As a high school sophomore, Mary Rayer wasn’t too sure about the catholic church’s teaching on chastity, but a presentation by the Culture Project changed her thinking – and her life.
“It shook me to the core,” she said. “I thought, ‘wow, this is intriguing. I want to dive deeper into it and know more about it.’”
Now a 21-year-old senior at Temple University, Rayer is living what she learned from Culture Project missionaries who visited her school as part of an apostolate started in 2014. Since its inception, the culture project has taken its message of restoring culture through the experience of virtue to more than 150,000 young people like Rayer in 52 dioceses.
Legates are linked in
Legate Mike McCartney, a father of seven and an avid Culture Project supporter, has seen the apostolate at work in his parish of St. Joan of Arc in Toledo, OH. “You’ve got these sharp, clear-eyed and, by the world’s standard, attractive young people who are passionate for the faith and passionate for youth and talking the truth. They’ve got a well-prepared testimony that they can deliver with crispness and vitality and the kids love it.”
McCartney said that was abundantly clear to him as he observed several of his own children interacting over dinner with members of a Culture Project team following a presentation to the parish youth group. “They have a vantage point with the kids that we don’t. We have a great relationship with all our kids, but I know that they hear a message from The Culture Project in a context and word that is different from ours. It’s so reinforcing. They’re supporting what we are trying to inculcate in our kids at home, but it’s coming from a 22 or 24-year-old, not a 64-year-old. So it’s got more relevance for them and is fresh and relatable. That’s what I love about it as a parent. They’re partners for us in our children’s formation, an extension of everything we’re trying to do that’s good.”
Cristina Barba, who founded The Culture Project in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia after working in evangelization and speaking about pro-life issues and chastity, said the most effective aspect of the apostolate’s work is the witness given by missionaries. “Middle school students and high school students are seeing young people who are just a few years older than they are and who are alive, living the faith and joyful . . . They’re relatable, credible witnesses and I think the young people are ready to listen to them. They want guidance and a lot aren’t getting it.”
Deacon Gary Rudemiller, a Culture Project supporter and Legate from Lexington, KY, agreed. “Our culture is very strongly against anything that’s godly and our children these days are pummeled with secular ideologies, alternative lifestyles, and alternative gender ideologies. There’s nothing good coming from our mass media that’s going to lead a child to have a healthy relationship with God or Jesus Christ.” Furthermore, Rudemiller said, The Culture Project is reaching a demographic – middle and high school students – that apostolates geared toward college students and young adults do not. “We hear kids are being exposed to pornography as early as 8 or 9. We can’t wait till they get to college to reach them. We need to teach them virtue early.”
Partnering with parents
He added that many parents may not be equipped to instruct their younger children in virtue because they have been affected by the culture as well. “They need help making sure they’re planting the seeds of virtue because kids are made in the image and likeness of God. Virtue is something our culture seems to want to step upon and trample into the ground and groups like The Culture Project are elevating virtue.”
Barba said the apostolate strongly encourages parents to have conversations with their children about the topics the missionaries cover in their presentations. Especially at Christmas, she said, when the emphasis tends to be on material gifts, she urges parents to invest in their children in another way by taking time to focus on their relationships. “Kids want to hear from their parents more than they act like they want to . . .. We tell [parents] you want to provide for your children in material ways, but to please think about what is most important and what you value most and invest in these conversations and let them know they can talk to you.”
Inspired by lapsed Catholics
Before starting The Culture Project, Barba said she had been struck while traveling in Europe by how many people had turned away from the Catholic Church because of misunderstanding its teaching on marriage, family, life, and sex. From that emerged her plan to send missionaries out with a universal message for a secularized culture through talks on sexual integrity, friendship, and relationships.
Although the missionaries give well-honed presentations with good content, Barba believes their effectiveness stems from the commitment each makes to daily Mass and a Eucharistic holy hour and living in community. “That is priceless,” she said. “I know when I’m sending a team into a diocese, they’re getting young men and women who are living holiness and in a community that’s going to call them out if they’re not.”
Friending youth with truth
Missionaries present themselves to young people as a group of friends who believe in what the Church has to offer, Barba added. Since the apostolate began, she said, more than 50 young people have responded to that call and many have gone on to live out the message they proclaim by marrying and starting families or entering the priesthood or religious life.
As someone who has coached high school students and teaches Confirmation classes, Legate Dan Vogl said he knows Culture Project missionaries relate well to young people. “Their approach, their youth, joyfulness, and excitement about what they’re doing is contagious.” He said Culture Project missionaries sacrifice both time and treasure and essentially put their lives on hold not only to empower their own lives through truth, but to share what they believe with others. “This is a cause that doesn’t necessarily have immediate rewards, but they hope they can make a difference over generations.”
Still, as is evident from the testimonies of Rayer and others, Culture Project missionaries do know that their messages have had an impact. One high school senior from the Toledo diocese, for example, said, “Your talk tonight has given me so much insight on how a true and pure relationship should be . . . . I never truly knew what chastity meant or what it was. You have helped open my eyes to my own relationship and how it may not be as healthy as I thought it was.”
Vogl, who with his wife, Ayde, got involved in supporting the apostolate through San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, said in a time when it is difficult to be countercultural he sees in The Culture Project young people breaking the mold. “Our culture teaches immediate gratification and that is a recipe for disaster. The Culture Project is fighting that. I applaud them.”
Culture Project teams are currently serving in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where the apostolate is based, in the Los Angeles and San Francisco archdioceses, and the Toledo, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh dioceses.
For more information about The Culture Project, contact Julie Pesusich through www.thecultureproject.org.
JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer.