Print Edition: Feb. 22, 2015
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Youth speaker and author says, 'It's about helping them connect the dots in a timely way with the timeless truth of the Church and helping them find their place in it.'
BY Thomas L. McDonald
Mark Hart is one of the most respected Catholic youth leaders in the country. As executive vice president of Life Teen, each year he speaks before thousands of Catholic young adults and teens, inspiring them to make a deeper connection to their faith. He’s also the driving force behind T3, a multimedia teen Bible study series used in youth groups and religious-education programs. He delivered the keynote address at the National Catholic Youth Conference, which was held in Indianapolis in November. (See other story on C4.)
What are your hopes for youth ministry?
I want to help change the perspective of teenagers. When teenagers get involved in their faith in a youth group or when they come to an event like this, they think that they’re seeking God. They think they’re going out of their way for God, but very seldom do they pause to realize that God is already at work. God is seeking them. What God desires from them is that encounter, that sacramental encounter, which really is rooted in intimacy.
And the National Catholic Youth Conference?
It’s very easy when we have an event of this magnitude for the young people to get swept away by the lights, the stage, the music. We need them to see that this is our version of a national World Youth Day, the universal Church coming together, and not just a Jesus pep rally. We need to meet them where they are, but then have them widen their perspective just a little bit in order to realize how significant it is that they are there. They have to realize that God wanted them there, and they need to see the greater Church, the mother Church, beyond their parish.
Isn’t there a danger in large, flashy arena-based events for youth who are coming straight from your average American parish?
Sure, but the danger lies in the people charged with doing it, and with the depth of the speakers and the musicians. In an arena setting with that many teenagers, if you don’t turn it up one notch, it’s hard to reach them. It’s a vast space. You have to use the lights and the screens to draw the attention of that many teenagers at once, and then once you draw them in, you can make your point.
It’s very possible, and I’ve seen it work very well; but the people in charge of leading the youth before and after the event have to help us explain that these peripheral things are merely tools to set up the sacramental encounter. They’re a medium to get to the desired end: which is for the young person to have a deep and intimate encounter with Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and in the sacraments.
When I approach a talk, I’ll use a lot of humor as a speaker, but I’m using that as a tool. It’s not the end; it’s the means. The music isn’t “praise and worship” just so we can turn it up loud because “that’s what the kids like.” We utilize the contemporary music to set up the silence. We might only have 30 minutes of music in an hour and a half. That’s followed by maybe 20 minutes from a speaker and then more than 30 minutes of silence. It’s incarnational. It’s about meeting teens where they are, but then walking them into the sacred.
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