Of all of the headliners billed for last month’s World Youth Day Unite in Washington, D.C., I was guessing that the two musicians — Audrey Assad and Tony Melendez — were the biggest draw for the young pilgrims who traveled to the St. John Paul II National Shrine.
Assad isa nationally known singer and songwriter who shares personal witnesses about her conversion. Melendez, a Nicaraguan American born without arms who plays the guitar exclusively with his feet, has performed for international audiences at World Youth Days convened by the past three popes.
Little did I know that the biggest star of the event would be Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, a shepherd who though small in stature, is big in heart.
Those who have their pulse on the American Catholic hierarchy tend to follow the prelates responsible for the church’s response to the biggest social and cultural issues of the day: immigration, religious liberty, the protection of life, marriage and health care. They’re the topics that dominate religion news headlines. They’re also the issues that people think are so polarizing that they are keeping young people out of the pews.
As we’ve been exploring in this column, the church has another priority that is less contentious but no less important: direct, attentive engagement with the next generation of believers. After hearing his World Youth Day Unite catechesis, it’s clear that Bishop Caggiano needs to play a big part of the American contribution to the world synod on youth.
Though from the world’s perspective a 58-year-old cleric might be as far removed as one could be from millennial youth and young adults, he understands the challenges they face when discerning and saying “yes” to God’s plan for their lives. No doubt that’s why the past two popes booked him at World Youth Days and why he has served as the episcopal advisor for The National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry for three years.
At various points during his 30-minute catechesis, I looked to my left and right and saw teens and 20-somethings leaning forward in pews or on the floor with bated breath, hanging on his every word — that is, when they weren’t catching their breath between side-stitching fits of laughter.
Like the pope who shares his name, his approach is personal and passionate. He masterfully combined exegesis with personal accounts of his vocation story and invited the participants to share their own takeaways. He looked them directly in the eyes.
Anyone in youth ministry knows that building up young people involves both instruction and invitation. That’s the basis for trust, intimacy and response.
Bishop Caggiano seems to think when it comes to youth, it’s best — as he says — to “get down to brass tacks.” They, crave the good news more than anything else: God is love, he loves them in spite of their sins and in their brokenness, and he’s closer to them than they can imagine.
For a generation plagued by anxiety, depression, fear and loneliness, a generation who has endless virtual encounters at the expense of real friendship, the bishop simply delivered the fundamental messages of the Gospel. Though the controversial issues of our day saturate news and social media, it’s the basic kerygma — God loves me — that makes skeptics into saints.
From that starting point alone young people can ask themselves, “What does God want for my life? How will I respond tomorrow now that I know what I do today?”
Maybe it was his Brooklyn accent that wrapped his talk in warmth or his eyes that sparkled with a little bit of mischief. Whatever it was, Bishop Caggiano convinced me and those crammed into a chapel in Washington, that even though “life will give us a thousand reasons to doubt God’s love,” there is still yet good news.
For more on World Youth Day Unite, visit https://www.wydunite.com/ and https://www.wydunite.com/audio-recordings.
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Elise Italiano is executive director of communications at The Catholic University of America.