Q&A with NET Ministries
A community of believers share why they support NET Ministries’ mission
Interview with Jerry and Cathy Brennan, Board Member and Supporters of NET
What inspired you to be connected with NET Ministries?
[Jerry] We didn’t have much connection with NET at all before I was asked to be on the [NET] Board, and it was an invitation from Archbishop Harry Flynn that occurred as he was processing down the aisle at the chapel at the University of St. Thomas. He stopped at our pew and said, “Jerry, I have a board that I want you to be on, if Cathy will let you.” That was our introduction to NET! We knew Pat Huber who had been on the board, one of the founders [classmate of Cathy’s from St. Kate’s], so that’s how we first got engaged and as we saw what they were accomplishing – [we’re] just honored to be involved. [The Brennans have been involved with NET Ministries for over ten years.]
What do you personally find most meaningful about your associations with NET?
[Jerry] The commitment of the missionaries and the skill of Mark Berchem and his staff; I just think he has such a unique way of orienting young people to understanding that God loves them and that they are being called. (They may not know that yet, but they can learn that.) Being able to visit the NETters in training at Lake Wapo the last two years has been just inspirational—seeing Mark’s gifts being used so effectively. I’ve told stories over and over about how he has engaged these young people, who obviously have a commitment to be there at the training, but how he describes what this is all about, is real interesting. You see the priests who come from all over the country to be part of this training and how committed they are; coming back year after year. (The missionary training includes: conferences, role playing, presentations, Mass, etc.)
[Cathy] I kind of got into it because Jerry was into it; not that I had chosen it like he had. As the Archbishop said, “If Cathy would let you.” Well, that’s true because he’s [Jerry] on so many boards and different things. And there’s no question Mark Berchem is an Apostle — he engages them, in his quiet way. I find the staff to be very committed and see their mission clearly. I like to be with organizations that aren’t trying to figure things out. They know what their mission is. They may be figuring out how to get there, but they know what their mission is. That has always been good.
Plus, it was a totally different experience for me to see how these kids respond at the Commissioning Mass and Lifeline. The Holy Spirit – you feel it. It’s the whole experience. There is a presence there of God, that you don’t get just ordinarily, and I think that is part of what draws others in (teens/young adults). It’s truly authentic (not an act); it’s truly them experiencing the Lord I think. Once I saw that (it was very foreign to me because I had not witnessed such fervor before) I truly felt they were experiencing the Holy Spirit’s presence and that moved me.
Why is NET’s mission of “Challenging young Catholics to love Christ and embrace the life of the Church” important to you?
[Jerry] I think it’s important to me because it’s really important to the Church. If we’re going to revitalize the Church it has to come from the people. Especially in this age, you can’t force it from the top, you can’t tell people, and you can’t make them feel obligated. They have to come to it and believe that they want the Church to be a part of everybody’s life. The best evidence is the generation of NETters coming back, the number of vocations, and number of NETters committed in marriage. And the alumni who are engaging more and more with their testimonials of how they are living their lives and what models they are for everybody around them.
[Cathy] I think the world that they’re in [youth today] has so many choices, and so many times they are not making the choices that say, “I want to be part of the Church. I want to follow rules. I want to engage.” There is so much noise that they follow and others follow, that it’s really cool to see a group that’s proud of their faith and willing to share it with others and not be afraid, not be self-conscious; they are well equipped to be ambassadors.
[Jerry] The way Mark described it at one of the sessions at Wapo this year is something I’ve repeated many times. He started out by asking, “Do you believe that you are sons and daughters of God?” [We are!] Mark went on to explain that there is a great deal of dignity attached to that and the kids agreed.
The “rules” that the Church has, from the Ten Commandments through the various traditions — all of these things are there to help you maintain your dignity as a child of God. It just completely changes the perception, from “rules” to guidelines that help me maintain that special dignity of being a son or daughter of God; knowing that God loves me all the time. That’s pretty special.
What are some of the ways you’ve seen or heard about NET’s mission work being impactful and/or helpful to Catholic youth?
