Fr. Peterson steps down as director of Youth Apostles

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As a teenager at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church, Youth Apostle Father John P. Peterson experienced the power of a friendship-based faith community to ignite a lasting love of Christ.

The parish youth ministry "gave me an incredible love for God, the sacraments, Scripture, the church and community life," said Father Peterson (known by many as "Father Jack"). "My reaction was that I wanted to give what had been given to me."

That desire helped motivate his entry into Youth Apostles, a community of Catholic priests and laymen dedicated to serving youths, and later inspired his call to the priesthood. For the past 12 years, it was expressed in his role as general director of the Youth Apostles Institute in McLean.

The first to succeed founding director Eduardo Azcarate, Father Peterson reached the end of his final term April 9, when Mike Paquette was elected to replace him. Youth Apostles limits directors to four three-year terms, and Paquette, a lay member of Youth Apostles for 35 years, was chosen alongside a new consecrated assistant director, Youth Apostle Father Thomas M. Yehl, and lay assistant director, Mike Power. Father Yehl and Power replace Youth Apostle Father Peter W. Nassetta and Kevin Bohli, respectively.

During his tenure, Father Peterson "gave a lot of depth and width to the community" through spiritual formation and development efforts, said Bohli, director of the diocesan Youth Ministry Office. Underlying his leadership, Bohli said, "has been a commitment to bring young people to Christ at every opportunity he gets." Among his efforts as director, Father Peterson oversaw the development of a strategic plan; the revision of the community's general statutes, which are awaiting approval from Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde; and the implementation of their "Healthy and Holy Policy," aimed at creating and maintaining a safe environment for youths in Youth Apostle ministries. He helped develop pilot satellite programs in Manassas and Leesburg, enabling members to gather closer to their homes.

Father Peterson also helped expand the community to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg; develop Women Youth Apostles, a sister community that shares a charism of bringing young people to Christ; and establish the Don Bosco Center, an outreach program to Hispanic middle schoolers in Manassas.

Under his directorship, four Youth Apostle members were named to diocesan-level positions, one in Arlington, two in Richmond and one in Vermont.

Father Peterson's first exposure to Youth Apostles was through Azcarate, who taught his eighth-grade religion class at St. Anthony, led his confirmation retreat and organized the inaugural parish-based Catholic Life Community, a small faith group for high schoolers that became a core Youth Apostle ministry. Two years after Azcarate founded Youth Apostles in 1979, Father Peterson entered as a layman.

Ordained in 1989 by Arlington Bishop John R. Keating, Father Peterson was named chaplain of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg after six years in parish ministry. He went on to serve as chaplain of Marymount University in Arlington, where he's continued to minister as assistant chaplain during his Youth Apostle directorship. He is remaining in the position post-election.

Members of Youth Apostles - now totaling nearly 90 - include consecrated priests and consecrated laymen living in community, single laymen who may choose to live in community, and married members who live throughout the region. Youth Apostles is approved in the diocese as a "mixed public association of Christ's faithful" - an association, according to the Code of Canon Law, composed of clerics and laity or both who are striving "with a common effort to foster a more perfect life, or to promote public worship or Christian teaching."

Lay consecrated member Jonathan Mundell, who served at the Don Bosco Center for three years and now is director of the Youth Apostle house in McLean, said Father Peterson has led the Youth Apostles through hard work and example.

"His prayerfulness and striving for personal holiness and his love for God - they are an example to all of us in community," said Mundell. "He does everything that he expects from us."

Father Nassetta, who has known Father Peterson since the early 1980s, added that his fellow priest brought "his love for the church, for young people and community to the position, just as he's done as a brother in Youth Apostles for over 30 years."

Father Peterson said he never envisioned himself leading the community.

"It was a big adjustment, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would because I love the community so much and I wanted it to grow; I wanted it to be an ever-more effective instrument of God's hands," he said.

With Paquette at the helm, Father Peterson hopes to "offer whatever assistance I can," he said. He also said he'll continue to remain involved in the mission and development of the community and in serving youths.

Young people today are grappling with the breakdown of the family, "a culture that does not support the Gospel way of life" and pressures on their time, especially as part of the high-achieving Washington-area population, said Father Peterson. And then there's the "attack of the phone."

"It makes it very hard to get quiet time, to learn to be by yourself and learn to pray," he said.

His approach in the face of these challenges remains simple. "I strive to do relational ministry with young people, and through that, earn the right to speak to them about God," said Father Peterson. "That's what life is all about - helping young people truly encounter Christ."

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016