By Agnieszka Ruck, The B.C. Catholic
[Vancouver – Canadian Catholiic News] – For many Canadians the COVID-19 pandemic meant hunkering down at home, cutting out travel and major life-altering decisions, and waiting out the storm.
But not so for 46 missionaries who joined National Evangelization Teams (NET) Canada last fall. Leaving behind comforts of home, educational pursuits, and jobs, the young people received five weeks of training before heading across Canada to host retreats, share their testimonies, and run religious activities for high school students for the 2020/2021 school year.
Western program coordinator Jean-Paul de Fleuriot sees NET as fulfilling a need “to bring light in the midst of the darkness.”
“Yes, there are restrictions on us, but sharing the Gospel is a necessity,” he told The B.C. Catholic.
During the pandemic, NET is working with dioceses and schools to maintain safety measures while sharing the Gospel. Protocols include ensuring NET missionaries follow all local guidelines that apply to school staff and board in private apartments. (In previous years, missionaries have been put up by host families). The teams have also cut down on the amount of travel they usually do, serving one community for months at a time instead of moving among schools.
Due to current restrictions all parish-based ministry is done online.
“With the current situation, God still knew that young people, families, the whole community, would need hope, and his work is still happening,” said de Fleuriot.
Three teams are currently serving in B.C. One provides religious activities for students at St. John Brebeuf Regional Secondary in Abbotsford and parishes in the area. A second team of missionaries serves at St. Thomas Aquinas Regional Secondary (North Vancouver) and Archbishop Carney Regional Secondary (Port Coquitlam). A third team is in Prince George.
NET missionary Renske de Greeuw, who is working at St. John Brebeuf, said many students are struggling with isolation. Having faced lockdowns, online learning, physical distancing measures, and separation based on cohort groups or grades, “they don’t have many people to listen to them,” she said.
Being around the missionaries – who are only a few years older than they are – offers high school students an opportunity to talk to someone who understands their anxieties and has had to ask the same questions about their own futures.
“The challenges can’t compare with the blessings that are coming through this time,” said de Greeuw.
“It is so beautiful how the youth are opening up and how we can share our faith and trust and grow. From the biggest fights come the biggest victories.”
NET teammate Noah Runstedler, who graduated from high school less than a year ago, also sees his service in schools as spreading hope in hard times.
“One of the youth said: ‘I can’t wait to wake up in the morning on Tuesdays and Thursdays because I know the NET team will be there,’” he said. “It gives them a hope and a joy, and we hope and pray that joy will stay when we leave, because it’s not us, it’s God working through us.”
Although the number of NET missionaries in Canada has dropped slightly to 46 from last year, the number assigned to B.C. has doubled to 20 from 10 last season.
While in-person events (outside school activities) are banned in B.C., missionaries are running faith studies and maintaining connections with young people online. Runstedler said digital technologies have been a blessing and a challenge.
Since you’re not ministering to the youth face-to-face, you have less control of what you’re doing in a sense. You’re really forced to trust more in the Lord,” he said. “God is not limited. If he wants to touch a youth, he can do it through a computer screen.”
At the start of the pandemic, 18-year-old Michael Porta was a little anxious about making plans to fly from his home in London, Ont., to Alberta for NET training and then to B.C. for eight months of evangelizing. He registered for NET, but applied to university as a back-up plan.
When he was accepted to both he felt his anxiety about missionary work evaporating. “God knew a pandemic was coming when he called me,” he said.
Porta has deeply moved by the sight of young people at St. Thomas Aquinas and. Archbishop Carney lining up for confession or saying they want to commit their lives to God.
“The most fulfilling thing is seeing youth come to Christ … It’s so rewarding. Being in a small group and hearing a kid say that he wants a relationship with Christ is so awesome.”
Pia Ocenar served as a NET missionary last year and, despite the looming pandemic, chronic illness, and doubts from family members, felt called to continue for a second year.
“I wanted to spread the Gospel to the youth. I still had that calling,” said Ocenar, who put her university studies in history on hold to do this.
“The youth still need Jesus and to know they are loved by him. Just because it’s a pandemic, it’s not going to stop. I felt called to keep on going.”
Perhaps in a pandemic, even more so than in any other time, young people need to hear a message of hope, grace, and peace. “God doesn’t change because there’s a pandemic,” said Runstedler.
“His Gospel doesn’t change. We’re still called to evangelize, and whatever way that might be, he is going to bless it.”