Ever ancient, ever new – youth in the church

Jesus on the cross

We are one Catholic Church and one family in our love of the Lord.  We are all on a common life journey to God who can, and does, use each of us to do His will regardless of our age.  We all have worth and are called to stand by our faith, follow God’s teachings, obey His commandments, and love the Catholic Church as a united body of Christ.

But today I would like to especially focus on youth in the Catholic family, and the youth ministry.  There is always a need to focus on the young and how they are travelling in our modern world because the evil one especially wants, and aims, to find ways of ‘getting to them’ the most.  The young, like the very old, are among the most vulnerable and easily influenced in our society.

There always seems to be a strong push to make the young feel especially included in the Church, whether this is by having World Youth Days, a Youth year, youth-only Masses, youth events or activities, religious talks in unconventional (or non-church) venues, or other youth-led initiatives. While the intentions are good in trying to entice youth back to the Church, or keep them there, do they really work?  Is there something missing?  Are we approaching and treating our youth with the spiritual care and guidance they need the most, or relying on superficial and secular approaches?  Are we – or do we risk – discriminating against older people in our churches in the process of attracting youth?  Are we being careful about making everyone feel welcome together, regardless of age?

Youth and vitality in the Church are necessary to keep communities and parishes thriving, but having youth in the church for the sake of having young faces in our midst, without imparting anything that has real, holy substance for a truly committed life in Christ, is treading dangerous ground.  It is important to keep the truth and sacredness of the Gospel as the focus.  We need to take care in encouraging youth to respect Christ’s teachings and to follow this faithfully.  If the essential messages of Christ are lost amongst other distractions and agendas, we risk losing our way and youth will be led astray in the process.

Many youth ask to be heard, want change and renewal, and are eager to be part of something great, but youth also have a personal responsibility to respect the Church’s rock solid teachings based on God’s eternal word – even if this means being ridiculed by the world around them.

Yes, we live in the world– but we need not seek the world first. We must, as Christians, seek above all those things of God; the others will be added to us. — St John Vianney ( Living In The World, But Not Of The World)

Following Christ and obeying God’s commandments is not an easy ride.  Being a firm believer often means rejecting secular ways because it clashes with the ways of God.  It is about being passionately willing to honour the ever ancient teachings of Christ, and believing that living a pure and holy life is an ever new, ever refreshing challenge every single day.

The young must be supported and nurtured correctly in the faith from when they are babies and children.  Parents and families who strongly believe in God are the foundation.  I have seen so many people come to church to have their babies baptized, then when these children are older they receive their first Holy Communion and Confirmation.  This is wonderful and the right thing to do, but the story often ends there.  The children may go on to attend ‘the best’ Catholic schools, but Mass attendance in daily or weekly life vanishes.  Where are these same families and children in the pews in the ordinary times?  These milestone Sacraments in a Catholic’s life are justifiably celebrated, but like Christmas and Easter, going to church and loving our Lord is not a once-a-year event.  Why do youth fall away from the Church as they grow older?  It is a complex question and there are many reasons for this.

I believe that it comes down to each person’s upbringing, and the crucial role of families in nourishing their children’s faith in the truth of God’s word, in His promises, and in prayer.  This also means teaching them to stand by the Catholic faith and beliefs, even when the tide of popular society is totally against them.  But parents, teachers, and adults also need to ‘walk the talk’ as positive Catholic role models.  What is our own faith life like?  What is our lifestyle like?  Are we practising Catholics?  Do we encourage the young to admire the saints and their example?  Here is one article which offers 3 Common Traits of Youth Who Don’t Leave the Church.

Other factors such as culture, life circumstances, friends, the media, and peer group pressure also have an impact.   A love for Christ, prayer, and the Sacraments is at the root of building holiness over a lifetime.  The natural by-product of this is a love for Christ’s Church, God’s graces, and the sacredness around us.  This includes teaching young people to behave in a respectful manner at church and during Mass, dress appropriately, be pure, and believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist.  The Church’s teachings must not be watered down and made more palatable or attractive to young people, or to fit the world’s expectations.  This would be doing the young and their souls a serious disservice.

Although I am a cradle Catholic, attending a Catholic school was not an affordable option for me.  Because of this some people have asked (and sometimes still ask) me if I am a Catholic, or a new Catholic!  I received my faith instruction and formation in other ways, and my public education served me well.  Catholic youth who did not attend a Catholic school do not want to be seen or treated as ‘less-than’, and can be strong practising Catholics if they are supported in other ways.  True faith must come from a deeper place inside an individual’s soul.  The sacredness, ritual, and beauty of the Mass and Christ’s teachings stand strong for me.  Attending weekly Mass comes from a profound commitment to my faith and God.  I love to participate in the Eucharistic Celebration, and I always will.

None of the youth Masses or after-Mass pizza gatherings I ever attended in the past as a young person resonated with me in any deep way.  In fact, I felt that something was missing.  While the intentions of those around me were undoubtedly good – and perhaps this kind of thing works for some – I often left feeling empty.  Unfortunately some who attended just wanted to get to the socializing part, or hoped to find a significant other.  It is prayer which draws us to God – not pubs, pizza, popularity, and parties.  I also missed the other more mature parishioners with their character, experience, wisdom, and wit.

The most exhilarating thing about being young is the feeling that you can do anything, and that you have zeal, energy, and hope for a better future.  The Catholic life allows all of us – the young and older ones – to be the ones who stand out by loving God and His word, even if it means going against the grain of society.  Being counter-cultural by living a God-centred life is a thrill.  Why follow what everyone else is doing, and which usually leads to darkness?  Why be like sheep?  To follow Christ the Shepherd means that you are never out of fashion because He is the truth and the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Catholic youth need to love the Church because Christ Himself is the Spotless One at its head, and the Holy Spirit is guiding it to purity and renewal.  If young people, and all people, reject Christ’s teachings and His Church, they are rejecting God Himself.   Christ can be trusted.  Christ is in charge.  Christ will never betray our trust.  Christ will never hurt you.

We also need to support and love those good priests and religious who reflect the Lord, and whose Christ-like actions speak louder than words in how they behave – in persona Christi.

Like many Popes before him, Pope Francis also provides youth with sage advice:

If you please take the time to watch the short video below, pay special attention to the eyes and faces of these saints, blesseds, and saints-to-be.  An inner light seems to radiate from them which reflects the way they lived and what they did for God.  This is what happens when you live for and deeply love God.  This could and should also be all of us, including you, our dear friends and readers.  Some of these faces could easily be people you see walking down the street today.  Take the time to find out more about them.  We all need to turn to the saintly ones for a lesson in how to live a Christ-centred life.  This is especially true for the youth.

Never shrink from living your best Catholic life, no matter how young or old you are and despite what anyone else may think.  Trust the mystery and splendour of the Sacraments and what they can do for your soul.  Hold on to God.  Cling to His word.  Pray much and often.  There is nothing to be afraid of.  It may be hard at times, but it is the best choice – it is, in the words of this video’s song, glorious.

18 Inspiring Role Models for Young People
Examples of true holiness for Catholic youth.
Music: ‘Glorious’ by One Voice Children’s Choir.
Words and music by Stephanie Mabey.

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