[Cathy] I know that when NETters speak at the annual banquet, we hear these stories from the kids that are amazing! That’s what I think of most. I also see the impact on vocations (so many former NETters – Bishop Cozzens and Father Kevin Finnegan and more). That’s very impressive. [12% of those who complete a year of service with NET are accepted into seminary or novitiate programs with religious orders.]
[Jerry] The people who have hosted NETters just rave about what a great experience it is for them … and how committed the NETters are. The host families see their attitude about going out each day. I think it’s fascinating when they’re traveling on a team … they know it’s important to be talking about the next stop, the next skit, etc. It’s with the right purpose [in mind] – it’s how can I be more effective as an apostle/missionary?
As a side bar: I’m part of a men’s group at Nativity of our Lord in St. Paul, and with our programming we look for various speakers and topics. The subject that came up was: It would be interesting if someone could talk about how to keep our kids Catholic. Everyone just lit up because often they [young adults] go off to school and that’s kind of the end of it for their faith life. [Jerry invited President and Founder of NET Ministries Mark Berchem to come speak.] Berchem said, “The answer is you … They have to see you practicing your faith. Not just going to church on Sunday but also talking about why this is meaningful to you. You might even let them catch you praying once in a while or let them know you read the Bible. That will keep them Catholic more than anything.”
There clearly is a methodology that works with younger people today. They need to see Church and Mass as joyful and they should want to know why we go to Mass.
[Cathy] Our age group comes from the obligation [side of things], so it’s very easy to fall into that if you don’t have some insight. I think NET has flipped that with reference to things we can share joyfully.
What do you think is the best course of action for keeping young Catholics engaged with their faith and close to Jesus Christ?
The hard part for me is I’m seeing a lack of understanding and a sense of joy about our faith and about the Mass in particular. We must encourage our pastor and other priests to remind them [the congregation] about how extraordinary this is and so much so that we all want to come together and appreciate it together. Yes, we call it the Sunday obligation, but we hear of families (kids and grandkids) all coming together for dinner at Mom and Dad’s every Sunday night. Those are always remarkably strong families. Why don’t we talk about Sunday Mass that way? We all get together on Sunday and share Jesus Christ!
For some they haven’t had the Mass explained in decades. We need to (this is why NET is so powerful) get that basic curiosity and then learn about the riches of the Church. I don’t think you teach catechism first and then hope people will understand God loves them.
[Cathy] I don’t think that you can count on the fact that just because they’ve been in Catholic schools that they have any of this. It’s amazing what isn’t being taught. We’re the catechism kids. We know all the answer to the catechism, but as far as relating it – you must try extra hard to be a role model.
[Jerry] So, NET’s approach is introducing people to a relationship with God and letting them realize that it is the Catholic Church that has held that up more than anybody.
What’s next? Tell us about your goals in this area/mission, that we are working on together as a supportive faith community!
[Cathy] Giving financially has to be a piece of the commitment; otherwise, NET Ministries can’t keep expanding. I think Jerry and I both see commitment to financially help the best way we can. We’ve made decisions about dropping some other things … to focus on that.
[Jerry] With my work on the NET Board, as vice chair, and being involved in strategic planning I’m recognizing we can’t just be successful here. The past Archbishop really got our attention when he said: In the church, in the Middle Ages, when civilization had crumbled, and monasteries were formed it was the monasteries that really kept civilization alive. The priests and monks went out and taught people how to read and all of that … and kind of reformed civilization. When those monasteries got full and were successful, they would send out two or three or four monks or sisters to start up another monastery. So what is NET Ministries doing? We’re really successful, why aren’t we doing that? We hadn’t thought of it that way. We’re sending kids all over the country, but there’s a limited number we can do with just this center. That’s when we started talking about Cincinnati, Ohio and Southern California. How do we engage more people from other communities? The answer, I believe, is in the parishes. The parishes must know NET and NET’s approach and understand why it has been successful.
[Cathy] We are in a lot of different circles/environments [on any given day], and I think it is important to bring some of this up when we can and when there is an opportunity to share with people that have no idea about NET and its remarkable work.