Youth: The Future of
issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
by Bob McCarty
had the privilege
of attending World Youth Day in 1993, when Pope John Paul II welcomed
80,000 young people in Mile High Stadium as they chanted, "John Paul
II, we love you." But this August will bring a new high for me and an
estimated 1.5 million young people from throughout the world. We will
be in Rome for World Youth Day 2000, which is expected to be the biggest
event of the Jubilee Year.
The Holy Father will
welcome us all at the opening ceremonies on August 15 at St. John Lateran
and in St. Peter's Square. Over the next several mornings my wife and
I will serve as "animators" of one of the 180 designated sites at which
young people will gather for music, liturgy and a special teaching by
prominent Church leaders, including many bishops.
The gift of young people
Surely the love affair between this pontiff and young people will continue in Rome. No doubt he will reply to them, just as he did in Denver, "John Paul II, he loves you." Actually, he first revealed his special affection for young people when he became pope in 1978. "You are the hope of the Church and of the world," he told them. "You are my hope." More recently, in his apostolic letter On the Coming Third Millennium, he wrote to and about youth: "The future of the world and the Church belongs to the younger generation....Christ expects great things from young people" (#58). He has identified the gifts they bring to the Church: their enthusiasm and joy, their commitment to justice, their search for Jesus.
After 27 years in various forms of youth ministry, I can only say "Amen" to the Holy Father's devotion to the youth of our Church.
As a focus we'll take members of the so-called millennial generation, beginning
with those young people born since 1981 and graduating from high school
in 2000. They are a gift to the Church. But are they a gift we are ready
to accept? Those of us who are parents and many in the Church often
wonder and worry: Will our children have faith? But the real issue facing
the Church is: Will our faith have children? Will the Catholic Church
feed that spiritual hunger of today's young people for an authentic
experience of God, for justice and service, for meaning and purpose,
for a spiritual home?
The millennial generation is different from any previous generation.
The world has changed so significantly for today's young people that
there are few "normal" patterns. Technology, computers, the media and
the globalization of the economy have created a brand-new world, and
the millennial generation will be the first to grow up and be totally
immersed in this new world.
In the main, the millennial generation is made up of believers, not belongers. Young people are deeply spiritual, though not necessarily religious. They understand spirituality in terms of mystery, beauty, compassion, inclusiveness and justice. I recently asked the members of my parish youth group in Maryland where they most experience the presence of God. The answer came quickly to one 16-year-old boy: "It's when I'm in my bedroom with my earphones on, just listening to music. That's when I can talk to God, when God seems most real." For his girlfriend, God's presence comes in a more communal setting, "at a parish- or diocesan-wide youth gathering, surrounded by people who believe the same thing."
Religion, however, is often perceived by the young as being about harsh judgments, abstract doctrine, rules and meaningless rituals. I have observed over the years that young people are persistent with their tough questions: Why does Mass have to be boring? Why can't priests marry? Why can't women be ordained? They force me to be thick-skinned and quick on my feet as a youth minister. Many struggle with Church teaching but want to live as disciples. I like that about them.
Catholicism is most effective
in responding to young people, their dreams and hungers when it provides
a context and a language for naming and celebrating their experience of
God. The faith most speaks to them when it serves as a conduit for the
Jesus experience and provides a sacramental communitya spiritual
home. Following are eight practical strategies and experiences that I
have found helpful in nurturing young people who are both believers and
belongers. It is also a handy checklist for us who are adults to measure
the depth of our own level of commitment, whether or not we ourselves
are involved in youth ministry.
1. Practice the faith. The number one influence on the faith
of young people is the faith life of their parents. As adults, our participation
in Sunday Mass and in other liturgical celebrations and involvement
in parish life are signs to our children that our religion is a significant
part of our lives. Our example also reminds youth that belonging to
a community of believers is integral to sustaining and expressing faith.
2. Live the faith. Adults have a great impact on the faith of
young people when we live our faith in our daily routines and interactions.
