How Youth Ministry Can Aid the Church

PHOENIX — As bishops who participated in the synod on the family identified youth ministry as a key component to renewing families and the life of local Church, Catholic leaders engaged with young people confirm by experience the successful impact of strong youth programs. The model created by St. John Vianney parish in Goodyear, Ariz., is a case in point. 

The parish, located in a suburb of Phoenix, has seen its youth ministry explode from approximately 500 to 1,100 youth over the past eight years, since it was overhauled from a sacramental-preparation program to a holistic approach of teaching youth — from primary school through high school — to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

The motto of the parish is “To know Jesus and make him known,” David Portugal, director of parish catechesis, told the Register. He said the new model was born when Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted restored the order of the sacraments of initiation in 2006, so that confirmation and first Eucharist are received together.

This meant the parish had to develop a program that would form youth in the sacraments and keep them going on a road of discipleship.

Sacramental preparation for children leading up to confirmation and first Communion concludes in the third grade. To keep both the parents and children engaged, Portugal and his team tell parents they have an “after-sacrament program” that will teach children how to follow Jesus and know how to make good moral choices.

“Relationship with Jesus is a lifelong journey,” Portugal explains to families.

The parish has a “Theology of the Body for Teens” program from Ascension Press starting in middle school; high-school ministry uses the YouCat series; starting in their junior year, youth witness “the beauty of the faith” in classes following Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series.

Then the parish puts the high school and college-age youth back to work as disciples training other disciples.

“We want to put to work all these [young people] we’ve formed,” he said.

Portugal now has 86 catechists helping him — and a paid internship program for college students.

The results speak for themselves: The majority of people in the confession line are youth.


Synod on Youth Ministry

Recent data has underscored the need for the Church to act effectively on youth evangelization or lose its future faithful. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, more than a third of Millennials between 18 and 35 years old are unaffiliated with religion. Many of these “nones” are former Catholics. According to Pew, more than six persons leave the Church for every one who joins.

The bishops at the synod on the family gave youth ministry a serious look in their small-group discussions. English synod group D, led by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, noted that young people “are afraid to fail in any area of life,” especially marriage, and “Youth ministry … should help young couples understand the value of marriage.” 

English synod group B stated in its report that youth ministry needs to “focus on young adults and reflect on how God is calling them, whether within marriage, single life, priesthood or consecrated life.”


Fresh Approaches

A number of dioceses are actively engaged in rising to the challenge of renewing their youth ministries, with a view to form intentional disciples of Jesus Christ.

For the past two years, the Archdiocese of Omaha, Neb., has moved ahead with a model of small discipleship groups in parishes, led by well-formed adult mentors, using the “YDisciple” program developed by the Augustine Institute.

Jen Moser, coordinator of youth ministry for the archdiocese, told the Register that the archdiocese wanted youth to have a “holistic formation” in the faith beyond sacramental preparation. The smaller setting helps prevent youth from getting overlooked and allows them to delve deeper into what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

“In order to keep our kids engaged in the Church, we have to be more present in their lives in a more consistent and personal way,” she said.

The archdiocese has encouraged parishes to use small single-gender groups in order to make it easier for youth to develop fellowship with each other and have the freedom to open up about sensitive topics, such as personal or moral issues, they may not feel comfortable sharing in front of friends of the opposite sex.

“It’s more personal, more intentional, and they can hold one another accountable,” Moser said.

In the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y., the renewal of youth ministry is taking place with an emphasis on connecting catechesis with a lived experience of the faith.

Noelle Hiester, the diocese’s new director of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, told the Register the diocese is now using a module-based catechesis that covers the Catechism, but is making the sacraments more visible and accessible to youth in programming, whether it is confession or Eucharistic adoration.

For example, the diocese linked a chastity-speaker event, attended by 400-500 youth, with confession: Priests of the diocese reported the overwhelming response of youth to receive the sacrament far exceeded their expectations.

They have also found that the lived experience of the faith through events such as the National Catholic Youth Conference helps show Catholic youth that there are others like them who are trying to live their faith as intentional disciples.

Hiester said the diocese is in the planning stages of adding more opportunities, such as “street evangelization” activities, explaining the diocese’s youth ministers are eager to build up their ministries and make them much more than “pizza and sports.”

“We want to provide more opportunities and direct that in a way that helps them see spiritual growth,” she said.


Growth of Youth Ministry

Youth ministry has taken on greater importance in the Church’s life and mission with each pope since St. John Paul II came to Denver for World Youth Day in 1993, according to Paul Jarzembowski, assistant director for youth and young-adult ministries at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.

Jarzembowski pointed out that St. John Paul II reminded the Church that its future depends on tending to the needs of the young. Benedict XVI “illuminated the need for adolescent catechesis,” prompting many dioceses and parishes to respond, and now Pope Francis has been challenging them to form “missionary disciples.”

“The last three Holy Fathers have challenged the youth-ministry community to make sure those elements are really incorporated,” he said, “so that it is no longer just a ‘requirement thing.’”

However, the challenge is that youth ministry requires the local Church to make a serious investment in programming and leadership.

One of the issues is providing family wages to younger adults who have the theology formation, the talent and the zeal to be effective youth ministers for the long term.

Jarzembowski said it is “critical” that parishes and diocesan staff work together to address resource challenges and find ways to engage the best leaders, since youth programs are necessary for forming future marriages, future families and the future priestly and religious vocations of the Church.


Worth the Investment

Ultimately, the investment in youth ministry is seen in its fruits, including at St. John Vianney.

With a start-up grant from a Catholic publisher, the parish has built a program that has sent three youth to the seminary, sent nine to work in the diocese and has already seen healthy marriages and new families form. Four weddings were scheduled in October, and three couples met in youth ministry.

“We don’t have much money, we’re not a rich parish by any means, but we find creative ways to do this,” Portugal said.

The one thing necessary to remember, he said: “The Lord will provide.”