Inviting, involving and inspiring the young Church

Gerard Gallagher gives an overview of Youth Ministry in Ireland

Towards the end of World Youth Day (WYD) in Brazil in 2013, Pope Francis was asked what he would like to see as a consequence of WYD. He said he would expect to see a mess and encouraged young people to make a mess in their dioceses!

The story of youth ministry in Ireland is one of fragments. It is a story of how youth leaders, including priests, religious and laity endeavoured to invite, involve and inspire a generation. However over the decades there were many obstacles to overcome. At times there was a mess. Some might argue it is still a mess today.

Youth ministry in Ireland emerged from the energy and commitment of a large number of people. It grew from youth work and from specific youth ministry initiatives. It has had diverse approaches. It has never had a clear leader or a plan.

I have often recalled that there was a time when youth ministry in Ireland was one of the most exciting ministries to be involved. Considering the changes in Ireland demographically, socially and religiously, it is now time to reflect on our failure to nurture and develop a meaningful faith-based ministry with young people.

Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium speaks about how “traditional” youth ministry has “suffered” due to the “impact of social changes”. This difficulty is part of a wider disassociation of younger generations with traditional religion and the failure of previous generations to adequately pass faith on to younger generations. The whole Church would seem to be struggling to “read the sign of the times”.

When I researched and wrote a history of youth ministry in Ireland (Are we Losing the Young Church?, Columba Press, 2005) what was clear was that some of the best youth ministers and initiatives have already taken place.

However with all their efforts, it appeared that increasing numbers of young people had a growing detachment from faith and religious practice. It is now clear that some of the disaffected and disillusioned young people from the 1980s are now the parents of many of our current youth generation. We now have an intergenerational challenge of reaching out to today’s young people, while at the same stage trying to maintain pastoral links and attachment to older generations.


Traditional youth ministry from the 1970s onwards in Ireland was focused on young people aged 17+ years. It was concerned with young people in faith based programmes or events, not exclusive either to parish or youth clubs.

It can be difficult for our young people today to imagine a time when many parishes had active and vibrant activities for young people. When it became harder to attract young people to faith-based events, some decided erroneously to lower the age limit. There was an opinion that it might help. It didn’t.

There were three stages of youth ministry in Ireland:

Stage One: This was the period of active renewal following Vatican II and up to around 1979. Movements such as Charismatic Renewal, Young Christian Workers, a new appreciation and reading of the Gospel, and new folk music all provided the necessary seeds for young people to assume an active role in their faith and in church.

This stage culminated with the biggest ever youth event in Ireland – the Youth Mass in Galway with Saint Pope John Paul II in 1979. Young people felt drawn to this stage as it was part of a counter-cultural movement within the Church.

Stage Two: After the papal visit in 1979, there was an increased interest and enthusiasm for planning and hosting youth ministry activities nationally. Nearly every diocese had appointed a youth director. Parishes hosted regular faith-based events. Pilgrimages to Taizé became popular. New centres of youth ministry were opened such as Teach Bríde in Kildare and St Kevin’s Oratory, Dublin. Many young people during the 1980s took an active interest in learning more about their faith. It was natural for young people to be part of Church. As this generation matured, fewer young people followed them into similar programmes or events.

In 1985 the Irish bishops published their first pastoral on youth, The Young Church. It was largely ignored. In 1989 the National Youth Directors in their vision statement promised a pastoral plan for youth in the Church, locally and nationally. It never happened. Youth leaders from this time began to feel the first effects of secularisation on young people and the distancing of an increasing number from Church-based activities.

Stage Three: From the early 1990s it became harder to work with young people. Many practioners left youth ministry. It was also the beginning of successive scandals in the Church. Some of those who remained in youth ministry tried to keep using the programmes and ideas from an earlier time. Others felt it would be better to work with younger people from Confirmation age upwards. Catechetical programmes at that time did not support or assist youth ministry. These pastoral practices simply accelerated the departure and abandonment of young adults who were struggling to remain in Church. Many went to Mass, but that was it.


