Don’t approach youth as ‘problem to be solved’

Youth ministry is an issue that involves the whole Church and requires reflecting on how young people fit into ecclesial structures, a keynote speaker said at December’s California Catholic Ministry Conference.

Jan 23, 2020

SAN JOSE: Youth ministry is an issue that involves the whole Church and requires reflecting on how young people fit into ecclesial structures, a keynote speaker said at December’s California Catholic Ministry Conference.

“Everyone is asking how to minister to young adults with the disaffiliation rates we have now. I don’t have the answer, but I stand up here convinced that every single one of you has a piece of that answer,” Christina Lamas said.

Lamas, executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, gave her keynote speech on “the mission of listening” Dec. 7 at the ministry conference in San Jose. Drawing heavily on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Christus vivit” as well as current research on religious affiliation, Lamas encouraged her audience to change how they engage young people in the church. 

Catholics need to open up space in the church to hear young people’s voices, because they are the future and the present of the church, Lamas said.

Quoting Pope Francis, she said, “The church needs your momentum, your intuitions, your faith” and added that above all, young people need to trust “we’ll meet them no matter where they are at.” 

Lamas pointed out that meeting young people means adapting to the youth generation’s issues. A young man once told her “I wish the church would stop giving us answers to questions we’re not even asking.” That statement led her to question “how well the church is listening and adapting to the needs and voices of young people in their communities, especially of those who don’t show up,” she said. 

“Young people are a gift, a grace to the church, they’re not a problem to be solved,” she said.  

Lamas asked her audience a series of questions that could help show how severe the generational divide in their parish is -- did anyone know five young people in their parish by name, had they ever visited a youth gathering, had they ever approached a young person for help or involved them in making youth decisions?

Research from the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate cited by Lamas provided more information for the audience on why young people leave Catholicism. According to the CARA study, one in five respondents’ answers reflected disbelief in God or religion. About 16% of respondents changed their religion when their parents did and 15% independently chose another faith. Another 11% said they were opposed to the Catholic Church or the concept of organized religion. 

According to CARA, only 20% of parents speak with their children about faith on a weekly basis. Most teens reported their parents rarely or never speak about their religion.

Youth need help making faith part of their vocabulary, she said, and because “the language of faith begins at home,” parents and grandparents have to work on helping children learn how to “articulate the presence of God in their lives,” she said. 

Lamas encouraged people to be thoughtful when talking to young people, especially about their faith, reminding her audience that many times young people are seeking to be understood and be listened to. 

Quoting again from “Christus vivit,” Lamas said “all too often, there’s a tendency to provide prepackaged answers and ready-made solutions without allowing their real questions to emerge and to face the challenges they pose.” 

Adults should resist the need to always have an immediate answer, added Lamas. “Sometimes the response can be ‘I don’t know, but that’s an important question,’ validating what they’re saying.” 

Lamas said in talking with youth, the most important thing is to keep open the possibility of having a conversation. When young people fall into religious uncertainty, the church should be “ready to catch them and hold them through their doubts and back into their faith.”

The best way to understand young people is to engage directly with them, Lamas said, talking with them to learn what they want and what God is calling for. Regardless of a young adult’s choices or ideas, “listen to learn versus to respond,” she said. “As evangelization comes, catechesis will follow.”

On the road to Emmaus, Christ walked with disciples who did not recognize him, but he accompanied them, listened to them and met them where they were at, Lamas said. In the same way, “Walk with young people, miss them when they’re gone, and call them by name,” she

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