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 1 here.
Not Just the Church of the Future
Like most social institutions, the Catholic Church typically views the role of youth as preparatory. The focus is on developing our young people, so that they are solid Catholics by the time they settle into adult life.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Development of our youth – be it social, spiritual, intellectual, etc. – is important. But we need to be careful that a focus on development doesn’t prevent us from challenging young people to use their gifts in the here-and-now.
Prior to the 20th century, young people were anything but passive consumers. Henry Williams, one of the first Christian missionaries to arrive on New Zealand soil in 1814, entered the Royal Navy at 14 years old. He became a midshipman at 15, fought in the Battle of Copenhagen at 16, and eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant. “Teenagers” with such careers were not uncommon in the 1800s.
But today, a great many people, both inside and outside the Church, subscribe to the ideology that young people shouldn’t be weighed down by responsibility or commitment. Instead, they should be free to “enjoy the moment.” Beyond getting good grades and being well-behaved, not much is expected. Our culture sets the bar low, and consequently, few young people rise above it.
The Catholic Church isn’t the one building this ideology, but we aren’t doing enough tear it down. We give young people minor roles, such as doing a reading at Mass or helping out at a working bee, but we shy away from “burdening” them with any real responsibility.
I’ve often wondered what the impact would be of initiatives like challenging youth to take part in weekly volunteer work or setting aside one seat on our church councils for a capable young person. One thing I’m certain of, however, is that it is by participating that young people will find themselves drawn into the Church. To the extent that we raise the bar and invite Catholic youth to do great things, we will not only be meeting them on their way, we will be leading them on an adventure.
Through access to the internet, social media and television young people are constantly confronted with the flaws of society. They are daily exposed to the realities of poverty, ecological destruction and economic breakdown. Generally, young people today have an exceptionally well-formed social consciousness. But the world’s problems often seem too large, too complex and too distant to do anything about.
Here too, the faith community can be guilty of marginalising youth. While adult parishioners gather together to explore the biblical themes of social justice, the youth group might be playing table tennis or having a pizza party. Yet, if the faith of our young people is going to be more than an abstract idea or a peripheral concern, it is crucial that youth are taught the value of outreach to those in need.
Young people need to see the practical relevance of a faith that calls them to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, nurse the sick, welcome the stranger, and visit the lonely. One of the most notable aspects of the New Zealand Catholic Youth Movement back in the 1950s was the “See-Judge-Act” technique. This technique began with the discernment of social problems in their communities (“see”), discussing them in light of Scripture (“judge”), and then taking appropriate action to make a positive change (“act”). It speaks volumes that at the heart of the largest Catholic youth organisation in New Zealand history, there was a call to social justice.
The final problem that an understanding of adolescence as “preparatory” often carries with it is an ingrained reluctance to accept youth spirituality, especially if it fails to conform to our expectations of “proper” Catholic worship. We get so focused on moulding young people to fill their roles as the “church of the future” that we forget they are also the church of today. I’m sure it comes as no surprise to most readers that young people can struggle with traditional forms of Catholic spirituality.
At some point, we’ve all heard the lament that “Mass is boring” (or perhaps even uttered it ourselves). Now, on one hand, catechesis is important for this. It is far easier for someone to appreciate the Mass once they have heard about the intense love of a God who would be humble enough to come to us in the form of bread and wine. But on the other hand, we must be careful not the stifle the spirituality of our youth for the sake of conformity.
At my home parish we have a youth Mass once a month, where the young people of the Church play contemporary worship music, write the prayers of the faithful, and co-ordinate a morning tea for the congregation after the service. The Mass isn’t held at a special time; it’s just an ordinary Sunday Masses. This means that the young people of St. Thomas More parish know that their spirituality is embraced by the congregation; it isn’t something sequestered away from ordinary church life.
When we affirm the experiences of God in the lives of youth, the emphasis placed on conformity fades away, and we are free to recognise the rich diversity of the Catholic faith. When Jesus met the disciples on the road, he didn’t try to redirect their footsteps, he didn’t tell them to go back and do what the other disciples we doing. He walked with them on their unique journey.
Read Part 3 here.