We all know we should be up to date on what the Pope is saying to us in particular. I know we don’t always manage to do it. Just over a week ago, Pope Francis published Envagelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). I just finished reading it. Francis dedicates paragraph 105 to youth ministry. I think this paragraph is worth a blog post of commentary. Here’s the text:
“Youth ministry, as traditionally organized, has also suffered the impact of social changes. Young people often fail to find responses to their concerns, needs, problems and hurts in the usual structures. As adults, we find it hard to listen patiently to them, to appreciate their concerns and demands, and to speak to them in a language they can understand. For the same reason, our efforts in the field of education do not produce the results expected. The rise and growth of associations and movements mostly made up of young people can be seen as the work of the Holy Spirit, who blazes new trails to meet their expectations and their search for a deep spirituality and a more real sense of belonging. There remains a need, however, to ensure that these associations actively participate in the Church’s overall pastoral efforts.”
When society was more agricultural and structured in small homogenous towns, the language of teens was no different from adults. It was easy to pass on the faith. The industrial revolution brought one change and now the information revolution brings another. These social changes have affected youth much more than adults. A specific youth culture is something distinctively modern.
The eradication of the family is a negative social change that means we can no longer rely solely on family groupings to pass on the faith.
Within all these social changes – and social problems – the Pope asks us to respond to teens’ deep and existential questions. He says nothing about pizza, about cool rooms, or about fun activities. The usual structures of the classroom don’t seem to provide this; they provide little bits of data but not the reason why, and they’re not often faith-based.
To respond to their questions, we first need to listen and understand their issues. Francis notes how hard this is for all of us. Yet without this, without opening ourselves and being vulnerable in our own listening, we will never be able to understand their issues or – even deeper – each of them as a child of God.
But then how do we respond? We can give a simple response we memorized 20 years ago in catechism. That’s probably isn’t “in a language they can understand.” Vatican II said that each new generation needs to present the Gospel in a way that generation can understand; in youth ministry, we need to understand the next generation so that we can present the Gospel in words they can understand.
A proper response is something they experience that touches the heart, not solely something academic. A proper response is from one who’s asked himself the same question. A proper response speaks to this particular teen not the masses. A proper response transforms the one who receives it.
If we don’t respond, the questions and difficulties pile on top of each other until this teen is lost. We can’t let that happen.
Giving proper responses means that we to form ourselves well. I average reading about 1 book a week to be able to ask myself the question through philosophy, theology, psychology, literature, or history, and to able to learn responses to teens. Even with that, I still feel like I may not be forming myself enough. To a certain extent we are always inadequate for this. However, if we try our best God will take care of the rest.
Before concluding, I should add a short word about “associations and movements mostly made up of young people.” In fact, two big players in youth ministry are here. Life Teen is a movement. Conquest and Challenge are developed and powered by ECyD. ECyD is part of the larger Regnum Christi movement (for adults). I’ve spent most of my time in youth ministry – and all of it that was successful – working as a member of the Regnum Christi movement. My experience is just what the Pope says: when teens commit in such movements, they grow immensely in their faith. The biggest danger of these or parishes is the silo where nothing is done for the wider Church.
As we can see, Pope Francis has a vision for youth ministry. It is a vision where we reach down to answer teens where they are and reach up to understand everything so we can transmit it. This vision includes various groups but is not limited to one group or another.