring the joy of Christ to others in so many fun and special ways. It was such a wonderful opportunity to be who God made me to be. Working as the Spiritual Life Peer Minister at St. Stephens showed me that there are many ways to be a part of your faith community, and so many ways to express your faith.
After graduation and my last summer on staff at camp I felt strong in my faith and was ready to take the first job that offered me a position: conveniently located in the same city where my boyfriend lived! We had never lived in the same city, and we liked each other enough to want to see each other on a more regular basis. I can admit it now, I did move and take a job for a boy, but a very nice boy mind you!
That year in Ames was a good one. I plugged into the student center there because I was very comfortable with that culture, having just come from St. Stephens. I had a small group of friends and was doing well for myself: I had taken a job working as a preventions specialist, going into classrooms teaching teens to say no to drugs and running afterschool programs. I was, for the first time in a while, working for a place that was not about faith, and one that wasn’t too fond of you sharing your faith with the students you were working with. At the time, though, that was fine by me; I wanted to test myself a little to be honest–if I was not working for the Church, how would I keep my faith?
Many of you do not, and will never work for the Church, so this is your normal experience. For me it was new, and I was happy to have a change of pace, and to allow myself to practice my faith outside of my job. But that joy I felt when working at St. Stephens or at camp was gone. The work I was doing was not true to me and who I wanted to be. I lost some of that spark I was going to use to set the world on fire. So I made a plan: I was going to grad school! I picked two Iowa schools because I didn’t want to go far, but was not picked by either of them. Admittedly, I was pretty bummed, but kept searching for what I would do next.
I found myself looking for Catholic jobs again. I discovered that what I was missing in my work was being true to myself and to my faith. There was a position open for a full time Youth and Young Adult Ministry Coordinator in the Des Moines area and I thought it wouldn’t hurt to check it out. I of course talked to my Confirmation sponsor, my spiritual director of sorts, and she thought I would be perfect for it–and it turns out the parish agreed. I began working there in July of 2015 and it fits me so well. Jordan also moved to the Des Moines area and things were starting to fall into place for the future we were dreaming of. Working at Ss. John and Paul has been another Easter Season for me!
Shortly after starting this job, though, Jordan’s family received some very tough news. After having just welcomed her first grandchild, Jordan’s mother was diagnosed with stage 4 terminal cancer. It was inoperable, and treatment would only be able to provide more time. They decided to take a shot at more time. It was so hard to hear that this woman who had welcomed me into her family would soon be gone, and had a difficult battle ahead in the meantime. It was horrible to think that the man I loved would have to go through such heartbreak. We were so happy to have her in our life and blessed to have her be there when we got engaged and when we were married. She died after only 8 months of being my mother-in-law. I was surprised by myself during this struggle: I thought I would be mad at God, say “why us?” and “life isn’t fair”, but faith was the glue that helped all of us to mourn and grow closer as a family. It allowed us to find peace in her passing, and a connection to her now, even when she can’t be with us in the same way anymore.
And that brings me to now. I have had many Easter moments, and a few Good Fridays as well. Through the ups and downs, though, my faith has been a constant, and I think that a lot of that comes from those Easter People in my life. They have shown me the love of God in so many wonderful ways. Even if you had never heard the idea of Easter people before today, I imagine you can identify a few people in your life that live this idea to the fullest. To further understand what an Easter person is, we can look at the commandment Jesus gives us in the 22nd chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:
37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
But it isn’t enough just to say that Easter people follow these commandments. Easter people know that just as Jesus rose from the dead, they too have Jesus’ promise that all who believe in him will have everlasting life. As Easter people our response to this promise—this gift—is to worship God with praise and thanks for what God has already done for us through His Son. This makes us desire to live our life differently than what the world around us often preaches. It gives us hope!
There are terrible things in our world. There are mass shootings, wars, starving children, people in broken relationships, and individuals who are taken advantage of each day. In a world full of anger, we forgive. In a world full of deception we spread truth. In a world full of hate we love. We don’t act like there is not evil in our world, we live a life that opposes that evil. We don’t come to God because we are perfect, we come to God for healing.
