Caroline Murphy
Caroline Murphy

When it comes to finding heroes, young Catholics shop locally.

Moms and dads may have the impression that music stars, athletes and actors have won the allegiance of teens and 20-somethings, but Oregon Catholic educators and youths themselves say young people rank parents, teachers and coaches much higher.

For Agustin Montes-Tacuba, a junior at Central Catholic in Southeast Portland, role model No. 1 is mom. A single parent, she works two jobs to support the family.

“The things she does to sacrifice, to give me a Catholic education,” Montes-Tacuba said. “She is helping me live a good Catholic life. I want to be half the parent she is. She thinks of herself last.”

For Caroline Murphy, a sophomore at Jesuit High, grandma is tops.

“She has always been there for me to talk to,” said Murphy, who adds that she has learned from her grandmother how to trust in God amid adversity and pray often. Also on Murphy’s list of heroes is a family friend who served in the military and tells fascinating stories; he has made Murphy appreciate being an American.

“Most of my friends would also say their role models are someone in their family who is close to them,” Murphy said. “The people who have the most influence in our lives are people we can sit down and talk with.”

Inspired by family

“Kids still look up most to their parents and grandparents,” said Jason Kidd, who directs marriage and family life ministry for the Archdiocese of Portland. “Even with Twitter, Instagram and Snap Chat.”

Chuck Blickle, longtime counselor at Central Catholic, offers this list of role models he observes: “Coaches, teachers, parents who parent and don’t try to be their child’s friend, media figures.”

Amanda Jewett, coordinator of youth and young adult ministry at St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton, took a poll at a recent youth night. Most young people cited parents and other family members first.

“Family because they inspire me every day,” one youth said.

“Parents. They work hard, don’t give up,” replied another.

One teen chose a disabled sister as a hero.

Boys in the St. Cecilia group did also mention sports stars like Damian Lillard of the Portland Trailblazers, Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat and Troy Palamalu, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers. All three men, it’s worth noting, have gained recognition for noble activity off the court and field.

“My role model is an Olympic runner because she does what she loves and still does a lot of good in the community,” one girl said.

Several youths chose famously rich men like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, citing hard work and resilience.

Jewett said a new role model is the social media star, someone with many followers. On the more encouraging side, she hears youths mention saints as heroes, especially young saints like Maria Goretti.

‘People they know’

David Houglum, who teaches classes in leadership and innovation at the University of Portland, said college students look up to parents, family members, teachers, coaches and advocates for social justice.

“It’s not usually politicians or famous figures, but people they know,” said Houglum.

Seeing an admirable person in your own environment is compelling, especially if the hero is a servant leader, Houglum explained. He knows of youths who are excited about a local activist who is working to eliminate plastic bags in Portland.

The local flavor makes it seem like a good life is attainable, which might not be the case for those who only idolize the rich and famous. “At U.P., we have a lot of students who are really hungry to make a difference in the world,” Houglum said, adding that young adults crave authenticity.

Sage Taylor, who just graduated from the University of Portland after serving as student body president, mentions teachers and professors. “The older I get, the more aware I am of the values I want to live in my own life,” said Taylor, adding that he looks to adults who embody similar values. He is keen on adults who know how to apply values in the world — faith in action, wisdom in action.

Near the top of Taylor’s list is Billy Biegler, who was ordained as a Jesuit priest last year. Taylor met him as a student at Jesuit High School in Portland.

“He is a funny, charming guy with a great personality,” said Taylor. “I loved seeing someone who had fun qualities but was so caring, so supportive and such an advocate for social justice.”

Taylor also cites Dominican Sister Carol Dempsey, a U.P. theologian, who is highly trained in tradition and Scripture but well aware of the modern world.

Taylor will serve in New Jersey as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

Choose with depth

Don Clarke, the informal dean of Catholic high school campus ministers after 26 years at Jesuit, said the role models youths seek have not changed over the decades. “I had sports heroes I followed,” said Clarke. “I looked up to my older brother and my parents, and many teachers. Those role models are the same as I hear high school students talk about now.”

Clarke said thoughtful teenagers in general will choose worthy models. Conversely, a teen who is shallow in an approach to relationships may grasp examples without depth.

Clarke knows that teens are contrary by nature, at least on the surface. So he is leery of suggesting role models for fear youths will do the opposite. But he has some guidelines.

“Make sure they have integrity, make sure they bring hope rather than fear, and if a role model brings joy to your life follow that person,” Clarke said. “Find a teacher that will listen. A politician who speaks to your heart, a religious leader who can make God come alive in your intellect and heart.”

Connor Wier, a Portland State University senior music major who is active in the Newman Center there, cites the center director, Sister Teresa Harrell, as one of his role models. “She is a very devout and holy person,” Wier said. “She does so much. You can tell she has a very intimate connection with her Lord.”

Also on Wier’s list are his trumpet professor and famous trumpeters. They are his heroes because of their skill and devotion. He is aware, however, that virtuosity is not grounds for allegiance: The brilliant but antisemitic composer Richard Wagner is not a model.

Angelica de la Fuente is finishing her freshman year at Washington State University in Vancouver and is active at the Newman Center at Portland State University. She looks up to her godmother, who goes about life, especially relationships, with faith, wisdom and prudence. “She is always letting God do his will and letting God take over certain situations,” said de la Fuente.

She also lionizes her grandfather for his wisdom and ability to lift others to higher spiritual awareness.