'Everything we do in DTS is as relevant now as it was 23 years ago, as it was hundreds of years ago, and will be hundreds of years from now.' And THAT'S how you attract and keep youth!
From Catholic World Report
By Mary Farrow
Denver, Colo., Oct 28, 2019 / 03:12 pm (CNA).-
When Eddie Cotter Jr. was a youth minister in the diocese of Orlando,
Florida, he had his students watch the 1989 film “Dead Poets Society.”
The movie stars the late and widely beloved Robin Williams, who plays
an eccentric and unorthodox teacher that inspires his students to
re-found a clandestine club called the “Dead Poets Society.” Members of
the club meet in a cave to read and discuss poetry, including their own
poems. In 1997, the film inspired Cotter’s youth group to found their
own clandestine society.
“Following watching that film, a conversation was initiated by the
teens, very enthusiastically, where they talked about, ‘Wow. Instead of
learning about poets and writers as they did in the film, let’s learn
about the lives of the saints who we don’t know a lot about.’”
Cotter’s students said they could recognize certain saints’ images in
icons or statues, but beyond that, they did not know about their lives.
“What were they like? How did they live? How did they die?” Cotter
That conversation inspired the founding of the “Dead Theologians
Society”, a youth group format that has been used by parishes throughout
the United States, now in its 23rd year.
The group thought the name “Dead Theologians Society” was apt not
only because of the film, but because “we’re learning about people who
are only dead by the world’s definition of dead, but they’re fully alive
in Christ,” Cotter said.
“Dead to sin but alive in Christ” became the motto of the
newly-formed group, and they decided to meet weekly for two hours to
learn about the lives of the saints and to pray for souls in purgatory.
Cotter said a typical Dead Theologians Society (DTS) chapter will
meet weekly for two hours. The first half-hour is reserved for
socializing, after which the students move into a chapel or a designated
prayer space. Taking a cue from the style of Dead Poets Society, the
room is typically dark, lit only by candles or smaller lights, and
decorated with icons.
“Many parishes…they’ll set up a room and make it look like a little
monastery. They’ll have a crucifix, maybe some Byzantine hanging lights
in front of icons, and they make it prayerful. It’s not spooky, it’s not
macabre. It’s just a very prayerful and very sacred space,” Cotter
Once the meeting in the prayer room begins, a facilitator tells the
story of the life of a saint to the group for about 20 minutes, followed
by time for questions from the students about the saint or about the
faith. This is followed by praying a mystery of the rosary, which is
then followed by the group’s signature prayer, the St. Gertrude Prayer
for Souls in Purgatory: “Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious
Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout
the world today, for all the holy souls in purgatory, for sinners
everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home
and within my family. Amen.”
The prayer carries with it a promise that “a thousand souls are
released every time this prayer is prayed sincerely,” Cotter said.
The number of souls is not exact, he added, “it’s not like there’s a
total board that we have running at the national office. But we know
that we have thousands of young people sincerely praying for souls, Lord
only knows probably how many souls we have benefited. Padre Pio said,
‘We must empty purgatory,’ and our prayers help that to happen.”
The meeting then concludes with prayers for specific intentions of
members of the group, and the Divine Praises. Afterward, parents of the
members typically provide snacks. Cotter said many groups try to get as
much parental involvement as possible, and that the timing of the
meetings allows the parents to have their own holy hour before setting
out food for the group.
From its beginning, DTS has had a profound impact on the students and parents connected to the group.
“In the first two years, we had 16 Protestant kids come into the
Church, become Catholic, and one was a Protestant minister’s kid. That’s
how effective it was,” Cotter said.
There were also conversions from parents, Cotter said, who hear about
the group from their kids, who often bring home a prayer card or a
medal of the saint of the week.
Cotter recalled the conversion of a father who, when his daughter (in
DTS) went home, “she was talking about the proofs of the existence of
God from Saint Thomas Aquinas. And her father actually came back into
the church because he thought he was too intellectual to believe in God.
And his high school daughter kind of set him straight in a very loving
way. But it turned his life around.”
