“We need a church capable of meeting them on their way. We need a church capable of entering into their conversation. We need a church able to dialogue with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren.
– Pope Francis, World Youth Day 2013
When Catholics in New Zealand (or pretty much anywhere in the Western world) contemplate our Church’s ministry to young people, we know that something has gone wrong.
Over the past three decades there has been a steady reduction in the presence of Catholic youth at Sunday Mass. In most cases, I don’t think these young people are vehemently “anti-Catholic.” Rather, they are disconnected from a Church that they see as irrelevant, and even indifferent, towards their participation.
Like the two apostles walking the road to Emmaus after Jesus had been crucified (Luke 24.13-35), young Catholics are often deserted, disillusioned and struggling in their search for purpose. It is no longer enough for the Catholic Church to merely have its doors open to welcome these young people in. Just as Christ met his two apostles on the road, we must go out and meet the youth of New Zealand on their way.
In addressing this subject, I have no intention of writing from a detached, scholarly perspective. As a 22-year old male, born and raised in New Zealand, I will draw heavily upon my own experiences as a member of the “Catholic youth” demographic.
I was brought up Catholic, but fell away from the Church my early teen years. Years later, I came back to my faith because of the determined ministry of a high school chaplain. Since then, I have participated in, lead, and even founded a number of different Catholic youth groups. In 2012 I undertook a gap year with NET Ministries Australia, doing full time youth ministry in multiple parishes and schools.
Today, I continue to be involved in a number of youth ministry endeavours, including SetFree Youth Conference and this blog. While I frequently draw on the research of others, many of the observations I make in this series are informal, in the sense that I have not conducted any kind of statistical analysis to reach them. Nonetheless, I take these observations seriously. I’ve lived through all of them.
I’m not aiming to give a comprehensive overview of Catholic Youth in New Zealand. Instead, this series aims to offer insight into several areas that I feel have often been overlooked or under-emphasised. As such, I won’t be addressing topics like leadership development or the importance of the sacraments, because I feel that these topics are already well understood in the NZ Catholic Church.
Nor will this series focus on sweeping canonical reforms. All too often I have been told that youth participation in the Catholic Church would increase if only it would allow married priests, or female ministers, or changes to its teaching on sexuality. While these are issues that deserve discussion in their own right, I don’t believe “top down” doctrinal change is the answer to our problems with youth ministry. Solutions will need to begin at a grassroots level and they will call for the involvement of every member of the Church.
Catholic Youth in New Zealand
Before discussing these solutions, it is important first to give a brief overview of Catholic youth in New Zealand. Today, Catholics comprise 11.6% of the total population of New Zealand, making us the largest Christian denomination in NZ. Yet, despite being the biggest, our youth involvement often lags behind other Christian denominations, especially Evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
The “youth” demographic can be loosely defined as those aged between 12 and 25 years. Although statistical data on NZ Catholic belief and practice is scarce, the available data confirms a drop off in youth participation, especially in the older teenage years. One study, concerning whether the children of Mass-goers also went to church, found that while 79 percent of 10-14 yr olds still attended, only 45 percent of those 15yrs+ did so.
The majority of Catholic youth aren’t in our pews on Sundays. Yet, interestingly enough, many among them still identify as “Catholic,” even if this identity doesn’t go far beyond checking a box on a census form. Despite the fact that almost all of these disconnected youth have passed through Catholic primary and/or secondary education, they have what could be described as “religious illiteracy.” Few among them understand the significance of tradition, the papacy or the reasoning behind core Catholic beliefs. The sense of Catholic identity among these youth is more in line with assertions such as “I can’t imagine being anything else!” than with any real understanding of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
Do these young Catholics have moral values? Yes! Are they still searching for meaning? Certainly! But more and more, this search is carried out away from away from the formal structures of the Catholic Church. These young Catholics, when asked to rank a list of values, will typically rank “Church” very low and “God” very high; “Sunday Mass” and “Confession” will be put at the bottom of the list, but “prayer” and “spirituality” will be near the top.
