It seems everybody has ideas for how improve vocations or youth ministry. Some say to attract vocations we need a more masculine priesthood, some suggest that we need to preach stronger morals in parishes, and some argue on both sides regarding how long people should discern. Some say abandon youth ministry and leave it to the parents, some point out failures in youth ministry, and some complain that youth ministry is underfunded. These debates seem to go on indefinitely in the Catholic blogosphere. Even in the past three weeks, three articles have been written on it: Anthony Esolen wrote a two-part series (part 1, part 2) with some ideas on getting vocations, and Edmund Mitchell wrote about the cognitive biases in anti-youth-ministry blogs. I think most of these authors, and particularly the two I just linked to, have some valid points. But unfortunately in all this debate, the central solution to these problems is rarely talked about.
So what is the solution to vocations and the solution to youth ministry?
Two words: Jesus Christ.
This may sound simplistic, but let me explain. We can easily lose our way by focusing on all the details. It is so easy to let our discussion be derailed with details – will we serve pizza, what games we play at the retreat, etc. – and lose the central focus. We need these people to have an experience of Jesus Christ.
I did not become a priest and religious because the priests around me were macho, or because my parish had the best preaching, or because we had the most solemn choir. I became a priest and religious because I fell in love with Jesus Christ and realized this was my path to happiness. When I have seen teenagers transformed on a retreat or at a youth group, it wasn’t because we had the best sound system or because parents were present (or absent). Every kid I have seen transformed by youth ministry has been transformed because they have been brought to a personal experience with their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
It’s easy to treat vocations as making sure there is someone to celebrate the Eucharist at my parish when I’m 75. That’s a noble goal. However, if we do not bring young men to the experience of Jesus Christ, we will not have good priests for the future. We might have priests without those experiences, but they will simply be mercenaries rather than apostles of Christ. As a priest I highly respect, Fr Damien Ference, put it in Homiletic & Pastoral Review: “The root of our current vocation problem is a lack of discipleship. Of course, a disciple is one who encounters Jesus, repents, experiences conversion and then follows Jesus.”
Youth ministry also suffers from goals that can tend to leave it mediocre: “Just give my Johnny a positive social environment,” “Make sure Susie lives chastity,” etc. These things will follow if teenagers first have an experience of Jesus Christ. However, if they don’t first have that experience of Jesus Christ, these things may happen but they’re unlikely to last. In the Christian life, morality and community are consequences of communion with Jesus; they don’t exist on their own. In fact, our relationship with Jesus is so key to our Christian life that if – and this is only theoretical – we could have a great relationship with Jesus and live unchastely every day, that would be superior to living perfect chastity and having no relationship with Jesus.
At the same time, I don’t want to discourage a valid discussion of one of the best means for young people to experience Jesus Christ, and for some of these people to feel the call to give everything for Him. Priests are supposed to be other Christ’s; and since Jesus was a real man, they fulfill their mission and attract good vocations if they are real men. If we really experience Jesus, this will lead us to living a Christian life. Youth ministry and vocation ministry need to be a constant search for the best way for teens and young adults to experience Christ, but they can never lose the focus, which is Christ.