Every now and then, I run into links on Facebook or Twitter to articles about Youth Ministry. Some are for and others are against. Some decry the over-reliance on “fun” to the exclusion of “content”. Others speak to the need for teens to be together in a “safe” environment, away from bad influences–to learn that “fun” does not always have to include alcohol, marijuana, or promiscuous sexual activity. Still others point out that families “should” be the place of the formation of our young people, that the parents are the primary educators in the faith and youth ministry takes young people away from their families.
But that does not automatically solve the problem. Whether a young person is with their family, with their friends, or at school, the problem is what are we proposing to them and how are we proposing it.
I came across a wonderful little article on http://www.catholiceducation.org by Mike Aquilina, who writes about the youth ministry of the Fathers of the Church. The website is worth a look; it is the homepage of the Catholic Education Resource Center (CERC) and has great resources for teaching the faith. So, what did Mike say?
Scouring the Patrologia Latina and Patrologia Graeca, I found nothing to suggest that Ambrose had ever led teens on ski trips to the nearby Alps. Digging through the Eastern Fathers, I came up even drier — no junior-high dances — not even a pizza party in either Antioch or Alexandria. In fact, in all the documentary evidence from all the ancient patriarchates of the East and the West, there’s not a single bulletin announcement for a single parish youth group.
Yet the Fathers had enormous success in youth and young-adult ministry. Many of the early martyrs were teens, as were many of the Christians who took to the desert for the solitary life. There’s ample evidence that a disproportionate number of conversions, too, came from the young and youngish age groups.
How did the Fathers do it? They made wild promises.
Quite simply, the Fathers of the Church did not propose gimmicks, but rather the Gospel–a life of sacrifice for the greatest ideal ever. These young people were not converted first of all by content, but by the witness of those who could “prove” with their life that Christ was the only thing for which it was worth giving up your life. Aquilina tells the story of Origen of Alexandria, who when his father was being led away to be martyred would have run after him if his mother did not hide all of his clothes! Or Tarcisius who was a young person entrusted with carrying the Blessed Sacrament to the sick, and who was martyred when he wouldn’t hand over to a pagan mob the pyx holding the Eucharist.
The question remains for me, though, how do we propose this amazing adventure that is Christianity? The focus of the Church since the Second Vatican Council has been the presentation of the faith (method) in a way that can speak to the heart of our contemporaries. Now, Aquilina’s article makes light of many of the current ways of trying to be relevant to young people, who can find much more interesting things on their smart phones. And if the content of the faith never changes, we better believe that the Fathers of the Church were masters of method, of knowing how to help their fellowmen to “see the Form”, to see Christ. We are called to nothing less in our own day.
This leads me to a second article, which I would like to recommend. The “pamphlet” includes the notes from a talk to high schoolers by Father Julian Carron, head of the movement Communion and Liberation. Here is a link to the talk, entitled “We Want To Be Outrageously Happy Too”: http://english.clonline.org/default.asp?id=559&id_n=19889 (available in English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French for those who are interested!).
Carron responds to the question:
What journey must we make to have a true affection for ourselves, which prevents us from being content in daily life with the many “false infinites” into which we inevitably and repeatedly fall?
This reference to affection for ourselves is a parallel to what in the previous article were called “wild promises”. The promise of life does not only come from outside of us, but is written into our very souls that are “restless until they rest in Christ”, as Saint Augustine tells us. The “false infinites” are all of those things that promise to fill what only Christ can fill: power, pleasure, honor. So how does affection for ourselves arise?
Carron takes us all the way back to the experience of infancy: the worth of the child is affirmed and awakened through the smile of his mother, through the loving touch, through the brightness in his father’s eyes when he first sees the child on coming home from work. Von Balthasar would say:
My mother’s smile is beautiful, therefore all being is beautiful. My mother’s smile is true, therefore all being is true. My mother’s smile is good, therefore all being is good.
Our first impact with being does not come from our reason taking hold of things and analyzing them, but from the simple experience of being loved. We all know what difficulties come when the child does not receive this touch, this smile, this “lighting up”. Something will be “off” in their ability to relate to reality, especially in other human relationships.
But, at a certain point – we all know this – this natural sign, which is the mother, is no longer enough, and not because our mother got mad at us or because our father is not there. No, they are there like they were before, but it’s as if everything that was enough before, at a certain moment is no longer enough.
Here is the experience of youth, of adolescence. All of a sudden, everything that once was enough for me, my parents who once were enough for me, my family who once could take care of all my problems, is not enough. Why is that? What happened?
If we don’t understand what happened at a certain moment in our life – how is it that, at a certain point, our father and mother are no longer enough – then what do we do? Since our father and mother are no longer enough, we substitute our parents with friends, and then with our girlfriend or boyfriend, and then with other things, but the pattern doesn’t change.
Father Carron tells the young people to whom he is talking that this experience is precious, precious because it is an opportunity for us to discover the meaning of our life, if there really is something that is “enough”. The disillusionment I feel toward the family, the friends, and the “false infinites” can push us on to the discovery of the true Infinite for which we are made.
If one realizes that nothing is enough for him, he realizes it because all of the heart’s expectation, all of the capacity for fulfillment for which we were made, all of the greatness of his life’s destiny, has definitively broadened.
The question then comes back: Does the “yes” that I once experienced in my parents love for me, in my mother’s smile, in my father’s eyes, also exist for me now, for my parents now, for the whole world? Is there one who says “yes” to my existence, to the existence of everything? Is there a “yes” that is big enough to correspond to this question that no one and nothing else can answer, this question that I am?
The discovery of this “yes” and the living of a true affection for ourselves (which is to see ourselves the way God our Father sees us) is the adventure of human life, but especially of our youth. Some never discover this “yes”, and their adolescence is prolonged well beyond their youth. They continue to seek the infinite in power, pleasure, and honor, and by dominating their human relationships in search of “enough” love. Ultimately, this leads to a deep cynicism, the despair of ever finding what fulfills our hearts, and the dismissal of such desires as “childish”.
But there are other adults who have found this affection for themselves and the joy that the Father has in them. In churchy terms, this is called “vocation”. And these are the people we want in Catholic education in general and in youth ministry in particular. Youth ministry then becomes a challenge to adults: Have I found something worth handing on to a young person? Have I found the only thing worth handing on to a young person?