Faith should influence our life-style choices, use of time, how we handle
conflicts and reconciliation, the relationships we form, how we deal
with work issues, drive our cars and act at sports events when we disagree
with the official's call. Our actions spring from our prayer. Do we
pray at home in the evening? Before family meals? In restaurants? In
our prayers do we remember the less fortunate? Do we pray for our teens'
intentions, including their friends? Young people are watching to see
if faith makes sense to us, if it works for us. They are looking for
a faith that provides meaning in all areas of their life.
3. Connect youth to the community. Young people hunger to be
accepted, welcomed and supported by the faith community. Parents can
encourage youth to join in parish activities, including youth ministry
programs. Here young people can connect with a positive peer group as
well as caring, faith-filled adults. In my experience, youth welcome
invitations to serve as lectors, eucharistic ministers, choir members
and ushers; to become involved in the justice and social ministries
of the parish; to serve on the pastoral council or be part of other
appropriate leadership groups.
4. Encourage 'doing faith.' One of the strongest yearnings of
young people is to "do faith." Public Stations of the Cross, a youth
retreat or a teen pilgrimage offer opportunities to witness to their
beliefs. Perhaps the most powerful experience of doing faith is involvement
in justice and service projectsvolunteering at soup kitchens,
work camps, shelter programs or community emergency outreach centers,
tutoring children or visiting nursing homes. This experience becomes
even more powerful when teens and their parents share it.
5. Support religious literacy. Young people need to know the
traditions, creed, teachings and stories of the Church, the story of
Jesus and his Gospel message. In short, they need to know what it means
to be a Catholic. The faith community should be a place where young
people can bring their questions and search with others for answers
that make sense to them. Education in one's faith, of course, is a lifelong
process. We adults need to model that by our own willingness to continue
learning about our faith.
6. Create prayer experiences. Young people need both personal
and communal experiences of prayer. They can be encouraged to pray on
their own, in their words, using their music and symbols, even writing
their own prayers and spiritual poems. They might also be encouraged
to participate with the adult faith community in worship experiences,
sharing in the community's understanding of God, their traditions, their
rituals and their ways of praying. This both/and approach to the personal
and communal dimension fosters young people's experience of prayer as
the outpouring of their relationship with God.
7. Develop gathering experiences. Besides gathering with their
peers and caring adults in their own parish, youth profit from experience
with the wider Church. These experiences can include diocesan, regional,
national and even international youth conferences that give them a sense
of belonging to something bigger. Such experiences of Church support
and encourage them as part of the family of faith and also foster their
personal journey of faith.
8. Invite sharing of the faith. As young people search for a
personal understanding of God, they must be able and encouraged to look
for God's presence in their own lived experiences. Parents and other
adults can assist them in experiencing God's presence in their joys
and sorrows, their hopes and dreams and in their day-to-day life. We
can ask our teenagers where they experience God, where they pray best,
who Jesus is for them, what confuses them about their faith, how they
have grown in their faith. We can invite them to share what they most
like about their parish and what they would most like to see changed.
Such faith-sharing is a critically important process. Young people will
never understand the Hebrew-Christian Scriptures until they can read
the scriptures of their own lives by experiencing a God who is always
active and present. But in the process we adults should be prepared
to have our own understanding of God challenged and perhaps deepened
by our teenagers' experience of God.
Wings and roots
One of my favorite
posters says, "There are only two things we can give our children that
last: The first is wings and the second is roots." Many young people
move through a time of searching, challenging the beliefs and practices
of their parents and their Church. Some even move away from regular
participation in the Church. This is a time of "wings" for youth, a
time for stretching and flying and experimentingnot only in faith
but also in finding themselves, deciding on their important values,
entering into relationships and making decisions about their future.
And though all of these processes may seem to take young people away
from home, parents and church, if we have provided an anchorif
we have provided "roots"then their flight is not nearly so frightening
for our youth or for adults.
These roots grow first in the family.
