bridging the gap: from youth ministry to adult discipleship

It was a privilege to present a workshop at the Australian Catholic Youth Ministry Convention 2018, held in the Diocese of Parramatta this past weekend. It was inspiring to be with youth ministers and leaders who are shaping the Church through their witness and initiative, from all sectors of the Church in Australia. Below is a summary of the workshop shared and I hope it’s of interest and encouragement in the ongoing work of renewal as we anticipate next month’s Synod on Youth.

This ACYMCworkshop will extend the theme of ‘missionary discipleship’ to consider how youth ministry can support young people to move and grow from participation in youth ministry to exercise their discipleship as adults in broader parish and community life. If youth ministry gathers for the purpose of sending out, how can our ministries best prepare young people for that future? One of the claims of this workshop is that if we can identify the issues of our moment, and we know the destination at which we want to arrive, then this will shape the steps we can take to get there. If our purpose is sending young people out into mission, into the full life of the Church and world, then how does our youth ministry best prepare them for that future?

The Discipleship Dilemma

As Pope Francis encourages, it is important to begin with a frank assessment of where we are as Church because “realities are more important than ideas” (EG 231-233; LS 110, 201). We cannot grow by holding the door closed against reality. A renewed future begins on the basis of the present. When we reflect on how best to lead young people into adult discipleship, we could reasonably ask how well our entire Church leads and makes disciples of all its members.

We know that the Church is called by God to work towards the transformation of the world so that it reflects more and more of God’s Kingdom or God’s reign. This Kingdom comes about when people encounter Jesus, surrender, and make the decision to follow – when they become his disciples and go out to transform the world.  However, if this is the purpose of the Church, bringing about the Kingdom and making and forming disciples, we have to admit that we are not bearing the fruit we would like to see. More and more of our people, both young and old, continue to disengage from the Church, and we acknowledge the confronting reality that in the current climate some will question if the Church has anything worthwhile to say or be less inclined to be explicit in their faith. Another challenge presents itself in our parishes. If we were to measure how many of the hundreds who receive the sacraments in our local parishes each year, pass through our sacramental life in initiation or from week to week, and emerge on the other side as missionary disciples, the result would be less than ideal. There is something amiss. Where is the fruit?

The reasons for our decline have become clearer over time. At heart, we have a discipleship dilemma. When it comes to a personal and active relationship with Jesus Christ, many Catholic communities have taken a pastoral approach that assumes the sacraments will simply ‘take care of it’ and that is simply not true. We have neglected our duty to awaken in each person that active and personal faith, that fertile soil, in which the grace of the sacraments can actually take root and bear fruit. To make the point, “baptisms, confessions, weddings, funerals, daily devotions, anointing, and adoration. It’s all good stuff, it’s how some Catholics grow spiritually. For others, it’s what they do instead of grow . . . For certain, the sacraments give us grace to put us in right relationship to God and his life in our soul, nourishing and strengthening us for our discipleship walk. But they’re not mean to replace it’”.[1] This is not to discount the centrality of the sacraments or to deny the place that devotions have in the Catholic life. But it is to say that people can be ‘sacramentalised’ without being evangelised. It is entirely possible to undertake a routine of religious custom and practice without a personal and responsive relationship to Jesus Christ.

The sacraments do indeed give us the capacity to believe – the virtue of faith – but without a personal ‘yes’ – an act of faith – it remains a ‘bound’ sacrament. Like a car full of fuel, if we never turn the key or press the accelerator, we do not move forwards and we are not changed. Our personal ‘yes’ is the spark which enables grace to bear real fruit in our lives. Writing of youth, John Paul II recognised this same dilemma, “A certain number of children baptised in infancy come for catechesis in the parish without receiving any other initiation into the faith and still without any explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ; they only have the capacity to believe placed within them by Baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit.”[2] We know that children and youth who have no explicit personal attachment to Jesus are likely to grow up to be adults with no personal attachment to Jesus, unless that relationship is introduced into their life through a process of evangelisation.