A new stage of youth ministry began post the Jubilee Year of 2000. In middle of confusion of what to do in local youth ministry, Pope John Paul II helped to actualise some of the wisdom of Vatican II, which suggested that, “the young should become the first apostles of the young”.

Peer ministry rather than parish programmes became central to youth ministry planning. World Youth Days internationally have helped to renew a generation of young people. They helped to nurture a sense of the possible within youth ministry, when parish youth ministry seemed to be impossible.

During the early years of the millennium most parishes in Ireland abandoned youth ministry. It was the pilgrims from WYD that formed a generation that kept some of the residues of faith alive.

WYDs took place at this time in Rome, Toronto, Cologne, Sydney and Madrid. While the numbers attending varied, it was this irregular pilgrimage that helped sustain some young people in their faith. Many were supported to attend by their local parish. Many marriages and vocations emerged from such pilgrimages. Young people have testified that it was WYD that “wakened” up their faith. YOUCAT a new youth catechism given away freely at WYD surprised many youth ministers about the hunger young people demonstrated questioning and learning about their faith.

It is a fact that a number of dioceses only began structural approaches to youth ministry based on experiences young people encountered on WYD pilgrimages. Regrettably though there was a lack of local follow up in parishes seeking to build on the new enthusiasm of the returning pilgrims. Gradually some young people began to drift from their local parish, even though their personal faith was alive. Many of them migrated away from their local parish or even distanced themselves from college chaplains towards some of the new religious movements and apostolic groups.

Other initiatives worth recalling were the efforts of many religious orders to invest and train people for youth ministry. The Redemptorists, Jesuits and Carmelites all invested hugely in training people for youth ministry and delivering youth ministry initiatives. 

Child protection

Youth ministers also had to deal with the ongoing emerging scandals around child protection during the early years of this millennium. Successive reports into the handling of child protection in various dioceses and religious orders also impacted on youth ministry. It was difficult for those in youth ministry to invite new young people to a Church that was also dealing with how previous generations failed young people. However, it was our youth ministers who were part of the first group of people to integrate measures and policies in the area of child protection into the ongoing work of youth ministry. Training and vetting became the norm.

New vision

A number of new publications were published through the Irish Bishops Conference. Building Faith in Young People – a message to mark WYD in Germany in 2005 and later in 2009 Called Together Making the Difference – A Framework Document for Youth Ministry was published on behalf of diocesan youth directors and the Commission for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith. Lots of work went into production of these publications. However, they are still not widely known.

New Directions

Over the years I have encountered many “former” youth leaders who regretted ever being part of youth ministry, based on how they were judged by others in different types of ministry or leadership. This is regrettable.

Arguably on paper everyone encourages youth ministry. In reality, most want nothing at all to do with it. This would sum up the difficulties some youth ministers experience today. There is a leave it to others attitude. There is a divestment of responsibility twinned with a lack of co-responsibility in supporting and assisting those in youth ministry. Many parishes lament the absence of young people, however most are comfortable and don’t want to be disturbed or made uncomfortable or messy!

Lack of leadership in youth ministry most likely stemming from a lack of enthusiasm in difficult times might account for a lack of response to some recent initiatives. At the International Eucharistic Congress in 2012 a major youth programme took place. It received weak support from dioceses around the country and few organised diocesan or parish groups to attend. Even though a national youth co-ordinator had been supporting youth initiatives, it was telling the lack of response. This indicated how healthy youth ministry was nationally.

Towards the end of this period youth ministry and its leaders were at a crossroad. It was clear that current approaches were not effective. Add to this an aging clergy, an aging laity and lack of clear mission and vision in dioceses all helped to assist the decline in diocesan youth ministry. Pastoral programmes had declined in popularity. Structures and institutions that have supported the Church in Ireland no longer are relevant to our millennial young people.

Also due to economics and other factors many of the pillars and spaces of youth ministry in Ireland are now no more. Catholic Youth Care, Magis Ireland and youth ministry offices within a number of religious orders have closed. It would seem that there are less opportunities and places for young people to gather and explore their faith within Church.

Is there hope?

