NORTH PROVIDENCE — For Vanesa Zuleta, a recipient of a Lumen Gentium Award in the category of Distinguished Catholic Youth, youth ministry is a way of life. As a teenager, she relied on her parish youth group to keep her strong in her faith, and now, at the age of 23, serves as a volunteer with Capuchin Youth and Family Ministries based in Garrison, New York. Her ministry to youth and young adults answers a vocational call she hopes to fulfill for the rest of her life.
“It’s been a very faith-filled, growth-filled process,” she told Rhode Island Catholic during a visit to her North Providence home over Holy Week.
Zuleta’s ministry began at the age of 15 when she stepped up to lead the youth group at her home parish of St. John the Baptist, Pawtucket. Like many teenagers, she struggled with doubts during high school and relied on her peers from the youth group to help her stay centered in her faith. The group, she recalled, had limited resources and met in the parish basement, a simple atmosphere that taught her to focus on the important aspects of evangelization.
“It really kind of reminded me of the genuine ministry of Christ and his apostles,” she said. “They sat around a campfire and talked faith. They didn’t need all the accessories. That environment for me really prepared me to meet people where they are and to not be dependent on material things to evangelize.”
After graduating from Masters Regional Academy in Smithfield, she attended Providence College, where she studied theology and business and served on the executive board for the campus ministry council. It was during her junior year, while attending a national Catholic conference for college students, that she realized her calling to youth ministry as a career.
“I said, listen if this is where you want to take me, if you want to take me to serve young people, then I will go,” she said.
Following graduation, she began a year of service with Capuchin Youth and Family Ministries, where she organizes retreats and outreach programs at the ministry’s center and serves as a youth minister at St. Joseph Church in Somers, New York. The experience has been challenging but rewarding as she develops her skills in youth ministry. Over the year, she has learned to take care of her own mental and spiritual health and discovered that helping teenagers to develop their faith takes time.
“To also know that sometimes you plant the seed but you’re not the harvester is I think the biggest thing I’ve struggled with in youth ministry,” she said. “Faith isn’t like popcorn. You can’t just throw it in the microwave and three minutes later you have this beautiful, bountiful thing.”
Despite the challenges, Zuleta said she has recently felt reaffirmed in her vocation to serve youth. In February, she was accepted to Boston College’s graduate program in Theology and Ministry, which she will begin in the fall. Later that same day, she learned she would receive a Lumen Gentium Award. She took the news as an affirmation of her desire to serve Christ, a desire she says is more prevalent than one might assume among the other young people she encounters through her ministry.
“Young people are really searching for something more. Young people are hungry for more,” she said. “That’s one thing I’ve seen.”
Over the next several weeks, Rhode Island Catholic will feature profiles of the 17 winners in the 10 categories of the diocese’s 2017 Lumen Gentium Awards, which formally recognize those who ‘toil in the vineyard’ in service to the Lord, and minister to those in greatest need in their parish or community. The honorees will be awarded during a dinner at Twin River Event Center in Lincoln on Wednesday, May 17. Guests wishing to purchase tickets to the dinner — whose proceeds will support diocesan senior priests, many of whom continue to serve in our diocese well into their older years — are asked to register online at www.dioceseofprovidence.org/lumen-gentium-awards. For any questions about the event, please call 401-277-2121.