Our diocesan youth: Precious sources for the Church

During the months of spring our parishes blossom with adolescent youth. They spring forth from the recesses of their Religious Education programs and become the center of the parish Liturgical life. Parishes make great preparation for this grand event when bishops come around to confirm the youth. Parents and grandparents beam with pride as they witness their children take the first step toward adulthood. Between this fleeting Liturgical moment and the time that they are sent forth into the world at their baccalaureate we must be careful not to allow these youth to slip away into the abyss.

In this diocese there are approximately 2,900 adolescent youth in parish Religious Education programs. Many parishes report that they have a post-Confirmation youth ministry, and while the numbers vary, it is fair to say that about half the youth will take part in the life of the parish after they are confirmed. 

On May 5 the diocese had the honor of gathering more than 60 high school youth and their families as they received the Pope Pius X Youth Award. This tells us that more than 70 percent of our parishes welcome the active participation of adolescent youth in their various ministries. Since less than 40 percent of the parishes report having a formal youth ministry program, youth must be finding their way in through some other door. 

There are excellent youth programs in this diocese that evangelize, provide mentoring in faith, and allow them to explore their leadership potential. These programs vary in their approach, but all have common elements. They gather the youth on a fairly regular basis, offer food, fellowship and prayer. Some programs are very well organized and offer peer leadership training, retreat experiences, organize pilgrimages and other ways to engage the youth in the life of the Church. 

Many parishes are scared away from youth ministry because they feel that they do not have the resources to build it. Parishes should let themselves off of the “program” hook. “Programs” imply that there is structure, leadership, space, and that dreaded word, money. Youth do not need a program to be integrated into the adult life of the parish, but they do need to be formed as disciples. Forming youth into disciples is critically important in a world that is blasé about faith and lacking moral certitude. 

In the book, “Forming Intentional Disciples,” Sherry Weddell describes the parish as a “Kingdom workshop” filled with tools for evangelizing. Yet these tools are often geared toward adults and miss the opportunity to engage youth at this critical period of their formation when they are just beginning to assert their individuality and are better able to form values and ideals. Some of the tools lying around the parish would be excellent to build a culture of discipleship among the youth. There are also many tools offered by the diocese that were created to assist and augment parish youth formation. Parishes that are evangelization-centric rather than program-centric have a greater opportunity to form youth disciples.

The first step in utilizing the tools in the Kingdom workshop is to begin with the ones that are most conducive to forming youth. Liturgical ministry and Religious Education already have a large presence of youth. Adolescent youth serve as lectors, altar servers and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. Religious Education programs throughout the diocese welcome youth to serve as catechists and classroom aides. Parishes can give more intentional training for these ministries so that youth can make the connection between ministry and mission. Other ministries in the parish may have youth involved but might need to add some element of formation. Soup kitchens, food pantries, and choir have the potential to form disciples, but it will require the adults involved to view themselves as mentors. 

The next step a parish must take is to gather the youth on an occasional basis for food, fellowship and prayer. This doesn’t require great resources or added leadership. Parishes can then offer to the youth the opportunity to take part in the larger diocesan programs. Christian Leadership Institute was created 28 years ago to form youth to serve as leaders in their parishes. The youth that they send come back willing to give back to the parishes everything they learned. There are retreat experiences in the diocese, like YES! and ECHO that are designed to form disciples. There are retreats like Quo Vadis and “Called by Name” that help youth to explore and discern vocation. There is a Pro-Life Boot Camp that teaches youth the full meaning of the dignity of life. 

Parishes that turn their ministries into tools for evangelization, and take advantage of all that is available for youth in the diocese, are well on their way to filling the gaping hole between Confirmation and graduation. That Liturgical moment in time when the parish confirms their youth will then become a launch into ministry rather than an exodus from the Church.

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

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