A quick-witted former Anglican who’s not afraid to field difficult theological questions from young people is the new youth minister at St. Andrew Church in Eagle River.
Ricky Shoop, 26, landed in Alaska last summer with a passion to inspire youth with what he sees as the captivating beauty and truth of the Catholic faith — a reality he first encountered six years ago in college.
Raised in Colorado and Ohio as an Anglican, the right mix of locale and curriculum drew Shoop to Ohio Dominican College, where he earned a degree in computer science.
His first life-changing encounter with Catholicism came while he and a college friend were taking a road trip to hear a concert. On the way they listened to CDs of popular Catholic speaker Christopher West who unpacks Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” — a unique articulation of the Catholic view of human sexuality.
This was Shoop’s first step in becoming Catholic. At that time he was struggling to see the goodness and fullness of human sexuality and West’s CDs struck an immediate chord — with its beauty.
Shoop’s conversion was a movement to authentic personal prayer, which led to an encounter with Christ and then to the Catholic Church. He was confirmed during his junior year of college.
Last year St. Andrew parish was searching for a youth minister just as Shoop’s passion for outdoor pursuits had him searching jobs in Alaska. Working in the field of information technology he was longing for the chance to marshal his education, training and passion for the faith in the service of the church.
When St. Andrew contacted Shoop, the parish had been without a youth minister for 10 years. Shoop stepped in with the zeal of an evangelist.
He also recently began teaching a 10th grade theology class at Lumen Christi High School in Anchorage. Meanwhile, he’s earning a master’s in theology through the Augustine Institute, an online program. He chose the institute for its theological credibility and missionary emphasis.
His duties at St. Andrew include leading a youth group of about 20 teens and also helping with parish faith formation on a weeknight at Gruening Middle School. Additionally he assists with sessions serving the roughly 1,000 families who attend St. Andrew.
In each of these outreaches Shoop prefers an approach that is both heady and fun. He describes a fiery exchange with a student over banal Christian art, imploring the teenagers to demand truth and beauty from the media which wishes to shape their loyalties. Watching a movie of the students’ might follow these conversations; although he’s just as likely to lead them in a game of Capture the Flag.
But Shoop doesn’t approach youth ministry with the goal of creating a fun zone or circus-like atmosphere that competes with the limitless forms of entertainment available to youth. Instead he emphasizes the intellectual capacity of teens, and the importance of fielding their most difficult questions with a sincere response.
That might mean dropping all his well-laid plans in a moment.
“Any teacher who values their prescribed idea or materials for the day over the inquisitive minds of his students will be prideful and ineffective,” Shoop said. “The kids must first be heard, then answered.”
His voice quickens when discussing art, and the distinction between mass marketing to youth and evangelization. He sees social media as overemphasized, and points out that faith is transmitted by relationships.
He says, “So often what is labeled youth ministry might better be described as ministering to youth,” a notion which sounds like semantics until Shoop explains his anguish over ugly or superficial attempts at Christian evangelization.
In particular he has little patience for poorly made art — especially movies — that might include a faith-based message.
“They are not lovely,” he said, “and I continue to go back to the words of JPII, who said that beauty will save our world.”
Shoop’s favorite film is “Of Gods and Men,” a 2010 drama that depicts the true story of nine Trappist monks who served a largely Muslim population in Algeria. The monks refused to abandon their ministry despite death threats. Ultimately seven of them were kidnapped and assassinated in 1996 by Islamic terrorists.
Shoop sees such films as the ideal fusion of truth and beauty, depicting the human and the divine in a way that’s unabashedly Catholic without seeming contrived.
Above all, Shoop urges his students to be critical in their search for excellence. He praises the youth at St. Andrew and Lumen Christi as smart and observant and hungering for master storytellers. The subtleties of the human struggle are a natural interest to teens, he observed.
Reading Scripture, he believes, is vital to answering this hunger, and he encourages his students not to dismiss theologically complex questions as quirks of “Bible times.”
During Shoop’s own journey towards confirmation, which took place six years ago this coming Easter, he experienced the Catechism of the Catholic Church like a fire for the soul, drawing him “like a moth to a bonfire.” “No one told me that I had to read the Catechism or recite the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, but I just couldn’t stay away.”