“The future is in your hearts and in your hands. God is entrusting to you the task, at once difficult and uplifting, of working with Him in the building of the civilization of love”[i] – Saint John Paul II
In today’s society, the flow of information and opportunities for pursuing almost any interest are readily available to everyone, especially our young people. We live in a time where children can access information and socialize with the simple click or swipe of their device. This is nothing new, as the increasing amount of personal technology has been ever growing over the past few decades. What is important to realize is that while technology, sports, school, and clubs do fill up the slots of their planner (or smartphone calendar as the case may be), there is still time for our young people to know and love Jesus Christ. To find this time doesn’t necessarily require the cancelation of other things on the child’s calendar, rather it can be looked at more holistically, through the love of the family and nurturing of the grace that was provided to our young people in the sacraments
The statistics are alarming, to say the least. A study conducted by Georgetown University comparing participation statistics from 1965 until 2017 show a steady and consistent decline in participation in the sacraments, vocations and lay participation.[ii] The number of young Catholics who go through the sacraments only to then exit the Church, whether officially or unofficially, is a growing concern, but one that can be addressed both in the local parishes and, most of all, by the family at home.
In today’s society, young people are suffering from a lacking of spiritual support from the family, which is a void that they then seek from other sources, whether good or bad. Young people are looking for relationships with trusted peers and adults to show their witness, bring them to the Church and to show them how to pray. The most basic unit for forming these relationships is within one’s own family. Reflecting on this statement, the importance of the family unit in the spiritual development of a person’s life is brought front and center.
There are varying degrees with regard to the extent of participation a family takes in exposing our young people to the teachings of Jesus Christ. When it comes down to it, through Baptism, there is an inner desire to learn more about our faith and to partake in the sacraments and worship our Lord. It is nourishing and cultivating of that grace and desire that needs to take place in the home – and it doesn’t take a formally trained catechist to do so. It requires a loving and supportive family who is willing to expose their child to the teachings of the Lord. It requires families to be open and honest in answering questions and when the answers are unknown, seeking out the answers together. There is no need to force or even ‘drag’ young people to mass every Sunday. Rather explaining the importance and igniting the desire within the young people to partake in the blessings that are the sacraments is of chief importance, which in turn will cause them to seek the sacraments on their own regularly as prescribed by the Church. Having an encouraging, loving, caring and open family with regard to our Lord will aid in nourishing our young people and opening them up to the blessings that our Lord, through His Church, will provide a medium to bring these young souls to Jesus.
The family is the most important aspect of cultivating young people to be faithful members of the Church, yet the family is not alone in the process of evangelizing our young people. Catechetical training, partaking in the sacraments and sharing in the celebrations of our Church with the fellow members of the faithful is very important. It needs to be understood that all children desire and deserve to be taught the catechism in a manner that suits their learning style and reinforces the desire for an understanding of each individual. Some children will understand teachings better than others, but it is important to realize that it should not be a confrontational environment. All children should feel welcome and all should be provided with opportunities to learn about their faith in ways that speaks to them. This can be very challenging for many catechists, but it is of great importance for the betterment of the student and for the lifelong membership of that child in our Church, practicing our faith and following Jesus to eternal salvation. Having trusted mentors is vital.
Once the three sacraments of initiation have been completed, it is then very important to provide opportunities for young people to take an active role in the Church. This can come in many forms: Youth Groups, Catholic Clubs and Societies, College Organizations, Lay Ministries and simple encouragement and welcoming of young people to be a part of the community of the parish that is their home. I am reminded of a priest, Father Bill Kennedy, who was assigned to my childhood parish as a parochial vicar. Father Kennedy always took the time to talk to the young people, serving as the Confirmation advisor for the parish and then following up with the young people as they entered high school and went on to college. If a kid was interested in a sport or a hobby, he would make sure to ask him or her about it and would take a genuine interest. Father Kennedy would encourage people to partake in the lay ministries and would go to events in support of the young people’s interest. In doing this, young people would then come to mass and partake in the sacraments because they knew that Father Kennedy would be there. This fostering of an open environment and genuine interest in the life of the young people in his parish is the type of relational ministry that supports our young people in their lives, fostering an environment for them to become closer to Jesus and take up their role as a member of the body of the Church.
What really needs to happen? Our young people need to be enabled to own the experience for themselves! They need the support of the Church, they need the grace that is given to them through the sacraments, the encounter that is found in the liturgy and most of all they need the support of their family’s! This support allows them to fully embrace the faith in the manner that was intended by our savior and in turn, will develop our young people into their rightful place as the future of our Holy Mother Church. Once they own the experience, they will be changed for life.
By Michael Wellington
About the Author
Michael currently serves as the Director of Youth Ministries at St. John Parish in Darien and as the Chairman of the Diocese of Bridgeport Catholic Committee on Scouting. Michael holds a masters degree in Catechetics and Evangelization from Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently pursuing his doctorate at Northeastern University. Michael can be reached at email@example.com
[i] St. John Paul II at World Youth Day in 2002
[ii] Georgetown University CARA Stats http://cara.georgetown.edu/frequently-requested-church-statistics/