Sunday 16 November 2014 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — 22nd anniversary of the universal “Catechism of the Catholic Church”

I heard Bishop Edgar da Cunha mention off-the-cuff the importance he attaches to Church outreach to our young people. Amen to that.

There are some who have a natural gift for youth ministry. They seem to relate effortlessly to young people. The most effective youth minister I know is now in her late 80s. As for me, I never have had a particular charism for youth ministry. At 68, I am now middle-aged and even less effective relating to youth. Some may say that 68 is definitely not middle-aged. That would make the average life span 136 years. To this I reply in the jargon of today’s young people, “What-ever.”

Gifted or not, a parish priest is responsible for the pastoral care of souls of parishioners of all ages — and that includes youth. Youth aren’t the Church of the future; they’re part of the Church now. This reality needs to be recognized. 

Here’s what I’ve learned over the years. The pastoral care of young people requires a priest to make sure the youth in his care are receiving the best Religious Education possible. This begins with the staff person tasked with Religious Education. He or she must be aware of current trends in the field and able to incorporate them effectively into the curriculum. The parish priest needs to see to it that the volunteer catechists receive the formation, support, and materials they need in the classroom. And the priest needs to see to it that the environment in which Religious Education classes are held are safe, clean, bright, and hospitable. 

There’s more to religious instruction, however, than the conveying of information. You may be able to recite passages of scripture like a Jehovah Witness and rattle off Church teachings like some monsignor with a Ph.D. in Church doctrine, but this only involves the intellect. There’s more to the faith than cold hard facts. Faith is a matter of the heart. Our young people need not only Religious Education but also Faith Formation.

I’ve found that one of the most effective tools we have with which to touch the hearts of our young people is the retreat format. By that, I mean a time apart for the purpose of deeper prayer and sharing, a day or a week of more intense immersion in the Catholic Faith. 

We are fortunate to have in our diocese several types of retreats for youth and young adults.  I’m familiar with ECHO, Emmaus, Yes! and the many retreats available in our Catholic high schools and campus ministries. As a priest, I have a responsibility to encourage and support this sort of youth formation. It’s where the “rubber meets the road,” as they say.

In fact, I was on an ECHO team at the beginning of November. It happened to be a weekend for high school girls. Father Frank Wallace jokingly assured me when I returned home frazzled that I have now decreased the time I will have to spend in purgatory. I’ve little in common with teen-aged girls and I’m getting too old for this sort of thing, but I see it as part of my priestly responsibility nonetheless. In fact, my own Spirituality benefits from the experience.

As I see it, first comes Religious Education and then comes Spiritual formation. But there’s a third component to ministry among our young people. Youth and young adults can’t just stand there being pious. Young people have to roll up their sleeves and do something. Having been educated and formed, they need to integrate into their lives some experience of ministry that appeals to them. They need to translate their faith into action. It’s essential.

Many parish Religious Education programs incorporate some sort of first-hand experience at ministry, especially as young people prepare for the Sacrament of Confirmation. This must never be mistaken for slave labor. It should involve more than just raking the leaves of an elderly homeowner or polishing the church candlesticks. Young people need more than busy work. Young people need to see some tangible results for their efforts, even the slightest change. Some community service projects are more successful than others, but at least they are on the right track.

There are parishes that excel in this area. I think of parishes in our own dioceses that provide the opportunity for youth group missions to Honduras, Appalachia, and other places. It is a life-changing experience for the vast majority of those who participate. Young people want to “save the world.” Let them. Even secular schools and colleges are tapping into this youthful energy. 

Then there are those individual young people who go above and beyond the call of duty. Having had a taste of hands-on ministry, they crave more. I know of young adults who have spent a year in Ecuador, a summer in Ghana, and a month in Peru.

When it comes to youth ministry, the lived experience of mission is priceless. But, dude, what does this old man know about such things?

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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