The DTS also gives confirmation students a chance to learn about the
saints before they choose one for confirmation, Cotter said.
The group has also inspired numerous vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
“In the last six months I’ve either met or learned of about 15
priests, three seminarians, and a nun, who were all in DTS in different
parts of the country when they were teenagers and they all credit DTS as
having a major impact in them finding their vocation,” Cotter said.
One of those priests is Father Raymond Snyder, a Dominican friar and
priest who serves at St Patrick Church in downtown Columbus, Ohio.
As a teenager, Snyder joined the local DTS chapter at his home parish
in Wichita, Kansas. He was not involved in his high school youth group,
he noted, because as a Catholic school student he already had several
other religious commitments. But DTS captured his attention, he said,
and he remembered the saint stories being particularly compelling.
“(The leaders) were very good at presenting the saints in a
convincing way and in a powerful way, and using that witness, that story
and model of the saints to tell us something about our faith,” Snyder
Snyder said that one of the most memorable moments of joining DTS was
when he was given his hoodie. The DTS hoodie is only available to
members of the group who have come for at least three consecutive
meetings and is not sold publicly on the DTS website. They are black,
with a small monstrance embroidered on one corner.
“It’s sort of like a habit, like a religious habit almost. It reminds
one of that at least,” Snyder said. “It was a sort of a little bit of a
rite of passage and something to kind of increase that ownership in the
At the moment of induction, members promise to pray the St. Gertrube
prayer for the souls in purgatory. Praying for souls in purgatory is an
important practice of the Church, he added, so much so that the entire
month of November is dedicated to praying for them.
“We’re reminded to pray for not just the souls in general, but to
remember our loved ones who have died and gone before us,” he said.
The aesthetic of DTS – candle-lit rooms, icons, a prayerful and sacred space – was important too, he said.
“The more things are bound up with our imagination and vivid
memories, the more we remember them, which is part of why the liturgy
has such an important place for us, and the practice of the faith to
continually be reminded about the realities we cannot see,” he said.
After graduating high school, Snyder made the St. Gertrude prayer a
part of his daily routine, “which may not sound all that remarkable,” he
said, but over time it shaped his prayer life and vocation.
“It begins to be a practice in one’s life, it almost adds to that contour and the shape of one’s life and vocation,” he said.
Snyder said he started thinking about the priesthood “around my
freshman, sophomore year of high school, which is when I would’ve been
involved in this group, and I began thinking about the priesthood and
religious life specifically. It was a part of the whole ensemble of what
God had for me at that time and for which I’m grateful now.”
Father Jack Fitzpatrick, who serves as parochial vicar at St. Paul’s
Parish in Colorado Springs, also credits DTS with influencing his faith
formation in high school.
A kid from a small town, he said there wasn’t much going on
youth-group-wise in his own hometown, but that he had a few friends from
a nearby town involved in a chapter of DTS.
“They were telling me that their youth group was kind of serious,
actually, there were a lot less icebreakers…and that really fit me
pretty well. I wasn’t really looking for games and things like that, I
kind of wanted to go deeper into my faith,” he said.
“And so anyway, some of these friends of mine invited me to that Dead
Theologians Society and I went and it was just awesome. It was kind of
exactly what I was looking for.”
The saint stories told by the leaders were done in a somewhat
“dramatic fashion,” he said, and the candle-lit room with holy pictures
“lent itself to a more solemn feel…something about the aesthetic really
“It was supposed to mimic the environment of the catacombs in the
early Church,” he said, “And the idea was, a group of Christians coming
together to be encouraged by the virtue of other Christians who had gone
before. You know, because that’s the whole reason why…the early
Christians went to the catacombs, because the martyrs were buried there.
And they thought, ‘Boy, if we can learn from the courage of these holy
men and women who have gone before then we can really be in good
Fitzpatrick said he liked the more solemn and traditional feel of DTS compared to other youth groups at the time.