Our Catholic tradition affirms this very point – that the sacraments do not replace personal discipleship. Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium affirms that the sacraments presume a living faith amidst its people.[3] The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us explicitly, “The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church: it must be preceded by evangelisation, faith, and conversion”.[4] The Second Vatican Council and the Catechism affirm the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324). When there is no Christian life, no trace or intention of Christian living, then in fact the Eucharist can be neither source nor summit of anything. Outside of the context of discipleship, the Eucharist can be reduced to an object of piety or mere consumption rather than a relationship that invites a Jesus-shaped life. Finally, Jesus himself gives us a Great Commission “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, [and then] baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). We could say that the mission of the Church is not sacraments but disciples which the sacraments nourish. Unless people become disciples, the grace of the sacraments bears little fruit.

It is important to recognise that the young people in our care are already being shaped and formed by this culture of sacramental routine, marked by a lack of fruit and the gentle decline in living faith. To render this concrete, take the typical experience of a Church-attending youth. They might intuit from the pews that parish participation is declining (in fact, the total percentage of Mass attendance nears single digits across the country) and will gain a quick sense that very few of their peers attend Eucharist on any given weekend (about 5% of all aged 20-34 in fact).[5] They would know too well that few of their peers’ families are engaging with the Church, and they may not witness many or any new people coming into the Church at Easter (perhaps a handful each year, while dozens more walk out the back door at the same time). They might recognise that while many receive the sacraments they are not seeing the fruit of a change in lives, that there is something missing and church attendance doesn’t seem to make a great difference to people’s lives. They may hear a little about the Church, history, or even morality, but they may not hear much about Jesus or hear the story of Jesus’ life shared clearly (when preaching is poor or misaligned). They may never have witnessed an adult actually speak about how Jesus has changed their life or heard conversations among adults about Jesus (even though a culture of testimony lies at the heart of evangelisation, for consumer churches have preferences while missionary churches have stories of how Jesus has changed their life).

These are some of the basic experiences that young people may encounter in our faith communities. The risk is unless we are casting in our youth ministries an alternative vision for what adult discipleship looks like, our young people may not receive any other image of adult life in the Church and therefore be given little sense of a positive future. We have a deep sense that we are called to do more than lead young people into adult communities which show little life in themselves, repeat the outcomes or trends of decline we have experienced in past generations of Catholics in Australia.

If our adult community and the cultures of our parish communities have forgotten what ‘normal’ looks like, it is the prophetic role of youth ministry to recover a new norm by equipping young people to move from a faith that can be customary, inherited or barren to a faith which is intentional (not routine), personal (not merely the faith of my family but a faith truly my own), and fruitful (there are signs of concrete change in our life for discipleship is not an invisible phenomenon, it shows up in the pigment of our life). In looking at change from one culture to another, we note that it is not the cultural norm in Catholicism to even talk about Jesus, let alone his fruit or work in our life, and those who do are viewed as Protestant or a spiritual pretender.[6] We have forgotten what ‘normal’ looks like. Youth ministry can play a part in the gradual transformation of our Church culture, to place again a full and living discipleship to Jesus before young people, as the heart of what we do and who we are as Catholics.

We can consider the radical difference that youth ministry can make to the Church in this way – via the analogy of what makes a good school. We know that a lack of academic opportunity is passed on or transmitted from generation to generation and, as such, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds often do not perform as well as they could. However, some education systems (e.g. those in Shanghai and Korea but sadly not Australia) are able to lift these students well beyond their statistical likelihood of poor academic performance, enabling these young people to perform and excel at their full potential. Quite simply, good schools and teachers make a difference to the capacities and lives of their students. They can break the cycle of ignorance and disadvantage. In a similar way, we know that ignorance of the faith is passed on or transmitted from generation to generation, and that many of our people start their journey in the Church ‘disadvantaged’ by low religious literacy and low or no commitment to practice, including little enthusiasm for sacrificial discipleship or evangelisation of others. The aim of good parishes, schools and youth ministries is to lift people out of this religious rut and support them to grow in faith and discipleship above and beyond what their background might have equipped them for. If our communities are not equipping our young people for living discipleship, then perhaps it is our ministry that can make that difference. I wanted to start on the note of realism, with recognition of what we are sending our young people into, and a note of possibility of what youth ministry can do within the wider life of the Church and within a Catholic culture desperately in need of renewal.

