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.
Whole Church Ministry
It should come as no surprise that youth ministry is a demanding job. Youth ministers spend hours in overloaded schedules dreaming up speakers, organising events, practising music, setting up sports teams, encouraging outreach to those in need and, of course, preparing food. And then, after all that, sometimes only a few people show up. Burnout is fairly common and the average tenure of youth ministers is dismally short, with many leaving a congregation after less than 2 years in a role.
Often, these troubles arise when we make the mistake of isolating youth ministry from the rest of church life. Faith formation generally occurs within a three-fold collaboration between family, school and faith community, in that order. For every hour or two that a young person spends in formal “youth ministry,” they spend 30 hours at school and over 100 hours at home. Our ministry to young people needs to be a whole church ministry.
Indeed, formal youth ministry programmes aren’t actually the Church’s primary method of ministering to young people. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “the home is the first school of Christian life” (CCC 1657). While some young people might be hesitant to admit it, as they grow up their parents and siblings really are the most influential people in their lives.Parents have the ability to form the Catholic faith of their children in a way that youth ministers simply cannot, both through what they tell their kids and how they live out family life.
Youth ministry should supplement the faith formation that young Catholics receive at home, providing them with a sense of community. When it doesn’t play out this way, youth ministers are left with the daunting task of trying to convince teens for the first time that God is real, that Jesus loves them, and that the Catholic Church is the Body of Christ.
However, this isn’t to say that the weight of faith formation falls solely on parents. Just as it is the parents’ responsibility to pass on their Catholic faith, it is the Church’s responsibility to ensure that they are well equipped to do so. I honestly believe that we would have a revolution in the world of youth ministry if we shifted our focus from “How can we make our youth programme bigger and better?” to “How can we equip parents in their duty to pass on the faith to their kids?”
Imagine if clergy or church staff sat down weekly and challenged the parents in their parish to greater prayer and involvement in the church, giving them the tools to be better spouses, parents and teachers. That “programme” would be cheap, simple, and I bet it would be resoundingly effective.
In saying this, I do recognise that family life for many Catholic youth isn’t easy. Parents may work long hours, they may lack a solid faith of their own, and/or they may have separated. In such situations, the wider faith community is called to step up and become an extended family to these young people.
64,000 students are educated in Catholic primary and secondary schools throughout the six dioceses of New Zealand. These schools have a unique role in walking with young people through their educational journey, helping them learn the basics of their Catholic faith and then delving deeper into Church teaching with them as they grow older. In doing so, these schools show Catholic youth the complementarity of faith and reason, even in the midst of a secular culture that denies the two can co-exist.
Furthermore, Catholic schools have the opportunity to become a microcosm of the Catholic culture that has otherwise been lost in wider NZ society. While theoretical Religious Education has an important role here, of even greater value are the “special character activities” that occur outside the classroom. Through providing retreats, opportunities to receive the sacraments, school chaplaincy, leadership programs, and social justice groups like Young Vinnies, Catholic schools daily expose young people to a coherent Christian way of living.
The third key area of faith formation for Catholic youth is the parish community. The parish is where young people should be supported, prayed with, and then sent out to meet others on their way. One of the greatest benefits of parish life is that it provides Catholic youth with solid role models.
Within my home parish, we had role models from every generation and almost every vocation. First are foremost were our youth ministers, young Catholic adults who modelled faith in both single and married life. We had a parish priest who went out of his way to ensure that young people understood his ministry and received the sacraments on a regular basis. We had elderly parishioners who would be at church every day for morning Mass and would occasionally get called up for a blessing to celebrate their 40th, 50th or even 60th wedding anniversary. We had our peers, who lent us support, and finally, we even had younger kids who were looking up to us. Let me tell you, nothing encourages you to behave as a role model quite like knowing that there are people who see you as one.
For some readers, this might sound like an ideal or even an unbelievable situation, but it is what every church community is called to be. What is important to recognise is that it is the parish, more than anywhere else, that provides youth with a tangible expression of the Catholic Church.
It is crucial that Catholic youth understand their significance within parish life. In part, this will be accomplished through everything that I have already mentioned in this series– striking a balance between relevance and transcendence, and recognizing that young people are not just the “Church of the future.” But it can also be as simple as just telling young Catholics that they are valued.
A few weeks ago I visited an unfamiliar parish. At the end of Mass, a married couple left their pew, came across to where I was sitting, introduced themselves and said “we just wanted to welcome you to the parish, it’s always so good to see young people here.” Through that one small gesture, which would have taken no more than 2 minutes, I no longer felt like an outsider.
With the movement of secular society away from the common good and towards individualism, Catholic youth can often exist in what I would describe as “a culture of isolation.” The frantic speed of modern life makes it increasingly difficult for families to find time together; secondary and tertiary education is often characterized by competition for grades and status; and peer groups often demand conformity to popular norms.
In the midst of all this, the overarching benefit of whole church ministry is that it offers young people a community to which they can belong. Above all, effective youth ministry is built on the meaningful and trust-based relationships formed within such a community. It doesn’t matter how qualified our youth ministers are, how relevant church teaching is, how much responsibility we give young people within the church; without community, none of it matters. Without community, young people are cut off from the love of Christ and his Church.
There are no short-cuts here. If we are going to truly minister to our young people, we must be willing to go through all of the time, energy, joy and struggle of forming authentic relationships with them. Meeting young people on their way is the first step, but it is only through relationships that we can continue to walk with them on the journey.
While this might all sound daunting, our Church has a long history of rising to meet such challenges. Indeed, the Catholic faith only exists in New Zealand today because bold men and women were willing to leave their comfort zone to minister in “God’s farthest outpost.” What’s more, we worship a God with a solid track record of meeting His followers on their way – as a baby born in a manger, as a loving father running out to his prodigal son, and as a Messiah meeting two apostles on the road to Emmaus. It is time for us to go and do likewise.