“The Dead Theologian Society really relied on a lot of traditional
elements of our faith. Sacramentals were really important. We were all
invested in the Brown Scapular. We had this hooded jacket that we wear
that the priest would bless when we had earned it. And…there’s just a
lot of traditional elements in the Dead Theologian Society that
honestly, I really didn’t find in whatever the standard youth group in
2003 was,” he said.
Fitzpatrick also continues to recite the St. Gertrude Prayer for Souls today.
“I mean, the promise associated with it is that every time you say
this prayer devoutly, a thousand souls will be delivered from purgatory.
So, why not? Why not say that prayer as many times a day you can? I
think what was really wonderful about learning that prayer and making it
part of my spiritual life was the fact that I don’t know that it had
ever occurred to me that certain prayers had different promises attached
to them,” he said.
Because Fitzpatrick had never heard of prayers with particular
promises, he started researching what other prayers and practices of the
Church came with specific promises. It led him down a path of searching
for and discovering many treasures of the faith, he told CNA.
“That prayer really did open a door for me to learn about all kinds
of other things in the spiritual life that are a significant benefit,
and that people my age certainly would not have been exposed to,” he
He said he would recommend DTS to any parish looking for a way to get
their young people involved and learning more about their faith.
“Think about incorporating Dead Theologians Society as maybe just a
part of your overall youth activities that your parish, because for sure
kids out there are looking for what DTS has to offer, and if you offer
it to them, boy, they will start to grow, and they’ll come, and it’s
just an amazing thing.”
Cotter said that in his experience, teenagers “embrace” the idea of praying for the dead as a way to help them to heaven.
“Most teenagers have lived long enough where they’ve lost somebody.
It could be their grandparents, a sibling, parents of friends. So
they’ve had some experience with death that was painful,” Cotter said.
“And we can tell them, ‘There are things we can do that’s very real
that can be of great benefit for the one you’ve lost,’” he added. “They
love it and it actually gives great hope. There’s an enthusiasm for it.
It’s a great service.
Cotter said that even though he founded DTS and has traveled the
United States and even several countries abroad to spread its mission,
few people really know who he is or what he looks like, which is too
bad, because he has a pretty incredible bright red mullet.
He said he prefers to keep a low profile.
“There’s probably just a handful of teens out of all the (chapters)
ever that know who Eddie Cotter is and that’s fine because this isn’t
about me,” he said.
“This isn’t like the cult of Eddie Cotter’s youth group. If I were to
pass tomorrow, I mean I’m glad I have people that’ll pray for my soul,
from DTS, but the apostolate isn’t based on me. And I like that. The
teenagers now that are in DTS, they weren’t even alive when this thing
started,” he added.
Cotter said he thinks what makes DTS so appealing to teens, and why
it has lasted for 23 years, is that it relies on the traditions of the
“I think it’s going to keep going because these treasures of our
faith are timeless. The shelf life doesn’t have an expiration date on
it,” he said.
“Everything we do in DTS is as relevant now as it was 23 years ago,
as it was hundreds of years ago, and will be hundreds of years from now.
And I think that’s one of the many strengths of the program is it’s not
following trend trying to out-hip the teen culture. We’re bringing them
to our home field advantage which they’re not going to get in the
In 2015, DTS became canonically approved as a private association of
the faithful by decree of the late Bishop Robert Morlino from the
Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin. Since its founding in 1997, there have
been over 18,000 young people in roughly 550 parishes throughout the
U.S. and in several foreign countries who have participated in a DTS
Cotter said learning how DTS has impacted young people is one of the
joys of his life. A few years ago, he was at a Catholic conference in
Ohio when he was stopped by a van full of nuns who were honking at him.
One of them recognized Cotter and had been involved in DTS as a teen.
“I’m blessed far beyond what I deserve because I don’t have a
theology degree or anything. I was a youth minister at a parish and
thought, ‘Wow, we can do this,’” Cotter said.
“And so that’s why when I very sincerely say: If Eddie Cotter can do
this, there’s a lot of people out there that are far more gifted than I
am. If they decide to either have a chapter of Dead Theologians Society
or do something to help save souls for Jesus, they can do it.”
Kate Olivera contributed to the reporting of this story.