Youth Ministry

Having named the discipleship dilemma in our wider Church, which impacts upon the future of young people in faith, we now turn to focus on the reality of youth ministry itself. What is the status quo or state of play in youth ministry today?

Some of the significant dilemmas we are confronting include a ‘drop off’ after a time in parish groups and during senior high school among youth. For young adults, the decline in participation can set in during the post-school years, in the years of university or the first years of work. We sense that many of those aged between 25-35 years are being lost to the Church’s life, and other young adults are left hungry and even look back to youth ministry to serve their needs after the age of 30. These real experiences expose a gap and need in our approach to youth ministry, with many asking, ‘to whom shall we go?’ As it stands, we see young adults graduate from youth groups, a small number emerge as spiritual entrepreneurs who have learned to fend for themselves, but many more become ‘lost’ or drifters within the life of the Church, and a silent majority of young adults, I fear, slip into the routine culture of the crowd or disappear from the life of the Church altogether. Young people will continue to leave the scene as groups dwindle and their social support fades in the Church, or they will ‘hang on’ to their youth experience for dear life and risk a sort of extended adolescence well into their thirties with the crisis of vocation that can accompany being lost. If people are feeling lost in their thirties, it is saying something about how we are or are not preparing young people in youth ministry for a lasting life of faith.

The Causes of Decline

What is it about youth ministries that can lead to the disengaged, unchurched and the lost? We have an opportunity to make a real difference with those we do encounter but we do not always quite hit the mark. Some of the limited outcomes we see in youth ministry can be related to the purpose for which they exist. Take these four examples, keeping in view that a problem well recognised is a problem half solved.

The social but not spiritual group. There will be youth groups that exist for their own social value and are perhaps more an exercise in demography rather than discipleship. The parish decides it is good to have a youth group or a school a new youth team of sorts, so they establish one and the community feels better for it because we are ‘doing something for youth’. In short, the group exists for its own sake rather than for others. It will inevitably become insular, cliquey and decline, rather than outreach and grow, operating from a consumption model (‘this group is about me’) rather than of outreach and apostolic intent. It can often be marked by a sense that if the group gets any larger they will lose their intimate sense of community. The members do not intentionally reject ‘new’ people, but their present relationships are so intimate that any newcomer can find it difficult to break into the group. Especially when small, these social groups can stunt personal growth rather than enable it, especially if a group is populated with young people with nowhere else to go. Of course, the Church is there for all people, most especially the poor in spirit and circumstance, but if youth groups or ministries are not as broad and refective as the surrounding community, it can serve as a refuge from the world rather than a launching pad for faith in the world.

Youth groups as a retention strategy. Sometimes groups can be formed or used as a remedy for the declining participation that takes place after the sacraments of initiation. After all, who doesn’t want to ‘keep the kids in church’. However, such group can have short futures as they will tend to focus on behaviour modification (turning up to Mass or staying in Church) rather than discipleship. What they do not realise is that when people become disciples – encounter Jesus, surrender their life to him, and make the decision to follow – they will go to Mass for the rest of their lives. We want people to fall in love, not merely fall in line. If a group is simply about retaining members, then youth leaders will need to constantly come up with new and gimmicky ideas to retain the current membership and ‘get them to Mass’ but never address the deeper ‘why’ that might sustain them for a lifetime of faith. Groups that are established or see themselves merely as a retention strategy aim for the short-term but are unable to take the longer view with the usual outcomes of steady decline as the novelties and techniques wear thin.