Pope Francis posed the question to the bishops gathered in Brazil: “Are we as a Church still capable of warming hearts?” If we approach youth ministry as one of failure or dejection, it will contaminate our efforts. In Evangelli Gaudium, he notes that we all need to reach out to the “peripheries” and find ways of bringing the Gospel to all human situations.

He has also said that we need to go out and meet young people on their search, where they are at, not where we are at. We need to change from over emphasis ad intra (within) approach to an ad extra (outside) vision. Clearly Pope Francis’ tone has helped to re-emphasise words in Redemptoris Missio where we need an approach to evangelisation that is new in “ardour, methods and expression”. The seeds of the Joy of the Gospel can be also found in Paul VI Evangelli Nuntiandi when he speaks of the need to “find new methods, means and a language” to evangelise.

New methods

Young people want to contribute and to make a difference. They care about the world, the environment, justice and the poor. Pope Francis said in Rio, “young people are the windows through which the future enters the world. This means that we have to create the material and spiritual conditions for their full development.”

Young people who engaged with recent social and religious experiments, linking a reading of the Gospel, expressing faith today and outreach to those on the “margins” have reacted positively to Pope Francis and his commitment to the poor.

Pope Francis wants all of us to re-imagine and rebalance our priorities. This is the mess he is speaking of, challenging the mediocrity of our faith-based initiatives into one of contagion, where everyone is affected by faith and its implications. At the Third General Conference of Latin American Bishops in Puebla 1979, there was a new proposed alignment with the poor, which became known as the “option for the poor”.

A lesser known preferential option at this conference was the call for an “option for youth”. Clearly there is a connection between pastoral outreach to the poor and our responsibility to reach out to younger generations.

Young people need to have a space within the Church in order to develop, nurture and explore their faith. There is a real lack of youth friendly spaces within the Church that can assist young people to mature and grow into faith and to be challenged to be active in that choice.

Against this reality, youth ministers and those engaged with peer ministry, have the responsibility of reaching out to this current generation of young people and encountering them where they are at.

Our young people are not “fully” present in the Church, however many are actively present digitally and online. There is no clear digital Church presence among this new group of millennials.

There are some active digital disciples reaching out online, and most youth ministry today has a very active and informal digital presence. However, most of our dioceses are behind the curve of the possible when it comes to resourcing and developing platforms to evangelise and inspire the online millennials.

Most of the current group of people leading youth ministry today are tasked to do a very difficult job. Anyone who has ever worked in youth ministry needs to have creative energy and an enthusiastic faith. Occasional moments such as WYD and similar localised initiatives need more support. It could be argued that it is an accident that so many young people are still involved in the Church, even if this is not the impression.

Young people do need age appropriate groups. Most likely this is why regional and diocesan events might be more successful than parish events for small groups. Many parishes no longer have the skills, competence or energy to embark on youth ministry.

Youth ministry is deeply important to the Church. Young people will be attracted to a living Church that is vibrant rather than disillusioned. With finite resources, it is now timely for dioceses and youth ministers to consider articulating a new vision for an apostolate of youth ministry.

Maybe it is time for youth ministry to reintegrate and relate inter-generationally rather than remain isolated and disconnected. The adult Church needs to accept the “messy Church” vision that Francis has articulated and allow young people to not just feel part of the Church, but also to be Church. A messy Church is better than one ordered and full of policy and procedure, but no young people!

A new model of youth ministry will involve and include young people on the wider mission of the Church. This new model will involve inviting people to form a loving relationship with God.

We need a new youth encounter that will be rooted in the goals of evangelisation. It needs to be a statement of intent, both from those in leadership in the Church and those who want to be part of the intentional ministry of, to, by and for youth.

This will involve a retraining of those still active in ministry, a re-energising of lapsed youth leaders and an encouraging word for parents. It is a joint responsibility for the whole Church to embrace the young Church and not one divested only to youth leaders.

There are still great young people who emerge each year within youth ministry. Young people can be part of the Church and still normal. Our challenge as an older Church is to let the richness of the faith be expressed through a younger generation.

Gerard Gallagher is the author of Are We Losing the Young Church, Columba Press, 2005.