“You’ll have to do something for the young people, Father!” If a priest had a fiver for every time a good-hearted and well-meaning parishioner offered this piece of unsought advice, he wouldn’t think twice about changing the car.
The fact is that youth ministry is difficult and there’s no substitute for hard work. There’s no magic formula, and what works in one instance might not work in another case and what is effective at one time, may prove useless in another context.
In his new exhortation Christus vivit (Christ lives) released this week, Pope Francis outlines an ambitious and audacious programme for the Church to walk alongside young people who may have rejected the Church and to bring the light of the Gospel to bear on their lives.
Throughout the document, Francis uses words that are familiar to anyone who has read any of his writings. He asks Church leaders to accompany young people, encourage them and to trust in the Holy Spirit.
Francis is clear that there is often a huge disconnect between young people and the Church – particularly in Ireland. Some will say the Church is ‘out of touch’, I suspect Francis would prefer to say that the Church is ‘out of step’ since Catholicism will never be ‘in touch’ with some of the negative aspects of development in recent decades.
The Pope sees a humble Church as the key to unlocking the potential of youth ministry. He writes, for example, that many young people “do not want to see a Church that is silent and afraid to speak, but neither one that is always battling obsessively over two or three issues.
“To be credible to young people, there are times when she needs to regain her humility and simply listen, recognising that what others have to say can provide some light to help her better understand the Gospel.
“A Church always on the defensive, which loses her humility and stops listening to others, which leaves no room for questions, loses her youth and turns into a museum,” he writes.
This is a crucial point. Many young people give up the regular practise of their faith when they become teenagers and young adults and become more questioning about what they are told. If they turn to the Church and ask the question, but there is no answer or the answer is inadequate, they will assume that the Church has no answer. This is why our catechetics needs to be infused with content as well as experience. Young people have seeking minds as well as seeking hearts.
Most of all, Christus vivit reveals the Pope’s compassionate heart for young people that often feel trapped and alienated in a world that has – paradoxically – never been more connected.
“The very first truth I would tell each of you,” he writes, “is this: God loves you. It makes no difference whether you have already heard it or not. I want to remind you of it. God loves you. Never doubt this, whatever may happen to you in life. At every moment, you are infinitely loved,” he writes.
A Church that is authentic is a Church where everyone will experience and know themselves to be loved by God. But, it will also be a Church that is not afraid to challenge young people to reach their full potential in Christ
Francis puts it thus: “Young people are not meant to become discouraged; they are meant to dream great things, to seek vast horizons, to aim higher, to take on the world, to accept challenges and to offer the best of themselves to the building of something better”.
Michael Kelly is co-author of a new book with Austen Ivereigh How to Defend the Faith – Without Raising Your Voice – it is available from Columba Books