The Southern Cross



Parish Youth Minister Now Head of Diocesan Youth Ministry Office

By Denis Grasska

SAN DIEGO — When Maricruz Flores heard that the Diocese of San Diego was seeking a new director for its Office for Youth Ministry, she hadn’t been looking for a job.

“I was very comfortable where I was [as director of youth ministry at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in San Diego],” the 30-year-old said. “I wasn’t really planning on going anywhere.”

But when three separate people encourage you to apply for the same job, all in one morning, you might wonder if Jesus is trying to tell you something. Feeling like she was being called to something new, she quickly started reviewing her resume.

In early July, she took over the position as director of the diocesan Office for Youth Ministry. She succeeded Gerardo Rojas, who had headed the office for 13 years before becoming director of the Diocesan Institute, an educational program that offers theological formation courses that have been attended by some 13,000 adults over the past 26 years.

For Flores, her new position feels like a natural progression. She had been a member of a parish youth group as a teenager and had followed up that transformative experience by serving as a volunteer youth minister during her college years. That led to a paid position as parish director of youth ministry and ultimately to her current role, which includes organizing diocesan-level events for Catholic youth as well as providing support to her fellow youth ministers throughout the diocese.

Having begun her new job only a week after leaving her previous one, Flores said her experiences as a youth minister are still fresh. That means that when other youth ministers call with questions or concerns, she said, they’re asking about issues with which she has recent experience.

At the same time, Flores admits to missing her direct interaction with teens, and those emotions are still a bit raw.

“It was a heartbreak saying goodbye to my kids” at Our Lady of Guadalupe, said Flores, who for the past four years had led the parish’s youth ministry and overseen sacramental preparation for confirmation. But her brother, also a youth minister, took over her position there and that gave her peace about the transition.

She recalled that one of her first experiences at her new diocesan job involved attending San Diego Youth Day, an annual event sponsored by the Office for Youth Ministry, in El Centro.

“I saw teens with their youth ministers, and they were doing the icebreaker, and it kind of broke my heart a little,” she said, recalling how she would do similar activities with her own teens. 

A San Diego native, Flores grew up in a Catholic household. Her family prayed the rosary together regularly, and an altar adorned with a crucifix, an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and votive candles stood near the front entrance to the house.

Her introduction to youth ministry came during her high school years when her parents signed her up for confirmation classes at St. Jude Shrine of the West Parish.

“I started the program reluctantly, like a good teenager,” she said with a chuckle.

But during her second year in the program, the then pastor of St. Jude’s approached her and other teens about serving as the leaders of a new youth group at the parish.

“That was a big moment for me, because I didn’t really see myself as a leader,” she said, explaining that until then she had been there simply to fulfill the requirements for confirmation, to “get this done, check it off.”

In 2015, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science at California State University, Dominguez Hills. At the time, she aspired to be a lawyer. But after working as a youth minister, she opted against attending law school and decided to pursue a career in ministry.

Flores said that one of the most exciting and rewarding aspects of youth ministry is witnessing “timid, shy teens” open up with her and their peers, become excited about going to church and living their faith, and sometimes even assume leadership roles themselves.

In May 2018, Flores earned a master’s degree in Organizational Leadership at Point Loma Nazarene University.

Monica Salazar, youth minister at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Chula Vista, has known Flores since they attended the same youth group at St. Jude Shrine of the West.

“She’s definitely a woman of God,” Salazar said of her friend and colleague in youth ministry. And when it comes to ministry, she said, Flores “gives it her all.”

Salazar recalled attending some youth group meetings led by Flores and said, “You can see that love that the teens have for her.”

Patty Ocádiz, director of youth ministry at St. Rita Parish in San Diego, has known Flores for about four years and has collaborated with her on youth ministry projects.

Ocádiz praised Flores as a woman with “a very positive attitude” and one who “always makes you feel welcome.” She said that Flores is “strongly committed to helping teens learn about their Catholic identity and staying close to Jesus in the sacraments,” and that she “has what it takes to be one of the best diocesan youth ministry directors.”

Jesuit Father Neal “Pepe” Wilkinson, associate pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in San Diego, got to know Flores during her four years at the parish.

“If we had a choice, we would not have given her up to the diocese, but the truth is we are happy for her and for the whole diocese,” he said. “In short order, I have no doubt that everyone who engages in ministry with her will know she is a real blessing to our youth and to the whole diocese.”

Speaking with The Southern Cross, Flores stressed the importance of youth ministry in the Church, describing today’s youth as “our foundation” for the future. However, she noted the “pretty grim” statistics showing that many young people fall away from the Church after confirmation and, if they return, it is only when it’s time to get married or to baptize their child.

To reverse these trends, Flores has her work cut out for her.

“I’m here to serve,” Flores said. “I’m ready to work with all youth ministers [and] volunteers. ... My office is open.”

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