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Millennium Moment
Youthful Witnesses

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Youth: The Future of the Church
by Bob McCarty

I 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.

Successful strategies

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 community—a 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 projects—volunteering 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 experimenting—not 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 anchor—if 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 stories.

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 experiences—these 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.


Alexie Torres-Fleming 

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 away—the farther, the better—from 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 them—they're poor, the "wrong" color, "scary" looking, uneducated, lacking in skills—but 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 sharing them."*

— by Judy Ball



Youthful Witnesses

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 Day.

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.


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