“We try to evangelize in ways that show that living a virtuous life in purity and chastity is worth working towards,” says Justine Gemo, coordinator of youth and young adult ministry at St. Vincent Ferrer Parish in Vallejo. “Having temperance, patience, kindness, charity and being able to embody these virtues,” is definitely challenging, she says, but is spiritually important.
Justine inherited the youth and young adult ministries from her husband, Dan, who had long held the role but recently focused his gifts solely on the parish youth choir program, which he had managed concurrently. He balances full-time work obligations at a lab in Emeryville while Justine also works full time as a social work coordinator in Napa. Together their volunteer ministry work reaches parish youth and young adults in a profound way: an important counterweight to the often-overwhelming messages of the secular world.
“Society is telling them that purity and chastity are not normal,” Dan notes, citing that a teen’s exposure to these messages through social media, TV, movies and societal norms far outweighs the snippets of time the couple has to mentor young people on faith teachings and values.
“It’s a little amount of time,” Dan concedes, but they will take it. Justine’s youth ministry typically meets on Friday evenings for about two hours and her young adult meetings occur on Thursdays. Dan appreciates the 90 minutes he has with youth on Sundays to review and practice music and go over the liturgy.
“We try to find out what is going on in their lives,” Justine says, speaking of her cadre of trained youth ministers. “It’s up to us to teach and engage them,” she adds, commending Life Teen and Theology of the Body resource materials which guide their curriculum. By knowing about their lives, Justine believes youth ministers can help teens navigate serious and prevalent problems they grapple with in today’s world.
Dan says that low self-esteem, mental health issues, isolation and even suicidal thoughts can cloud the prospect of true joy in teen and young adult lives.
“We emphasize how they are made in God’s image, beautifully made,” he stresses, with emphasis on how the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit requiring care and ownership of that responsibility.
Married last August at St. Vincent Ferrer Parish, the newlyweds’ simpatico relationship has long modeled all that they advocate. Having met seven years ago at a tri-parish young adult event, their friendship blossomed before their peers and eventually, it unfolded before the parish community.
While Dan grew up in St. Vincent Ferrer Parish, Justine, who received her sacraments as a child at St. Vincent Ferrer, was active at neighboring St. Basil the Great Parish during her teenage and early college years. For three years, theirs was a chance friendship encouraged by mutual friends. When they decided to date, they very consciously addressed their values and their faith, keenly aware of Dan’s role at that time as the coordinator of youth and young adult ministry, Justine’s own ministry involvement, and the visibility of their courtship.
“While dating, we wanted to set the example to those we witness to,” Justine explains, revealing the powerful commitment in the couple’s hearts to “live purely and live out our faith.”
“We definitely took time to pray together, to be accountable for our actions to each other and our relationship, to want heaven for each other by our thoughts and actions, and to honor physical boundaries while dating,” Justine recalls affectionately, remembering that not so distant past.
The couple admits that marriage preparation humbled them to church teaching and prepared them more to witness chaste living in their ministries.
“We realized we could be the ‘why’!” Justine declares, genuinely joyous about how their dating and marriage demonstrated why a life of chastity matters. Selflessly, Dan and Justine knew that their private life would become part of their larger calling to stir their “kids” to also want “a great relationship filled with joy.”
Their wedding and reception brimmed with youth and young adults from past and present, many of whom attended after having gone off to college. Intent on upholding the dignity of the sacrament of matrimony, the call to chastity and their love, Dan and Justine chose to underscore purity in a uniquely beautiful way. Rather than the common and comparatively indelicate tradition where the groom claims the bride’s garter, Dan knelt before Justine and showed his love in front of the crowd of guests by washing Justine’s feet.
“Dan and I try to be an example,” Justine shares openly, discussing how they try to live transparently and honestly to convey that chaste living is possible and beautiful. “We’re connected with our youth and young adult members on social media so that we can continue the conversation” beyond the confines of their weekly meetings. She notes that social media allows them to share “what our faith is about and it helps us to keep the message alive.”
Dan affirms: “What helped us is what brought us together: Jesus.” He believes that people struggle because they “focus on sex, thinking it will bring them happiness” and they forget to pursue the love of Jesus.
“There is so much more than matters of the flesh,” Dan insists, hoping to encourage young people to look beyond sex and instead give the gifts of honor and dignity.
“There was so much to love and learn about Justine,” he shares, his voice tinged with emotion. “I love her so much. She embodies Jesus; she is a true disciple.”