Youth ministry as catechesis. Another reality for youth ministry can be an exclusive focus on catechesis, on teaching young people the facts about Catholicism and learning content, even when young people may not have a relationship with Jesus (i.e. have not even been evangelised). When we think about the word ‘catechesis’ itself (κατήχησις) as it is found in the Gospel of Luke 1:4, 1 Corinthians 14:19 and Galatians 6:6 it means ‘to sound out’ or to ‘echo the teaching’. It is like standing at the entrance of a cave and speaking out and hearing a voice coming back. When we catechise young people, we are speaking into their lives. We are giving them faith and knowledge, and what we seek is for that faith and knowledge to resound back, echo back upon its reception. However, the only way we can hear an echo is if there is a cave, if there is a space to speak into. If we were to run out and shout at a brick wall, we are not going to hear an echo as there is no space to absorb and reverberate what is being shared. So, we need to bring people to a living and transformative encounter with Jesus first, to create space within them for the Gospel, before we can teach or learning can take place. It has been pointed out that in the history of our Church, we have so often confused indifference with ignorance. People often do not care, have no space for the Gospel, but we think they simply do not have enough information so we catechise them and yet we wonder why nothing is sinking in. It is like trying to plant seeds in concrete! If we continue to prepare and form young people in this same way – only catechise – then we will continue to arrive at the same results, with young people unprepared for a life of adult faith because we never evangelised, made and formed them as disciples.

Finally, youth ministry as a process of duplicating groups. One other response to the disengagement of young adults from the Church we can see is the simple duplication of the same youth groups and structures for an older cohort. However, the question then is ‘where should that process end?’ Should we have groups for those aged 30-35 and then for those 40-45 years of age or would we presume and prepare at some stage their integration and leadership in the wider Christian community?

We can see how some of the outcomes we are seeing in youth ministry with drop off or disengagement can be shaped by our starting points or understanding of what our purpose is as a ministry of the Church. All these four models or tendencies within youth ministries miss the mark, which is to make disciples who have encountered, surrendered and made the decision of faith. More positively, if we do make disciples of young people, they will naturally yearn to be with other Christians (be social), they will live their life within the Church, even through thick and thin, because of their personal relationship and love of Jesus (they will be retained), they will be open to learning (catechesis) and be sustained as adults in older years with a genuine heart for Christ (experience spiritual conviction, not simply repeat behaviours). However, if we begin with other starting points, we cannot expect to see the fruit we are called to bring to life.

Toward Renewal

Moving forwards then, how might we make and form disciples, so they can graduate from youth groups and experience genuine personal and spiritual change that will last? Jesus invites us, through his command to Peter, “to go and bear fruit that will last” (John 15:16). As shared earlier, I think our youth ministries can create a new path and be the change and difference that our wider Church so sorely needs.

We can see the difference youth ministries can be through what are called ‘Berkana loops’ which are simply a helpful companion in thinking through how change and growth come about.

Berkana Loops

When our youth ministries first get off the ground, we can enjoy growth and excitement as the life cycle begins. Our group can be thriving, and we are good stewards of this growth. However, at some point things in the group can begin to plateau, perhaps because we have become comfortable and established, or we are not gaining new members or enthusiasm begins to wane. We start to lose significance or momentum.

When things begin to decline, we enter a ‘hospice’ stage where we are caring for a group in decline. However, as things plateau, there are some who see what is going on and what is not working, they might see what is lacking through a sort of ‘holy discontent’, and can begin to ask questions about impact or methods, and they begin to think of a new way forward. They recognise that God’s mission is greater than our existing methods which are no longer bearing fruit as they might have at other times.

These innovators might feel isolated in their hunger for a new form of engaging young people until they connect with others who have discerned a similar hunger, need or possibility. Now a network of innovators emerges, and they begin connecting on a regular basis. They begin to take action and become a community of practice, as a new possibility continues to emerge and build. With time, space, resources, expertise or by building new skills a new reality and a new way of mission or outreach comes into being.

There will be some stewards of youth ministry who are called to ‘sit by the bedside’ and accompany youth groups to their end, perhaps because that is their charism or they do not quite muster the courage or imagination to change and adapt. Sometimes youth ministries do have their time and naturally come to their end. However, others might make the transition from an old to a new way of doing things which has been led and created by others. When we recognise what is missing in our wider Church and some of our youth ministry – a focus on discipleship – we can put those missing pieces in place with the young people in our care.

Raising Discipleship

So, how do we raise discipleship among new generations that will last into adulthood? Firstly, our own witness is essential. Our witness demonstrates what a new life in Christ looks like. If our own Church attendance and involvement in the life of the Church does make a difference in how we live, if we are actively learning a style of life steered by love, it provokes a response from the young people in our care and opens a path of curiosity, trust and dialogue.