Teens will remember the care, concern and support they have experienced
at home. They will remember the freedom to ask hard questions and to
have different answers that may differ from those of their parents.
They will remember how their questions and differing opinions were listened
to respectfully, even as they heard their parents' beliefs and faith
Roots are also teens' memories
of caring, believing adults who expressed love and concern for them,
who invited them to be part of their lives. Roots are youths' memories
of those times when they experienced God because others were visible
signs of God's love for them.
The memories that young people
have of belonging to a vibrant worshiping community, of putting their
faith in action through service to others, of praying at home and with
their church, of gathering with their peers in shared faith experiencesthese
memories are powerful. They will sustain young people as they deal with
the sometimes harsh realities of life. These roots give young people
something to come back home to, assuring that our faith will have children.
Bob McCarty is executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry in Washington, D.C.
Growing up in the public housing of the South
Bronx, Alexie Torres learned early that to be poor was an ugly
thing. The best she could do for herself, she was advised, was
to get awaythe farther, the betterfrom the harsh
realities of ghetto life. For a time she did escape, but the
life of a single young professional in Manhattan left her feeling
empty and unfulfilled. Six years ago, she returned to the Bronx.
She calls it her "journey back to the heart of God, a journey
back to seeing the poor and myself as God sees us: full of dignity,
life and beauty."
Alexie Torres had learned that escaping poverty
wasn't the answer. Confronting its causes, challenging its reach,
loosening its grip was.
As founder and executive director of Youth Ministries
for Peace and Justice, headquartered in St. Joan of Arc Parish
basement, Ms. Torres-Fleming, now 35 and married, is focusing
on change. Her six-year-old nonprofit organization seeks to
empower youth by developing community and organizing skills
they can use in their neighborhoods. "I don't want these young
people to believe that how successful you are or how much money
you make is what matters." Rather, she told Millennium Monthly,
"I want them to know they can stay and rebuild. They are the
future of my neighborhood and community."
Many in society dismiss or distrust themthey're
poor, the "wrong" color, "scary" looking, uneducated, lacking
in skillsbut Ms. Torres-Fleming knows better. "God has
made them an extraordinary generation. For me, they're the Jubilee
generation. They have amazing potential," she says, "and they
challenge the Church to live up to its teachings on social justice."
The approximately 200 young people who are part
of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice on any given day have
proven their potential time and again. Ranging from six to 21,
they have focused on reclaiming and renovating a nearby waterfront
area, helping to raise millions of dollars in the process; researching
community policing problems; turning around the loss of 700
summer jobs with the city; shutting down an abandoned synagogue
that was overrun with drug dealers and prostitutes.
Whether the young people eventually stay or leave
is up to them. But whatever their choice, Ms. Torres-Fleming
wants them armed with skills in critical thinking, leadership
and service. She wants them to become people "who use the gifts
they have been given, and who honor God and the community by
by Judy Ball
Some say as many as
three million young people will participate in World Youth Day
XV scheduled for August 15-20 in Rome. Whatever their numbers,
youth from around the globe will gather in a spirit of praise
and celebration as they publicly witness to their faith and the
meaning of Jesus Christ in their lives. They will answer the challenge
of Youth Jubilee 2000 "to see and to believe that this world,
so spoiled by injustice, conflict and emptiness, can be born to
new life" in Jesus.
Among the events planned are a public Way of the Cross along
the streets of central Rome and a pilgrimage to St. Peter's
tomb, where participants will meet with his successor, Pope
John Paul II. Also scheduled are a vigil and a eucharistic celebration
with the Holy Father, who will be marking his eighth World Youth
Through the wonders of the World Wide Web, persons unable to
attend the events in person can get a flavor of World Youth
Day through the Vatican's Jubilee Web site (http://www.vatican.va/jubilee_2000/).
Advance information offers an outline of scheduled events, the
official prayer of the gathering, a message from the Holy Father
and links to Jubilee Youth Radio along with videos of past World
Youth Day gatherings.