Youth Ministry in the Church

A priest friend who knows my fondness for working with teenagers jokingly shared with me his image of youth ministry. He told me that he believes that youth ministry in the Catholic Church today is very similar to Abraham pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis (Gn 18:26-33).

With great effort Abraham pleads with God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if God can find 50 good people. Abraham then pleads with God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if He only finds 40 people, and so on.

My priest friend points out that, in much the same way, parishes often begin youth ministry with the idea of doing great things for the hundreds of teens in the parish, but finally settle for doing all the work for the 10 to 15 teens who show up each week if that.

As we keep reading the Book of Genesis, we learn that Sodom and Gomorrah are eventually destroyed by God. And, sadly, most parish youth programs are eventually the first things to go when the parish budget gets a little tighter. I have to admit that in many parishes this story sounds familiar and true.

What if the story of Catholic youth ministry were more like the story of Jonah and the city of Nineveh? The people, upon hearing Jonah’s preaching, repented and were spared (Jon 3:3-5). What if youth ministry could be more like that?

I would like to share with you two personal experiences of youth ministry that give me great hope that the youth of the world today are not so much like Sodom and Gomorrah, but rather are more like the Ninevites hungry to hear the Word of God proclaimed to them.

In the summer of 2011, I had the great honor to be invited to minister at the LIFETEEN summer camp in Covecrest, Ga. I was immediately caught off guard when I arrived at the camp and one of the LIFETEEN missionaries told me that I would have an awesome time because this was a place where priests are rock stars.

I have heard of priest as alter Christus, as in persona Christi, as good shepherd, as spiritual guide, etc., but I had never before heard of priest as rock star. I quickly dismissed the idea, but at the end of the week the idea of “priest as rock star,” came back to me as campers kept running up to me with words of gratitude and asking me to autograph their camp T-shirts. I came to realize that in their minds I was indeed a rock star.

Later, as I sat in the Atlanta airport waiting for my flight back to St. Louis, I reflected on this idea of being a rock star and what had happened for me to earn this status in the mind of the young people. The first thing that my brother priests at camp and I did was spend time with the campers. We cheered them as they struggled on the high and low rope courses. During their free time we played Ga-Ga (an Israeli version of dodge ball that I played for the first time at camp), Nine/Four Square and Ultimate Frisbee.

Finally, when the opportunity arrived during the camp, we sat and talked to them as friends and not as authority figures. As we asked them about the television shows they watched, academic classes that they loved, and where they came from, and they asked us about our lives as priests, it was easy to see bonds of friendship forming. This reaffirmed for me one of my personal principles when it comes to youth ministry — the simple need to be authentic.

I am sure that part of the reason why Jonah did not wish to go to Nineveh was because he was afraid that if he was himself and preached God’s word, he would be rejected by the Ninevites. I get the feeling that the fear of being rejected is something that prevents priests from getting too involved in youth ministry. The truth of the matter though is that teenagers are a very accepting group when one is authentic around them.

The second reason for the rock-star status of priests at the summer camp was that we spoke to the young people about Jesus. Pope Benedict XVI, in his introduction to the new youth catechism (YouCAT: Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church, Ignatius Press, 2011), wrote the following: “Many people say to me: The youth of today are not interested in this. I disagree, and I am certain that I am right. The youth of today are not as superficial as some think. They want to know what life is really about.”

At camp, I found it very rewarding to see the young people make the connection between what they have learned in religion classes and their everyday lives. Their faith began to make sense to them in much the same way certain songs speak to people because the words help express what is going on in their lives at the moment.

I cannot imagine Jonah’s success in preaching to the Ninevites had anything to do with his enthusiasm, but rather his success rested solely on the power of the Word of God. As priests ministering to the youth of today, it is important to constantly remind ourselves that success in youth ministry has everything to do with the power of the Word of God and not on any program or gimmick. Young people really do want to hear the Word of God proclaimed to them in a way that helps them understand their lives.

The third reason for the rock-star image of priests at the LIFETEEN summer camp, I concluded, had nothing to do with the priests at camp but rather with the attitudes of the adults and college staffers toward the sacraments. Young adults and college staffers came to the daily Mass with a great energy and excitement that was simply contagious. The staff’s participation in the liturgy could not help but spark a desire on the part of the teens present to also participate and grow in love of the Eucharist.

The staff’s love for the Eucharist was also modeled through their love of Eucharistic Adoration. Each morning the staffers spent a half an hour in Eucharistic Adoration inside the small country chapel and followed it up with five- to fifteen-minute visits throughout the day. Toward the end of the week, one could easily see the campers doing the same.

The staffers’ love for the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation led to a greater respect for the priesthood, because we, through the grace of ordination, brought them the sacraments. Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament is a powerful way to reach young people today.

Shortly after my wonderful week at the LIFETEEN summer camp, I had the great blessing of bringing some of the teens of my parish to Steubenville Mid-America Week II in Springfield, Mo. For me the highlight of the weekend was the long lines for the Sacrament of Reconciliation — not to mention the quality of those confessions. I was deeply humbled to be the Lord’s instrument of mercy.

Like the Ninevites who, upon hearing Jonah’s message of repentance, declared a fast and dressed in sackcloth and ashes, the 3,000 teenagers that came from across the United States heeded the message that they needed the Sacrament of Reconciliation more than they needed such modern things as Facebook.

If that was not inspiring enough, on Sunday morning after Father Chris Martin, Vocation Director for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, explained that the Church was not looking for men interested in a life of ease to become priests, but for men who were willing to make sacrifices for the Church, not 10 teens, not 50 teens, but more than I could count came forward to declare that they were indeed interested in a vocation to the priesthood, even in these trouble times.

While I can surely see how my brother priest could think that youth ministry in the Church today can feel like Abraham pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah, to me there are many signs that speak to me of hope for them and for the Church!

Although there are many demands on priests today, and youth ministry can easily fall to the bottom of our to-do lists, it is more important than ever for us to spend time with the youth of our parishes. I believe that, like Jonah, we will be pleasantly surprised to discover just how receptive the youth of the Church are when we priests speak to them authentically about the Word of God. TP 

Father Pastorius, ordained a priest in 2003 for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, is pastor of Epiphany Parish in South St. Louis, Mo.