Youth show the way to reconfiguring the Church

Youth show the way to reconfiguring the Church Two NET volunteers at work in Ireland.
The Notebook
Fr Conor McDonough


Archbishop Diarmuid Martin recently spoke with candour about the Church’s outreach to young people, describing it as “an area where I have failed”. If he has, he’s certainly not alone in the Irish Church.

Young people today will not adopt the faith by osmosis, but need clear arguments, joyful testimony, strong community and sustained personal accompaniment. Ask yourself whether you can identify any parish or Church community near you which faces this new challenge adequately, or at all.

There are indeed some very worthy activities for young people in Irish parishes – serving at the altar, scout troops, youth clubs – but these are rarely carried out in a way that is intentionally evangelical.


It’s hard to avoid the sense, then, that youth ministry in Ireland is in a state of paralysis, and short on new ideas.

All of this is quite understandable, for all sorts of unfortunate reasons, but it’s not a situation we should ever get used to, and if we’re to get beyond our current paralysis we need to pay attention to what the Holy Spirit is doing in the small pockets of innovation and excellence that do exist.

I had the pleasure recently of visiting the head office of NET Ministries ( in Ballybofey, Co. Donegal. Apart from a core staff, NET consists of 50 or so young people who give up a year of their lives to spread the Gospel in Ireland.

Split into teams, some criss-cross the country, leading workshops and retreats in schools, while others are based in a single parish and run a year long programme for the young people there.

Where have these young missionaries appeared from? Some are from abroad, but most are Irish. Some are lifelong Catholics, but many have at some point wandered from the Lord, before a joyful return. They’re a diverse bunch but what unites them is a desire to build the Kingdom on our little island.

The atmosphere in the NET office is bright and light-hearted, but what struck me most was how seriously these volunteers take their mission. They know how important it is that their contemporaries hear the Gospel and they are willing to leave the comfort of home and to give generously of their time and energy for the sake of that mission.

They work with great professionalism, training and re-training, planning and assessing their missions meticulously, and evidently aiming for excellence in all their work.


These young missionaries know the challenges facing young people: they live them. They don’t need to learn the language of young people: they speak it. And, most importantly, they know with the assurance of personal experience that Jesus is the key to the problems faced by their generation.

It’s encouraging for us all to know that NET, and others like them at the cutting edge of youth evangelisation, are hard at work, but knowing this shouldn’t make the rest of the Church complacent, as if it’s time for us to retire, and for old institutions to disappear. Rather, it’s time for the whole structure of the Church – parishes, schools, religious communities, Catholic charities and social services – to be renewed, reconfigured and made fit for evangelical purpose in post-Catholic Ireland.

The older generation of Irish Catholic leaders can do better than merely hand on the baton to these young missionaries, before collapsing in a heap: we can listen to them, challenge them, learn from them, be changed by them and work by their side.

Our work is not over, our mission is still urgent and unexpected help has just arrived.


Mass last Sunday in Ballybofey was impressive, with many young families joining the older faithful. A few dozen NET volunteers were conspicuous in their midst, and I got the impression that this missionary presence has had a real impact on the local congregation. It’s very difficult to get Irish congregations to sing, but in Ballybofey last Sunday the closing hymn was sung with great gusto by all, young and old, foreign and Irish.

The words on everyone’s lips: “And the Lamb will conquer, and the woman clothed with the sun will shine her light on everyone.” Amen to that!