Young people put a lot of weight on personal experience and show little hesitation in adapting their Catholic faith to suit their circumstances. Morality now operates primarily as a matter of internal conscience, with young people adopting a kind of “pick-and-mix” approach to values. They are often quite open to religious ideas and actions, but they feel little need to actively participate in a Church that is often regarded as boring, irrelevant or even unwelcoming. Knowing how these young Catholics understand their faith and themselves is the vital first step towards meeting them where they are.
In Pursuit of Relevance
When the question is asked, “How can we get young people involved in the Church?”, invariably one of the first answers given is that the church needs to be more relevant. Congregations expect their youth ministers to be cool, and youth ministers, in turn, search for elements of popular culture on which they can hang their message. To make faith fun, we play crazy games at our youth groups, make shirts with Jesus puns on them, and hire guest speakers that will bust out the latest viral dance move in a tragic attempt to be relatable.
The phrase “young people are all on social media” deserves an award for being the most abused phrase in youth ministry planning meetings of any kind, and consequently every ministry and youth event has to have its own Facebook page, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube channel.
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these approaches. Even Jesus used parables to make his message more relevant to his first century Jewish audience. But we need to be careful that these approaches don’t turn into a kind of false relevance that distracts the Church from what its message really needs to be.
The thing with shirts, skits and social media is that most of the time they aren’t truly relevant, in the sense that they almost never tap into the stuff that young people actually need to talk about: their dreams, their wants, their fears, and their insecurities.
I’ve helped run over 100 retreats for teens on almost every topic imaginable – leadership, prayer, eco-theology, discipleship and so on. Without fail, the retreats that get the best response are the ones that deal with topics like self-image or sexuality, because this is the stuff that young people want to hear about. What isn’t relevant to them is a faith based on abstract personal beliefs and hypothetical moral principles.
The challenge to those who want to meet youth on their way is to figure out how to link the Gospel with the real experiences of Catholic youth in New Zealand today. To do this, we will need to invite young people to air their views, listen to them, and then enter into dialogue.
This is what Jesus did on the way to Emmaus. He didn’t saunter up to the two disciples and begin delivering a sermon on some centuries-old Jewish teaching concerning idolatry, because that wouldn’t have been relevant in the slightest. Instead, Jesus asked them what they were discussing, he recognized that all they wanted to talk about was the death of the Messiah, and he engaged directly with them on that topic.
One of the best things my high school chaplain did, and ultimately the reason why I came back to the Church, was that he created a forum where students could ask any question they wanted about the Catholic faith. No topic was off-limits – sexuality, abortion, God & science, why we even need to go to Church – it was all up for discussion.
Now that I’m the one doing the ministry, I know how tempting it can be to run from these topics. They can be uncomfortable, they can offend, and they require a solid knowledge of Church teaching. But when young people find Catholics who are willing to engage boldly, openly, and deeply with these issues, I’ve seen time and time again how it can inspire them.
On a surface level, many young people disagree with Church teachings that they hear slammed by the media and their peers, but they virtually never look into the deeper reasons behind why the Church believes what it does. To quote Venerable Fulton Sheen, “There are not one hundred people who hate the Catholic Church…but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”
In our dialogues with young people, we must endeavour to explain Church teaching correctly and clearly, to dispel misperceptions. Certainly, this will be challenging. Some young people may turn away from these truths, for fear that they demand too much of them. But ultimately, any kind of watered-down “relevant” church is utterly meaningless compared to the Church that young Catholics need.
Meeting Them on Their Way is a 3-part blog series that takes a critical look at Catholic youth ministry. This series aims to offer insight into several areas that I feel have often been overlooked or under-emphasised. Read Part 2 here.
 Robert Dixon and Sharon Bond, “Connections for Life Profile – Our Life Together” (Melbourne: ACBC Pastoral Projects Office, 2003).