It is important to underscore that it is not our youth programs that make disciples; it is disciples that make disciples. Courses, programs and materials are only as good as the people using them. Without disciples to run a program, they do little good. It is not that we do not appreciate good materials. However, as it has been said, in the history of the life of the Church we did not have good materials. We had people. We had disciples making disciples. Right now, due to a lack of disciples, we may need the materials as a kind of crutch but we need to be careful about allowing them to replace the relationships.

Our witness enables us to then credibly proclaim the Gospel, most centrally the kerygma which is the kernel of the Gospel that centres on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The kerygma refers to the basic truths of our Christian faith, the core message of the Christian faith to which all believers are called to assent and proclaim. Pope Paul VI declared, “There is no true evangelisation if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the Kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed”.[7] This is the kerygma. It is explicit and focused entirely on the person and saving message of Jesus Christ.

We have to tell this Great Story of Jesus if it is to be known. The heart of evangelisation in youth ministry is to announce who Jesus is, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the man who is God, who died for our sins and was raised on the third day. It is to announce the Good News of the Risen Christ who is with us even now and opens up for us the way to life without end. Evangelising youth ministries proclaim Jesus’ ascension, his seating at the right hand of the Father as King, and his sending forth of the Holy Spirit. It is this Spirit which reveals Christ and even enables us to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ and it is this Spirit who empowers the Church, who empowers us, to be faithful to Christ’s mission in our own lives and in this moment of the world’s history. Ultimately, this Good News of Christ calls us to conversion, to repent and believe in this Gospel, calling for a change of life in the light of what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ whose life we share by baptism, the anointing of the Holy Spirit, in communion with his mystical body in the Eucharist, and by our communion with His body, the Church.

We are called to bring young people to a transformational encounter with this Jesus, connecting his story with our life. Again, the power of our initial witness and then proclamation has a lot to do with our own transformation and encounter, our own conversion. Pope Francis notes, “A true missionary who never ceases to be a disciple, knows that Jesus walks with him, speaks to him, breathes with him, works with him. He senses Jesus alive with him, in the midst of his missionary enterprise… a person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain, and in love, will convince nobody”.[8] Hence, how are you telling the Great Story of Jesus in your ministry? We are called to share that Jesus’ mission was to bring about the Kingdom marked by abundance and that we, as his disciples, are called to do the same, bringing the world’s limitation to divine possibility, that is, to the fullness of life (John 10:10).

This is the kind of vision of discipleship we need to proclaim. The American author Sherry Weddell remarks that if nobody talks about what discipleship looks like, it becomes difficult for people to begin to walk on that road, “Unfortunately, most of us are not spiritual geniuses. If nobody around us ever talks about a given idea, we are no more likely to think of it spontaneously than we are to suddenly invent a new primary colour. To the extent we don’t talk explicitly with one another about discipleship, we make it very, very difficult for most Catholics to think about discipleship”.[9] It is difficult to believe in and live something that you have never heard anyone talk about or that you have seen very others, including older adults, live with joy. We must witness, tell the story of Jesus, and cast a vision of discipleship, of personal and spiritual change, as the ultimate fruit of all other gifts in the Church, including the sacraments and our ministries to the young.[10]

In casting that vision of discipleship we need to be committed and resolute because other understandings of youth ministry can be cast at us (e.g. youth ministry as the social group, the retention strategy, as catechesis or duplication). A great example of resoluteness in holding and living our vision is illustrated by SouthWest Airlines, a low-fare carrier in the U.S. that seeks to ‘democratise’ air travel. Humour is a core dimension of its vision (e.g. the on-board announcements, “Would someone put out the cat?”; “We will be serving dinner on this flight and dessert if everyone behaves themselves”). Nevertheless, the airline received a complaint about their style, from a customer who regarded it as unprofessional and improper for an airline company. On receipt of a complaint, we could probably assume the line of management that would follow (i.e. a letter comes into the central office, the director of customer service rings the branch manager and asks them to ‘tone it down’, before sending the customer some form of compensation e.g. a meal voucher or a free fare). However, Southwest Airlines did not do this. Instead, they sent this customer a short letter with just four words on it. It read: “We will miss you.” The airline does not compromise on its vision and stands by the fact that there are many other uninteresting and boring airlines that customers are well free to choose. So it is with us in our vision of discipleship – it is the very reason for which the entire Church exists, is non-negotiable, and is that image of life that will support the young to live their faith into adulthood, as they come to know themselves as witnesses to the reign or Kingdom of God.

