Building Young Apostles
Catechists Share the Faith With Youth in the Classroom and Parish
Katie Prejean McGrady, a teacher at St. Louis Catholic High School in Lake Charles, La., may concede that the students in her freshman theology classes have taught her at least as much about evangelization as she has taught them.
“Very early on in my teaching career, I quickly discovered that the young people sitting in the desks in my classroom were far wiser than most people thought,” McGrady admitted.
In fact, she learned so much from her students that she compiled her experiences into Room 24: Adventures of a New Evangelist, which she wrote with the hope that “other people ‘in the trenches’ of ministry can also notice moments where they can joyfully share the Gospel with others and invite their co-workers, friends, neighbors, family members, students or even perfect strangers to encounter Christ.”
One thing that McGrady sees as paramount in youth evangelization is building relationships. Early in her career, McGrady noted, “I began to realize that, listening to them [her freshman students], and asking them the questions to get them to open up and share with me, was far more of an educational and engaging experience for them than if I just lectured on and on.”
She elaborated, “The greatest lesson has been that, building relationships with them — by just spending time and sharing space with them — has allowed me to then share the greatest truths of our faith with them.”
That foundational relationship between McGrady and her students has allowed her to uncover some of the greatest challenges they face as modern teenagers.
“Most teens I’ve spent time with, both in my classroom and across the country [as an itinerant speaker], are searching for truth. They are so bombarded with the noise of this modern society, and they struggle to turn that off so they can listen to the still, small voice of the Lord stirring in their hearts.”
McGrady sees it as her job to help them find silence so that they can hear God’s voice and form a relationship with Christ.
“In a culture that constantly screams at them to do whatever they want, so long as it feels good, I have to cut through that muck and grime and show them the narrow path to the Lord. That’s by far the greatest challenge.”
Young people should rely on authentic witnesses to guide them, whether those people are their teachers at school, like McGrady, their parents or their catechists.
Sarah Daszczuk, director of youth ministry at St. Bruno and St. Paul Catholic parishes in Milwaukee, thinks there are two prerequisites for catechists desiring to work in youth ministry: “First, you must love Jesus Christ and his Church; and second, you have to be completely genuine,” Daszczuk explained.
In her work with catechists, Daszczuk encourages them to let the teens to whom they minister get to know an authentic version of themselves, so as to build relationship and trust.
“I ask my catechists to give a gift of themselves, to be real, sharing not only their piety, but their challenges.”
Daszczuk continued, “I have found that even if a teen may not agree with a catechist intellectually, he or she will always respond to an honest testimony of God’s love and the life of discipleship.”
Daszczuk also thinks that authentic witnesses must engage young people with all of their doubts about faith, too, since authenticity doesn’t shy away from tough conversations, questions or emotions related to faith.
“[Some teens may] assume that Christ has nothing to offer them, so they sit quietly and respectfully and nod along with their catechist, all the while silently dismissing the Gospel. We need to engage these doubts and give voice to the challenges of the Christian life, to wake up our young people and show them all that Christ has for them.”
Echoing McGrady’s and Daszczuk’s comments about the importance of relationship and authenticity in evangelizing youth, Jim Beckman, associate professor of leadership and discipleship at Denver’s Augustine Institute — who also has more than 30 years of experience in youth and young-adult ministry — pointed out, “The increased secularism of our modern culture has derailed the faith of many adults. Combine that with the decline of intact families, and many young people are left with virtually no significant adults in their life who are actually rooted in faith.”
“I don’t care how good the youth or young-adult ministry or even catechesis is that a young person may experience, with no adults in their lives to model the way faith is ‘lived,’ the probability is very high that they won’t be practicing it as adults themselves,” he added.
This trend, of course, can be reversed when adults are willing to own their faith and then recognize the potential in these young people to become great disciples of Jesus Christ.
“Hands down, the greatest gift that young people have to offer the Church is who they are. The fact that they are young, easily inspired and full of zeal and energy are great gifts not to be taken for granted,” Beckman explained.
Investing in young people is crucial for continuing the work of evangelization today.
“Since they’re young, most young people are willing to take more risks,” Beckman said. “They’re looking for excitement, and I don’t think there is anything more exciting and more daring than living your life for Christ. To stand up for a faith that is becoming more of the minority in our modern culture — many young people can be inspired to pursue a faith like that and will be willing to lay down their lives for the challenge of living out the Gospel.
“The problem is, there are just not many adults today who are proposing the faith to young people as the great adventure that it’s truly meant to be. In my experience, if you present the faith like that to young people [as an adventure], it’s a challenge that they are more than willing to rise to.”
Katie Warner writes from Florida.