Giving up on youth is not an option

Ben Conroy looks at youth ministry in Ireland

What’s wrong with youth ministry in Ireland? Because something is. The Carmelites are ending their youth programme. Dublin Catholic Youth Care is being amalgamated into the Office of Evangelisation, leaving the diocese with no dedicated youth organisation. Perhaps the mostdistressing closure is that of MAGIS Ireland, the Jesuits’ young adult ministry organisation with a particular focus on social justice. Remember who the Pope is? Me too.

So, what’s the problem? To answer that, we have to ask a whole series of more basic questions: What the heck is youth ministry anyway? What does it do? Who are the ‘youth’, and why do they need their own ministry?

The answers seem blindingly obvious until you actually think about them. The ever-excellent Marc Barnes, a 20-year-old student and writer who blogs as ‘Bad Catholic’, argues that Catholic youth ministry should “work towards its own demise”, and towards a situation where families and the priesthood do the job they’re supposed to do – forming young people’s faith. He also argues that the key to successful youth ministry is realising that ‘young people’ are first and foremost people, and thus the best way to introduce them to the faith is… to introduce them to the faith. Anything else, according to Barnes, too easily loses the essence of Jesus’ message in ‘gimmickry’.

Barnes’ blog post is – as always – worth reading in full (, but I think he’s too harsh. As Fr Damien Ference writes over at the Word On Fire blog (, the world is fallen: “Parents are supposed to be the fundamental, original source of catechesis and evangelization to their children, but many parents fail in this responsibility. (And) even the best of parents need help from the Church in raising their children in the life of faith, and that help comes not only from those in the apostolic priesthood, but also from youth ministers.”

Different needs

Yes, young people are people, and the Gospel is the Gospel, but the Catholic Church’s ability to preach in ways tailored to meet different needs is one of its greatest strengths. Jesus did not speak to the Samaritan woman at the well in the same way as he spoke to Galilean fishermen.

So to answer our central question: youth ministry exists to help young people to grow in faith, and to immerse themselves more fully in the community of the Church, the body of Christ. That seems a worthy goal.

So how are we doing? Some other useful questions courtesy of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin: “Where are we offering young people a home in our Church communities? Where are the focal points where we are helping young people to find an interpretation of their generosity, idealism and questioning in the light of the challenge and of the beauty of the message of Jesus Christ?”

Where indeed?

Ger Gallagher of the Office of Evangelisation and former head of CYC wrote in The Furrow that “There has never really been a plan for involving young people in a comprehensive way in the Church in Ireland. There have been localised initiatives and a number of national events, but no real plan.” In the absence of any kind of joined-up thinking, each parish and diocese have been mostly on their own. Organisations like CYC and new lay movements like Youth 2000 do brilliant work, and take up much of the slack, but then young people return to their parishes and often find themselves with little or nothing to do.

Archbishop Martin is right to ask how the Church could do more to reach out to young people, although I’d suggest that he has a role in answering that question as well as posing it.

We could try greater youth co-ordination between parishes and other organisations in the style modelled by the US Catholic Bishops. We even have precedent for this in Ireland – NET Ministries offer to take up residence in a parish for six to eight months to help kickstart a proper programme of youth ministry. Why not expand on efforts like this and formalise them – say by inviting Youth 2000 prayer groups to establish relationships with parishes?

We could try something more European, like the late Cardinal Maria Martini’s question-and-answer meetings and lectio divina sessions in Milan Cathedral.

We could, in truth, try a variety of things. But what is essential is that we do try – and that we don’t get rid of the good things we already have.

Truly marginalised

MAGIS programmes opened my eyes to the plight of the truly marginalised– asylum seekers on ‘direct provision’ or people living daily with HIV/AIDS. I went to World Youth Day in Madrid with the Carmelites. What will the people in CYC do now? Does the Office of Evangelisation have a plan for them? Does anyone have a plan?

The question of how to effectively ‘do’ youth ministry is too big to answer in this piece. There are lots of ways to do it right, and just as many ways to get it badly wrong. And the wider culture plays a huge role; when I incredulously asked a MAGIS volunteer why they were closing, she said “because people aren’t turning up”.

But giving up is not an option. In the early 1990s, the Catholic bishops closed their communications centre, just before the period when clear, media-savvy communication would be needed more than ever before in the Church’s history. The Church in Ireland would be foolish indeed to make that kind of mistake again.