A further step in accompaniment of the young must be to assist them to actually live in that direction. Take for example the rich young man who encounters Jesus. It is not enough for this young man to meet Jesus, but he is then invited to sell all that he has – in other words to start living in the right direction (Mk 10:17-31). We can learn this principle also from the gift of marriage. We can encounter another person, get to know them, and even develop a personal relationship with them. However, to be married someone has to make the decision to ask and a decision to say ‘yes’. It is the same for discipleship – we are called to assist young people to make decisions that set them in the right direction. After all, we are all going somewhere, whether we know it or not, and will arrive at a destination in life.

The road that we are currently on will lead to a destination, and we generally do not drift in good directions. There are physical paths that lead to predictable locations, and physical roads and physical highways that lead to predictable destinations. There is a dietary path that leads to a predictably physical destination. There are financial paths that lead to predictable financial destinations. There are relationship paths that lead to predictable relational destinations. In fact, parents often ask their children questions about who they are dating for this reason. They are not so interested in whether their child is happy in the relationship now (though they hope they are). They are more interested where that relationship will take their child, whether that relationship will take them in the right direction.

As you know for the young people in your care they can in fact be completely content and satisfied and still be heading in the wrong direction. It is akin to driving on the road. You can be perfectly content in the car but become lost and you never know the precise moment you became lost, otherwise you would not have taken that turn. You can be a hundred metres past where you need to be and by the time you realise it, it is too late. It can cost you ten minutes. In life, if you are content but headed in the wrong direction and don’t know it, it can cost you years. It is often our nature to think ‘now is now’ and ‘later is later’ but everything we do has a consequence and will be connected. Biblically speaking, we reap what we sow. All our steps lead somewhere, so what we do everyday matters more than what we do once in a while when it comes to our ultimate direction in life.

mapleleafThe poet Gerard Manly Hopkins developed this term ‘inscape’ for the individual structure of a living being (like a tree or a leaf), an inner structure which results from the history of this being, an inner design made by the tree through its life in the way it has responded to life. We are much the same, our life is a work of art and all the good and the bad, conflicts and sufferings, troubles and happiness in our life all add up to something, all produce this inner structure, and this is what we are judged on, our encounter with Jesus and the direction that we chose to live.  We are judged not on small incidentals (eating meat on Fridays) but rather the whole structure of our life – all that we wanted to do, tried to do, our relationships. This all adds up to our identity which God knows. Hence the value of youth ministers as spiritual guides who can help the next generation to be in touch with the whole direction and meaning of their life as a whole, what it is all adding up to and to encourage them to develop in this direction and not another.

We need, in fact, to develop an intentional culture of mentorship if young people are to grow and make decisions on the way to a lasting and adult faith. Why do young people need you as a mentor? Part of the reason is because experience is a rough teacher and it costs time. As shared by a Christian evangelist, Andy Stanley, ‘Perhaps you’ve heard someone make the argument that experience is the best teacher. That may be true, but that’s only half the truth. Experience is often a brutal teacher. Experience eats up your most valuable commodity: time. Learning from experience can eat up years. It can steal an entire stage of life. Experience can leave scars, inescapable memories, and regret. Sure, we all live and learn. But living and learning don’t erase regret. And regret is more than memory. It is more than cerebral. It’s emotional. Regret has the potential to create powerful emotions – emotions with the potential to drive a person right back to the behaviour that created the regret to begin with. If regret can be avoided, it should be’. Life will throw enough hardship at us by itself. We can avoid unnecessary pain and regret by learning from the experience of others. We need to reach back to those a stage of life behind us and make it easier for that next generation to encounter Christ and to live for him because people develop best when they see what their value being lived out in other Christians. We know hypocrisy discourages faith and good witness raises it up.

