Young people are needed in the Church: Birgit Oberhofer
Assistant Director of Catholics on Call
Growing up in a family of six on the edge of Dachau, Germany, CTU staff member Birgit Oberhofer learned that you don’t need much to live a meaningful life. The family made do on her father’s teacher salary, and Birgit said she and her siblings were given choices about their lifestyle. “My parents would say, ‘Do you want to eat meat every day, or do you want to be able to go on a vacation this summer?’” Birgit said. “We couldn’t have everything, but I always had what I needed.”
Birgit didn’t feel any undue pressure from her family to "succeed” by an American definition, and wasn’t sure what life would bring her. But when time came to set out on her own, Birgit’s path was instinctively molded by her family’s involvement with the Focolare Movement.
The Focolare Movement, begun in the 1940s in Trent, Italy, is a lay ecclesial movement that seeks to bring unity where there is a lack of harmony, and to live for Jesus’ prayer “That all may be one.” Members are not vowed religious; they work at secular jobs, may be married or single, and try to bring their spirituality into the everyday world.
“Growing up, being active with the Focolare Movement was a normal part of my life,” she said. “They had retreats and fun activities for kids. I didn’t realize that other kids didn’t have that kind of community.”
After graduating from high school, Birgit spent three months in Loppiano, Italy, where she stayed at a house with other young adults who shared the lifestyle of the Focolare and participated in a spiritual formation work-study program. “There, I realized that God could be a part of my life,” she said. “And that I was happier if He was.”
During college, Birgit’s faith became the centerpiece of her life, and she lived with other students who were also members of the Focolare Movement. She eventually earned her master’s of science in education from Ludwig-Maximillians University, before deciding to make a life-long commitment to the Movement as a consecrated member.
“My happiest moments occurred when I was living in the community,” she said. “I felt like making this commitment would give meaning to everything else I was doing. I wanted to give my full attention to God. I didn’t want to feel divided.”
After two and a half years of formation, and a few years assigned to a community in Cologne, Germany, Birgit was assigned to Chicago. She was offered a job at CTU in 2008 as the program coordinator for Catholics on Call, which supports Catholic young adults striving to discover God’s call in their lives. Birgit is now the assistant director of Youth and Young Adult Programs, which includes the Peacebuilders Initiative, a program that focuses on helping prepare Catholic youth for active leadership roles in peacemaking, reconciliation and conflict transformation in their homes, schools, parish communities, and neighborhoods.
These programs, she said, have helped so many young people. “My favorite story is one young man who came to our Catholics on Call conference, and at the end of the weekend, stood up and said, ‘I have never told anyone this before, but for the first time, I want to say out it loud – I want to become a priest.’” Birgit recounted. “The conference was a powerful experience that empowered him to speak up.”
Helping young people inclined toward religious life realize it’s not the right fit for them is a success story, too, Birgit said. “Overall, I think it’s important to empower young people at an early stage so they feel like they can make a difference with their life.”
Birgit sees Peacebuilders as a powerful way to help high school students realize that they can positively impact their communities, and to help them bring out their unique gifts. “The activities bring together students from different social and ethnic backgrounds and communities, as well, which is extremely valuable,” she said. “It’s very different from hanging out with friends in their own parish all the time.”
Birgit hopes that these youth programs at CTU are serving as a model for the rest of the Church. “We need to change our perspective on young people,” she said. “They are not just people to be catered to, not just people to invite to a softball game. They are bright, and they are often not given the opportunity to show their talents in a parish. Maybe that’s why they can feel disconnected, because no one tells them that they are needed.
“I hope it becomes main stream that young people feel good asking the question, ‘How can I serve?’” she said.
To learn more about Catholics on Call, click here.