Growing up, Easter largely just meant matching dresses made by my mom. Now, having walked with individuals who have entered the Church at Easter, it means so much more. It is the pinnacle of all we are as Christians. It give us hope, joy, courage, and strength for the journey.
Another example of an Easter person to me is my pastor Fr. Tim. As my boss, he has taken the time to build a strong relationship with myself and my family. He always approaches his ministry with joy, and draws others into that joy of Christ. He shows his love to you, not by being easy on you but by challenging you, and helping you grow. He does not judge, but encourages the best in you.
The Saints also can show us what it means to be Easter People. Mother Teresa teaches us to serve all as children of God. St. John Paul the Great teaches us to forgive those who have wronged us. St. Therese teaches us to use the little things in life to praise God. Look to the lives of the saints for ways to be this light of Christ in the world.
Being an Easter person will not be the same for all of us, as the Saints in all their diversity show us. Being the best version of yourself will look different than the best of me. Some of you will be parents, some not. Most of you will not be youth ministers, so how I am an Easter person will look pretty different from how you are one. But at the core will always be the authentic joy and love overflowing of Jesus.
Easter is here today! Alleluia! But no matter the season we can and should always be Easter People. Here are three concrete things that I think will help you do that:
#1 Live your vocation – Be who God created you to be, no one else. If God is calling you to be married, live a holy life that honors your spouse and children. If God is calling you to serve others as a doctor or nurse, provide the best care you can for the greater glory of God. If God is calling you to live a holy single life, be the best single person you can be, with relationships that point toward God.
#2 Share the joy of your faith – Looking around at the people at Mass, no one looks happy. That is a problem! Our faith has a beautiful, joyful message that is worth sharing! If all anyone hears about faith is that they have to go to Church in the morning or that they are not allowed to eat meat on Fridays they will probably be left thinking “where is the joy in that?” Bring that joy and energy that our parishes are in need of to the table. Help out and get involved, let your joy spread and grow. If you don’t share the joy in your parish, who will?
#3 Make prayer a part of all you do – I am an active person. I do not like to sit still and pray very often. My favorite time to pray is when I walk my dog in the morning to start my day, and at night to look back on the day. I say prayers I know, I talk to God, and I lift others up in prayer. I love it because I am improving my body, caring for another, and out in nature all at the same time. I also love to sing while I pray. I have tried that on my walks and my dog looks at me funny, so I usually save that one for when I am at Mass. Do a little more exploration to figure out when, where, and how you pray best. Pray when you work out or crochet, when you make a meal or gather with friends. Pray without ceasing, because our lives are best lived for the greater glory of God.
Now we just have to make these things habits. One of the things about Lent that draws me in is the idea that you can have a goal that you do for the season, that if done correctly, can become a more long term habit. This doesn’t have to stop because the season has changed. What we resolve to do today will take practice and discipline. We are lucky to have a strong Christian community surrounding and supporting us through this journey of improvement.
Joy is at the heart of the Easter message! Without a doubt I have experienced the most joy in the name of Jesus at Catholic Youth Camp. At camp we sing this song called “The Happy Song”. In that song it says:
“I could sing unending songs
Of how you saved my soul
Well I could dance a thousand miles
Because of your great love.”
Whether you sing unending songs or dance a thousand miles, become the most loving nurse on your floor, share faith daily with your children, donate and serve for the best cause, or become your friend groups go-to Bible nerd, do it all because of God’s great love for us.
Do it all because of the joy of Easter!
Liz Donner is the Coordinator of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at Ss. John and Paul in Altoona. She is a graduate of Dowling Catholic High School and the University of Northern Iowa, while happily married to a Cyclone. A native of Missouri, she is now happy to call central Iowa her home. For fun she loves to play board games, spend time with her dog, and bake. Youth ministry is more than a job for her, but a passion that pushes her closer to God each day.