After a week of wild cheering, joyful prayer and ardent confession, hundreds of thousands of teens have returned home with a personal challenge from their hero, the Holy Father.
Nevertheless, he who holds the keys of Peter has issued a greater challenge to parents, pastors and youth leaders back home. He inspired faith and hope in the hearts of many thousands of teens. We must now take that spark and help it mature into a holy blaze that will endure. The Holy Father has much to teach us about bridging a generation gap that's wider than differences of fashion, music or hairstyles.
Despite his heavy travel schedule, the international stature of his post and the many heavy personal demands he still meets, John Paul II faithfully portrays the personal charism of evangelization. His prison visit to a would-be assassin, a private dinner with a small number of World Youth day attendants, his visits to the smallest of Catholic dioceses — these efforts are examples of discipleship that inspire the whole Church.
Evangelization requires a personal investment on the part of leaders. This is even more important in work with teens, who seem to have a special gift for recognizing anything less than pure intention. In order to reach out to kids with the fullness of faith and challenge them to live the Christian life, we must first know them — and know them well. We must meet them within the parameters of their own culture, as the Pope has done through World Youth Day. They love him because they know that, like Christ, the Pope has loved them first.
In his message to Rome at the close of the Jubilee year, the Holy Father encouraged the world to understand the individual investment required in order to form authentic Christians. He wrote, “This cannot happen without the deep personal involvement of teachers and those who are taught. But it also means giving this whole process a strongly missionary character that will make Christians willing and able to bear clear witness to their faith in all the circumstances of their lives.”
Karen Cook is the director of religious education and full-time youth minister at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Grove City, Ohio. She knows from personal experience that kids will only see the real love of Christ when youth leaders are willing to work in the kids’ setting. “Initially,” she says, “they just need to experience that love of Christ through the actions of a mature Christian. It may sound controversial, but the only way you can do it is to love them. I call this a ‘ministry of presence.’ How can I lead teens into a relationship with Christ if I'm not in a relationship with them first?”
Once the kids have a personal encounter with Christ through relationships in the Church, they will develop a thirst to know everything. That, according to Cook, is when to begin catechesis. She observes that the usual approach is to put Christ in their heads before putting him in their hearts. “That's why confirmation is ‘graduation,’” she says. “The kids leave and then we don't see them again.”
Where the Teens Are
Traditional youth ministry is sometimes referred to as an “in-reach” program: setting up programs and events at the Church, then ministering to those who show up. The ideals of the New Evangelization demand that we find new ways of reaching those who aren't in contact with the classical means of finding the faith. Like Christ, we have to leave the temple and actively go after souls. Like the Pope, we must initiate “outreach” and go wherever the kids are — the school cafeteria, football games, the mall. “Christ was just there, wherever the people were,” says Cook. “Eventually, they came to seek him out and ask him questions. We really need to stress outreach.”
The personal investment of individuals, however, isn't enough. The Holy Father stresses the need for teens to be part of the Church community in order for youth ministry to bear fruit. “In today's social and cultural context,” he writes, “and given that so many families are unable to provide their children with primary Christian formation, it is our ecclesial communities, beginning with the parishes, that must take up the task of their entire formation, starting with their childhood years and continuing without interruption to their youth, adulthood and old age.”
Jeff Cavins, host of EWTN's youth-outreach show “Life on the Rock,” believes that the Church family is exactly what teens are hungering for. “Teens want to discover who they are in the context of family — family, which is the Church,” says Cavins. Parishes, he adds, need to “put their money where their mouth is.” In other words, we need to invest in full-time youth ministries.
“Youth ministry that incorporates kids into the fabric of parish life must become a normal five-night-per-week deal, incorporating Bible study, recreation and eucharistic devotion,” says Cavins.
Cook agrees that full-time youth ministry is imperative. “There is no such thing as part-time ministry,” she says. “Could you ask Mother Teresa to work on a part-time basis?”
Finally, youth ministry in the third millennium needs to tap into existing, Church-approved methods of passing on the radical Christian life. Consider some of the most dramatic snapshots of World Youth Day: the Eucharist being celebrated with fervor, the cross carried with joyful enthusiasm, confession lines swelling with penitents. These could have come straight from a history book of the Church's first centuries.
A more recent testimony to living tradition is the success of the Dead Theologians Society at St. Frances de Sales parish in Newark, Ohio. Inspired by the hit 1989 movie Dead Poets Society, the Dead Theologians Society has capitalized on the club mentality that youth find so attractive.
This fast-growing program is teaching parishes all over the world about a “teen-only” environment that fosters a fervent prayer life and a peer-to-peer evangelism born of a faithful witness to Christ. The specific charism of the Dead Theologians Society is to plug into the graces of the Church triumphant, pray for the Church suffering and reap the power of the Church militant. The approach must be working: The society boasts of more than 50 chapters around the world and has been featured twice on “Life on the Rock.”
Co-founders Michael Barone and Eddy Cotter said their success is by virtue of “tapping into a vein that has already existed — something of which the Church approves,” says Barone. “Imagine, these [saints] are all sitting there around God with favors to give us. The Dead Theologians Society is bringing those individual graces to the aid of these kids through the intercession of each saint we study.”
By presenting the truths of the faith in a traditional, uncompromising way, they are bringing the Gospel to a wide spectrum of teens. “They all come, the churched and the unchurched,” says Barone. “We are reaching the black sheep, the drug-gie, the golfer, the goody-two-shoes, the jocks. It's a very interesting family that God is building here.”
One member of that family is high school junior Jenny Lennon, 17. She has participated in St. Francis de Sales’ youth program since she was a freshman. She claims that the combination of Sunday-night Catechism classes after Mass, weekly Bible study and Dead Theologian's Society meetings have given her the impetus to take ownership of her faith. “Teens need someone to push us, to get us out of our cradle Catholic comfort zone,” she says. “Just hanging out with [youth ministers] who are living their faith gives you that push. It gave me a desire to know about God and to draw closer to him. When we're given that kind of challenge, we change our hearts.”
Caroline Schermerhorn writes from Newark, Ohio.