At a recent youth ministry event where dedicated teens were serving the poor, a colleague said that I have the best job. My response was a simple, “Yes I do!” Young people’s generosity, energy and dedication are inspiring and contagious, and confirm that communities of faith can thrive. Our new year provides us with resolutions and opportunities to grow as communities of faith.
It is with great excitement that the entire church of Southern New Jersey will accompany teens, young adults and those who serve them on a journey to prepare for the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to be held in 2018. Pope Francis has asked that this assembly, which will include young people ages 16-29, be prepared to discuss and pray on the theme of “Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment.”
There is an urgency as we look to express a desire for all people, especially the young, to live, know and internalize our Catholic faith. We cannot ignore the personal stories of youth and young adults who may no longer find meaning in religious practice. Catholics in the United States are not immune to a dramatic shift of faith practice, and the country has recently seen the rise of the “nones,” those who have no religious affiliation. Maybe you can name someone within your family or social circle who is a “none.”
The challenge is clear. The Church of Southern New Jersey desires to “go out,” listen and accompany teens and young adults on the journey of faith in Jesus Christ. Pope Francis invites everyone to be bold and creative in the task of emphasizing the goals, structures, styles and methods of evangelization in their respective communities. At this past year’s World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, the Holy Father entrusted the task of sharing the Gospel to the young people of the world.
To accomplish Pope Francis’ desire, I propose four attitudes that parishes and Catholic schools can embrace to grow the Catholic faith in youth for generations to come.
Get young people involved
Young people, those in their teen-age years and 20s and 30s, bring with them a wealth of experience, energy and enthusiasm to the world. They also bring a deep desire to belong. Our faith communities have great potential to be a place of belonging where young people’s presence and contributions are appreciated, mentored and affirmed. How do you know and take interest in the young people who are in your community? Do you know their names and pray for them? I have two daughters, and at least five caring Catholics at our parish know their name and ask how they are doing if they aren’t there on Sunday. Are you able to say the same? Are young people personally invited and welcomed to help and lead liturgical, service and social ministries? Are teens and young adults on your pastoral councils?
Listen to their needs
Life can be stressful and busy. Young people strive for identity, belonging and purpose, and this quest begins earlier than previous generations. Traditional signs that a young person has entered adulthood — such as having a spouse, a family, completed education, a steady job, and financial independence — occur five or more years later than in past generations. Their world is complex, often competitive and very diverse. As a family of faith there must be places of welcome that offer warmth, with people to listen to their needs.
We can begin with prayer. As well, here is an idea that may spark your imagination: invite small groups, families, school or religious education sessions to pray for specific youth or young adult events, retreats and mission trips. Encourage the young people to visit these groups beforehand and report back in person afterward how God moved in them.
The Syond of Bishops 2018 is asking young people for input. Every community of faith will be asked to have guided conversations and participate in online surveys. The Church of Southern New Jersey sees this process as a way to strengthen and grow our pastoral ministry with the young church.
Plan for life after the sacraments
Our life is dotted with moments and opportunities for grace. Celebrations of the sacraments are unique moments. We need to continue to stress that the sacraments of baptism, Eucharist, and confirmation are a deepening in our commitment as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Are pathways for further growth and belonging presented to candidates and their families so that they may access middle and high school youth ministry activities, including service opportunities, mentoring with liturgical ministers and small faith communities? Our challenge is to think big but start small, with more opportunities for discipleship.
Meet parents where they are. They are essential.
Young people name their parents as the most influential people in their faith life (see the National Study of Youth and Religion http://youthandreligion.nd.edu). One regional youth ministry leader provides monthly electronic newsletters to parents with tips to become closer to their teens, including ways to start a faith conversation, and how to talk about relationships, sex and internet use. The parish also hosts a quarterly “whine and cheese” parent faith night. The conversations there provide opportunities for parents to know that they are not alone in raising a teenager. Family life can sometimes be described as riding a bicycle down a water slide — it is exhilarating, but just plain hard! Support parents in their role and they too will be a gatekeeper for their young person’s faith activities.
Over the next year you will be seeing articles and diocesan initiatives focused on ministry with young people in Southern New Jersey. These stories of faith and pastoral activity give us great hope to meet the opportunities presented. We can do better and can do more. Life in Jesus Christ is just too important. Our life depends on it. Will you join me in prayer, listening and action?
Gregory A. Coogan is director of Youth, Young Adult & Campus Ministries, Diocese of Camden.