By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator  

Headlines about young Catholics becoming disengaged, some even leaving the Catholic Church, leave many discouraged.  

But trusting their messages that they are interested in learning the traditions and prayers of the church brings the hope of keeping them connected, according to priests of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.  

“When it comes to getting kids involved in prayer many adults might say, ‘Okay we’re going to the adoration chapel’ or ‘We’re going to pray the rosary,’ ” said Father Trey Nelson, pastor of St. Jude the Apostle Church in Baton Rouge.  

Though these are good methods to have youth pray, to help them better understand and appreciate what prayer is and what their Catholic faith teaches, they need instruction, he said.  

“If you’re going to have them pray in any way you need to educate them first,” said Father Nelson, author of “Stand on the Promise.”  

Father Nelson first published “Stand on the Promise,” now in its third printing, in 2006. But the ever-evolving youth culture prompted him to revisit it again in 2019.  

“I noticed how in recent years, people are busier, kids are busier, technology is taking over our lives. I was looking for a tool to give young people that would help them to foster a prayer routine with a certain rhythm to it. It’s a way of saying, ‘Hey, pray,’ ” said Father Nelson.  

The book, which can easily fit in a backpack, is modeled after the liturgy of the hours. It also contains seasonal prayers, traditional prayers and the seven themes of Catholic social teaching.  

There are also prayers for special needs as well as special occasions – prayers for freshmen coming into high school and seniors’ last school year (and graduation), preparing for confirmation and receiving a driver’s license.  

Additionally, there’s a section for youth to evaluate the music they listen to.  

“With everything that changes in technology, music is a constant,” said Father Nelson. “Music is a part of people’s lives … music has a message.”  

Youth have a good spirituality that can be further developed through a deeper connection with prayer and the sacraments, Father Nelson said.  

During a Mass for St. Jude School, the Gospel reading was the story about the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee and a storm strikes. Jesus was asleep and the disciples were terrified.  

In his homily, Father Nelson asked the students, “When was the last time you were afraid and how did you get through it?” Some students predictably answered, “My mom and dad helped me,” or “My teammates prayed with me.”  

But one girl’s answer amazed Father Nelson: “I just chose to face it and get through it.” 

“I told her and the whole class, ‘Wow! It’s great that you all have these people in your life, but at the end of the day, it’s between you and God,’ ” said Father Nelson.  

“I went to the office thinking, ‘Wow, I’m going to have a good day because of that (girl’s reply).’ It was really profound,” he added.  

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He said youth express their deepest spirituality, not just during “Aha moments” when they grasp what they are told, but when they are struggling and are courageous enough to ask questions others won’t ask: “I asked God to cure my dad and he didn’t. Can you tell me why?” or “Why is there so much suffering in the world?”  

“In a lot of religions, there’s a mindset that one shouldn’t ask questions or shouldn’t doubt. But for a kid to stand up and express how they are feeling is pretty courageous,” said Father Nelson.  

His books, “Stand on the Promise,” and recently published “Daytime Dreamer,” are a way to accompany the youth through struggles.  

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The main character of “Daytime Dreamer,” in which Father Nelson honored the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, is Thomas C. McKnight Jr., a good kid who is living with a lot of “stuff.” It covers such issues as technology, relationships, bullying, peer pressure and forgiveness.  

“I often say to people jokingly, (yet) seriously ‘I wouldn’t want to be a teenager today,’ ” said Father Nelson. “There’s a lot of kids who are really trying to live in this world and trying to live a good life. They’re just up against a lot.

“When I was growing up, bullying was done face-to-face. Now, it’s digital, it’s electronic, it’s all the above. It’s crazy.”  

The youth’s concerns are to address basic hungers: physical hunger, hunger for community, hunger for love, etc., said Father Nelson.  

“But I think the world is more confusing and for them it’s harder to be more courageous and be themselves,’ ” Father Nelson said.  

In the book, McKnight, whose father died, has people who support him through his journey – including a character named T.C., who mysteriously enters his life, a security guard for a gated subdivision and a priest named Father Jim, with whom McKnight has a “front porch conversation” about his doubts and fears. Through such ongoing support and grace, McKnight found healing and was able to forgive and mentor a former bully.  

Father Nelson’s writings also underline the importance for youth to have a “go to person” for support.  

“You have to have that ‘go to person,’ we all do,” said Father Nelson. “You have to have that person who can get in your face and challenge you, someone you can say what is on your mind and not be judged for it,” said Father Nelson.  

To purchase the books, call the St. Jude office at 225-766-2431.