“It is a sin to bore a kid with the Gospel.” These words from a well-respected youth ministry leader have made an impact on the leadership of youth and young adult ministry in the church of South Jersey. I have been blessed to minister among the parish and Catholic school communities within the Diocese of Camden over the past eight years. Our young people deserve the very best we have to offer in engaging their faith. In a maturing faith, it is normal, acceptable and even expected to question. Are our faith communities prepared to welcome, listen and engage in the conversation?
Many of our pastors and parish communities have looked to strengthen ministry with young disciples. Embracing Pope Francis’ three languages of faith, a variety of opportunities continue to blossom. The language of the head, heart and hands continue to strengthen and expand an active faith for youth and young adults. The language of the head refers to the knowing of our faith, what our faith community believes about the Word of God and the Sacred Tradition.
A greater understanding is needed with wise and generous guides who allow the young to question our faith. Catholicism’s deep tradition and broad reach to the world is attractive to the young. This is seen among the hundreds of teens who have said yes to weekly youth group meetings, Diocesan Youth Congresses, celebration of the sacraments of initiation and small group faith conversations.
Young people are having heart conversations through peer ministry and through effective retreat models like Kairos. These moments are happening outside of our churches and young missionary disciples are leading counter-cultural conversations that lead peers, parents and adults to encounters with the living Christ.
Young people are using their hands as missionary disciples who make time to engage in meaningful service and reflection. Frequent service projects among the poor and marginalized through youth groups, Catholic schools, religious education programs and living as young disciples provide thousands of encounters with Christ among the poor. It is with great joy that the young continue to respond to Catholic Charities’ Share the Journey Pilgrimages, Summer in the City and frequent opportunities at the Ronald McDonald House, Voorhees Pediatric Care and many local nursing homes.
Young people are generous and hunger for the opportunity to make a difference. The church of South Jersey is positioned well to respond to this hunger and yet we need more adult disciples who want to pray, support and mentor younger generations. Our faith communities must not stop in expanding our response. Here are three reasons why:
— Adolescence is an important moment in the faith life. “The chance of a young person continuing to practice Catholicism into emerging adulthood depends to a large extent on his or her connections to Catholicism (through relationships, practices, and identity) during adolescence” (Smith et al., Young Catholic America, 66).
— Youth bring a vibrancy to the church. We need their energy, enthusiasm and creativity. Historically, young people have been sources of great passion in our church. Think about a young Mary who said “yes!”; Timothy who proclaimed the Word; Saints Kateri Tekawitha, Joan of Arc, Jose Sanchez del Rio and Charles Lwanga who all died for the faith.
— Youth deserve the best we have. “You, dear young [person], have you ever felt the gaze of everlasting love upon you, a gaze that looks beyond your sins, limitations and failings, and continues to have faith in you and to look upon your life with hope?” (Pope Francis).
Every pastoral response should ask if our best human and financial resources are being employed?
Bishop Sullivan’s commitment to the young is unprecedented. I am confident that the church of South Jersey will continue to develop and strengthen our local evangelization efforts. Youth and young adults don’t want to be bored. How will we respond?
Gregory A. Coogan is director of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministries, Diocese of Camden. He will soon be leaving the diocese to serve as secretary for catechetical formation for the Diocese of Cleveland.