Catholic Youth Day

Youth ministry is an enigma — all parishes want it; most parishes don’t know how to define it. It is often the second thought of the Faith Formation program; tucked in after the important work of preparing youth for the Sacrament of Confirmation. 

However, the U.S. Catholic Church has asserted that “Far from peripheral to the Church’s concern, ministry with adolescents is essential for helping the Church realize its mission with its young members.” It is also essential to the Church’s future if we are to have disciples to carry on the mission of Jesus Christ.

It’s been more than 40 years since the Catholic Church in America recognized the need to have a new vision of formation for adolescent youth. As the cultural context changed, with its new media and creeping secularism, it challenged the primacy of faith in the lives of our youth. The Church called on its leaders to find a new strategy for forming disciples of Jesus Christ. With each passing decade the battle for the souls of adolescents continued, and so the U.S. Bishops issued “Renewing the Vision” in 1997, a document that built upon the insights from 40 years ago and serves as the framework for youth ministry to this day. 

The document outlined eight components that make up a comprehensive youth ministry program: advocacy, catechesis, community life, evangelization, justice and service, leadership development, pastoral care, prayer and worship. These are not just for a youth program, but are essential ministries within the Church. Isolating these ministries and making them the purview of a separate ministry to youth may be the root of the challenge most parishes have in forming youth ministry.

The youth are the responsibility of the entire parish, not just a few adults designated to be their ministers. If parishes view the eight components as essential to its ministry with all parishioners, then they will be much further along in integrating them into their ministry with youth. Most of the time and resources of a parish are directed toward catechetical programs and preparing youth for the Sacrament of Confirmation, yet this is only one essential component of youth ministry. Parishes may need to pry catechesis loose from the foundation and find creative ways of handing on knowledge of the faith within alternative models to make room for the other essential components of their ministry with youth.

We may be doing a disservice to the youth by creating a youth ministry silo. Youth ministry is built on relationships — they are evangelized through relationships with Christian mentors. These can be their peers, family members, or people who are witnesses to the faith in their parishes. These are the people who usually organize events and activities for the youth; catechize them and pray with them. It isn’t the activities that evangelize youth, but the accompaniment of a caring mentor that makes the difference. 

On a very hot and humid day in August, 220 youth and their adult mentors travelled miles from their homes to board a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. They then walked 4.2 miles in the sweltering heat as a show of solidarity with refugees from around the world. When they arrived at St. Augustine Church in Vineyard Haven they were welcomed with a freshly-cooked lunch; a field full of games and activities; and the sound of Christian music blasting from the speakers. The youth were entertained with the music of the keynote performer, Chris Muglia, whose hard-hitting message of what it means to live as disciples of Jesus inspired the youth to embrace the heroic life of a committed Christian. This is youth ministry at its best.

Catholic Youth Day had a catechetical component that was provided by the chief catechist of the diocese, Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V. The pilgrimage in solidarity with refugees gave the youth a lesson in Catholic Social Teaching, bringing the need for justice into focus. They were mentored and accompanied on this pilgrimage by their priests, catechetical leaders, parents, peer leaders and youth ministers. They were welcomed and embraced by the entire parish, with more than 40 volunteers providing food, fun, support for their four-mile trek, nurses, and whatever was needed to make the day a success. They prayed before the Eucharist at adoration; went to Confession with the many priests who accompanied them, or just came along to be a part of this special day. The closing Mass was truly a sending forth into mission, as they were sent home to organize a collection of items in their parishes and schools to fill a welcome box for new immigrants in our diocese; thus continuing their immersion into solidarity with refugees. 

While we search for ways to bring back the adults who are abandoning the Church, we have right in front of us the opportunity to evangelize and form disciples with a generation of emerging adults. We may need to break down the walls that separate the youth from the essential ministries in the parish, but with a little creativity and the Holy Spirit, youth ministry will emerge in every parish. 

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts