Ministering to youth keeps her young

Diane Zirbel enjoys youth outreach through Life Teen

STURGEON BAY — Diane Zirbel’s Bible tells its own story, besides the ones between the covers.

The pages have that lived-in look, as though they’ve been thumbed and handled endless times. They bulge with holy cards, favorite prayers, conference notes, words to live by and Scripture quotes to remember. This Bible, obviously, wasn’t purchased to sit on the shelf.

Your Catholic Neighbor: Diane Zirbel (Monica Sawyn | For The Compass)

The woman who owns it hasn’t let her faith sit on the shelf, either. A cradle Catholic who’s always been staunch in her faith, she remembers her dad always finding time at the end of a busy day to kneel and say his prayers. It influenced her own fidelity to a consistent prayer life.

“I thought, if Dad can do it, I can do it,” Zirbel said. Through the years, she’s been involved in the Council of Catholic Women, a former charismatic prayer group, right-to-life issues and many parish activities. She is currently the treasurer for the Door County chapter of Wisconsin Right to Life.

But these days, in addition to babysitting for her grandchildren, a great amount of her time is spent with Life Teen. The roots for that involvement began many years ago when Deacon Paul Zenefski led youth programs at Corpus Christi.

“I was drawn to it because I heard about all these neat things the kids were doing on their weekend retreats,” she said. When Deacon Zenefski left to help serve at other parishes, Zirbel and Joyce Turba of Brussels took over volunteer youth leadership for a year, under Fr. Tony Birdsall, until a youth minister could be hired. Eventually, she was part of a group that went to Green Bay to learn about Life Teen.

Shortly after, current pastor Fr. Carl Schmitt arrived in 2008 and was excited about the idea of Life Teen.

“He was definitely on board with our plans, and he brought Sarah Gavin in as youth minister,” Zirbel said. Gavin still heads Life Teen and Edge for the Sturgeon Bay area.

Zirbel dropped out of youth programs for a time, except for serving lunch now and then at the teen sessions, but she was eventually asked to be a core member. She has worked, played and prayed with the teens for several years now, and has seen them grow from reluctant attendance as freshmen, to developing a vibrant faith of their own.

“So many don’t want to come at first,” Zirbel said. “Parents have to insist. Parents need to realize that faith is more important than sports or musicals or all these other things because your faith you’ll have for the rest of your life.

“By the time they’re in their sophomore year, they’re so excited about what’s going on. Once they leave for college, they tend to look for a similar group (of Catholic believers). A couple of them just returned for parents’ night and gave testimonies about the importance of Life Teen. I think their devotion surprised even some of their parents.”

But Life Teen is just as important to Zirbel. The teens’ exuberance and enthusiasm is contagious, and to be part of a growing awareness in teen lives of a loving, personal God, of watching teen faith come alive, is fuel for Zirbel’s own faith.

“You have to like teens to do this,” Zirbel said. “At this stage in their life, they’re always trying to be independent, but they’re not. They’re still very dependent on their parents, more so than they ever want to admit. You have to like kids and want to help them, in a way they don’t even notice.”

Zirbel, as a core member, helps in small group discussions, and is available with other core members during eucharistic adoration to answer questions or to respond to prayer requests.

“We’re spread around the church in pairs, and we tell the teens they can come and ask for prayers if they need them for something specific,” she said.

They also try to do a lot of spontaneous prayer, something Zirbel became comfortable with during her time in the charismatic prayer group.

“Memorized prayer is good and the kids know about that, but spontaneous prayer is just talking to God, heart to heart, and teens have to be taught that. Now, we see teens — especially the older ones — able to respond when asked to lead a spontaneous prayer in our small groups.”

Sometimes, Zirbel said, being with a group of adults — on a mission trip, for instance — involves a lot of memorized prayer, and she said she actually misses the spontaneity and fire she finds with the teens.

Zirbel has been on seven mission trips the Life Teen groups makes each year.

“Those are the best,” she said. “Every parent should recommend that their child go on a mission trip. It’s not so much the work we do, it’s the prayer and worship at night, after our shifts are done, that make the kids open up. … This is what makes it life-changing for the teens.”

So what has Zirbel gotten out of Life Teen herself, besides the opportunity to pray and share?

“Well, I don’t fear teenagers,” she said, and then laughed. “That probably sounds dumb, but adults sometimes avoid groups of teenagers and now I find it really easy to just talk with them. Teens are great, if we just give them a chance.”

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Your Catholic Neighbor

Name: Diane Zirbel

Parish: Corpus Christi, Sturgeon Bay

Age: 68

Favorite saint: Anthony

Words to live by: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

  • Clif Martin

    What a warm and touching story, so well told.