Pause for Thought
“Do not be afraid to be the
Saints of the New Millennium...
If you are what you should be,
you will set the world ablaze!”
Pope John Paul II quoting St Catherine of Siena, World Youth Day, Rome 2000
Young People & Church
‘What about our young people?’ is a question CASE has heard repeated time and again on our travels around England and Wales. It is not only because the question ‘What can we do with our young people who won’t come to Church?’ has no easy answer that I would like to suggest that it is maybe not the most helpful question to ask.
Young people are first and foremost people, and as such should be thought of in terms of relating to rather than a ‘what can we do with?’ approach which hints at ‘they are a problem to be solved’. However, it’s true that the age profile of the Sunday congregation of many parishes gives serious cause for concern.
In being realistic about this situation, it is important to recognise a commonly held misperception: the idea that young people are spiritually hungry but just don’t realise it. Research into precisely this issue shows the opposite: see the insightful Understanding Generation Y commissioned by the Church of England. There is no doubt that young people are made for relationship with God and life without that is ultimately unfulfilling, but the idea of angst ridden teenagers searching for meaning and finding misery until they find God is not really accurate.
Being overly negative about such cultural trends tends to be counter-productive. If you avoid criticising someone for missing the point by using Rosary beads as a fashion item, it doesn’t mean you condone such a practice, but it could provide a different route to showing them God’s love by speaking about the power of prayer and the role of Our Lady. John Paul II spoke of this as needing ‘to make contact with the minds, the hearts and the character of the young in order to provide them with a sound human and Christian formation.’
We are more likely to be able to answer our starting question if we reflect on why some young people don’t/won’t come to Church. When the stereotypical response ‘it’s boring’ is explored, it often transpires that it’s more a question of belonging and comprehension. For various reasons, many young people do not understand Mass. This is not to say that the mystery of the Eucharist could or should be fully within our grasp, but more to recognise that not knowing what Mass is about leads to young people feeling like they don’t belong. Without wishing to devalue the inestimable gift of the Eucharist, a comparison may prove helpful here. Young people understand the Internet; they know what it is for and how it fits into their lives. They know what they get out of it and also what is required of them in order to access those benefits. And as bizarre as it may seem to those of us from an older generation, real relationships occur as a sense of belonging to a community grows among those who share a common interest.
So, what can we do to help young people become hungry for God? First and foremost, if they see and hear the joy and strength we get from practising our Faith, both by going to Mass and by living out the teachings of the Church on a daily basis, young people will be drawn to follow our example.
In terms of specific practical action: pray for young people, pray for their families. Ask God for opportunities to witness to how your faith gives your life meaning, both to young people you already have a relationship with, and in more random moments, eg a shared wait at a bus stop when you are on your way to Mass. Don’t assume young people will not be interested in conversations around ‘this is what my faith means to me…’ indeed, this is exactly the kind of language many young people can relate to.
Although chance moments like these can be real opportunities for grace, generally speaking, the most effective evangelisation happens within relationships, so spend time with young people; they are much more likely accept that going to Church is integral part of a fulfilling life when they trust you as a person.
Also create opportunities for them to spend time with each other in some way they can relate back to Church. Now is a great time for this as there are many events across the country ~why not invite a young person from your parish to attend the Youth 2000 International Prayer Festival at Walsingham over the August Bank Holiday? Attendance at such events is invaluable as young people often feel isolated, especially if they get the impression they are one of only a few people of that age in their parish.
Such opportunities for big gatherings are not restricted to the summer; indeed, Oct ’06 is set to be one of the biggest ever gatherings of Catholic 18 - 30s held in England and Wales. Organised by Catholic Youth Services, some 4000 young adults are expected to attend the National Indoor Arena, Birmingham on 14th - 15th October 2006. A simple but excellent act of evangelisation would be to encourage a young person to book a place at Oct ’06 today, please see: www.oct06.org.uk
As well as big events, finding more regular opportunities to serve within parish life can mean they don’t stop coming to Church in the first place. Being part of a Music Group or helping out with the Liturgy of the Word for Children can have the double positive effect of creating a sense of belonging and purpose for the young people themselves, and of providing positive role models for younger members of the congregation.
Enabling a young person to travel to Lourdes, either with a Diocesan or HCPT group, is a very real way of helping their faith to come alive. Encouraging involvement with organisations like Youth SVP or a YCW Impact Group can serve the same purpose and connects with the keen sense of social justice that many young people share. This will bring them into contact with more committed young Catholics and it also provides them with the kind of non-threatening, relevant activity to which they can comfortably invite their non-practising friends.
As with many types of evangelisation, the issue is not so much a lack of resources as a scarcity of people who feel confident enough to bite the bullet and reach out to share their faith with young people. In terms of being ready, willing and able, the ability side of that triangle is often activated or honed when people are first willing to go beyond bemoaning the current situation of few young people at Church by being ready to take some sort of action. Training is important and available, whether from the local Diocesan Youth Service or from a highly successful resource like Plugged In -Youth CaFE. If you feel doubtful about what you have to offer young people, then maybe the words of an unlikely but very real hero to many millions of young people, John Paul II, spoken at World Youth Day in Toronto may be of comfort to us here ‘We are not the sum of our weaknesses and fears, we are the sum of the Father’s love for us, and our real capacity to become the image of His Son.’
Unsurprisingly, no single solution suits all young people; for some, a way in might be to encourage them to read suitable books about the Faith, others might respond to seeing and discussing films with a Christian message. Some young people might receive a spark to ignite what was given at Baptism through their volunteering with a Christian charity during a gap year, for others it might the experience of raising funds to attend World Youth Day in Australia. We can become informed about these diverse opportunities and challenge the young people in our own families or on the fringe of our parish communities to be open to the hope that there is more to life than what they currently experience.
Above all, we need to have faith that seeds we sow will bloom in God’s time. Our role is to nurture healthy relationships with young people so they cannot fail to see how we are fed by the Eucharist. When they see what we get from living and sharing our Faith, they will definitely be attracted to question what it is that makes us different. They may respond to an invitation to come to Mass with you next Sunday, or their interest in pursuing a life of faith for themselves may be expressed later. Either way, it reminds us that, in the words of Oscar Romero, ‘This is what we are about: we plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise… We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realising that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.’