In creating that culture, I also want to invite youth ministers not to underestimate their capacity to be a spiritual mentor for others, regardless of their age or history. As a Carthusian monk once penned, our years of age tell us only this, “that the earth has gone around the sun so many times since I came into this world. That is the normal measure of what the world calls time.”[11] However, there is another ‘age’ which is measured by the time we have spent in the life of Christ, the spiritual growth and progress we have made in our time of faith. The mentorship of youth ministers for young people in their care honours our Christian faith as nothing less than a life being passed on, for our tradition of witness is ‘hand clasping hands stretching back in time until they hold the hand of Jesus who holds the hand of God’.[12]

The qualities youth leaders can develop as mentors to support and nourish the discipleship of the young are well spelt out by the preparatory document for the forthcoming Synod on Youth to be held in October 2018. It helpfully shares:

“The young people of the Pre-synodal Meeting accurately detail the profile of the mentor: ‘a faithful Christian who engages with the Church and the world; someone who constantly seeks holiness; is a confidant without judgement; actively listens to the needs of young people and responds in kind; is deeply loving and self-aware; acknowledges their limits and knows the joys and sorrows of the spiritual journey’. For young people, it is particularly important that mentors recognise their own humanity and fallibility: ‘Sometimes mentors are put on a pedestal, and when they fall, the devastation may impact young people’s abilities to continue to engage with the Church’. They also add that ‘mentors should not lead young people as passive followers, but walk alongside them, allowing them to be active participants in the journey. They should respect the freedom that comes with a young person’s process of discernment and equip them with tools to do so effectively. Mentors should believe wholeheartedly in a young person’s ability to participate in the life of the Church. They should nurture the seeds of faith in young people, without expecting to immediately see the fruits of the work of the Holy Spirit. This role is not and cannot be limited to priests and religious, but the laity should also be empowered to take on such a role. All such mentors should benefit from being well-formed, and engage in ongoing formation”.[13]

While it can appear that we are looking for ‘Jesus on a good day’, all of us can bring something of our imperfect selves and the treasure of our life and experiences of the world to those in our care. However, if we are going to support young people to healthily progress through youth groups and to become adult disciples, we will also need adult or older mentors in the lives of young people. As we shared, if a young person never sees or hears an adult talk about their relationship with Jesus, how would they know this relationship is even possible? As noted by Everett Fritz, we want young people to learn to participate in the world of adults, but our youth culture has largely removed adults from mentoring roles with teenagers. “As a result, teens are growing up in a peer-dominated culture. As they grow into adulthood, they have difficulty assimilating into the adult world and into the responsibilities and expectations that come with being an adult.”[14] While peer to peer ministry has its place, in clarifying our life direction, we should not only seek advice from people who share the same season of life, because it is akin to asking for directions of someone who has never been where you want to go.

We have a rich biblical tradition of older mentors investing in younger mentees including Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, Paul and Timothy and Titus, and Jesus and his disciples. Adults bring a unique blend of experiences, insights, conflict, choices, health challenges, convictions, and even failures and struggles to believe. Having adult mentors and witnesses in the midst of youth ministry, and a variety of adults, is essential if talk of discipleship and the Church is going to be meaningful in real-life ways. As it has been said, our faith is ever one generation away from its silence if it is not passed on, from one generation to the next.

Conclusion

How might we better prepare young people for adult discipleship in our age? We can begin to acknowledge the discipleship dilemma we are experiencing as a Church, seek to create and innovate a new way with others that learns from these limitations, provide a living witness to a life in Christ wholly given over and surrendered, proclaim the Great Story of Jesus, cast a vision of the discipleship he asks of us, accompany young people to live in that direction, and include mentors, both peers and adults, in the normal practice of youth ministry. I propose that it is these foundations, applied to local contexts, that can resource young people to live a Christian life beyond the confines of youth ministry, to grow into adult disciples and agents of renewal in our Church.

References:

[1] Fr Michael White and Tom Corcoran, Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter (Ave Maria Press: Notre Dame, Indiana, 2013), 77.

[2] John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae 19.

[3] Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium 59.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1072.

[5] Robert Dixon, Stephen Reid and Marilyn Chee, Mass Attendance in Australia: A Critical Moment. A Report Based on the National Count of Attendance, the National Church Life Survey and the Australian Census (Melbourne: ACBC Pastoral Research Office, 2013), 2-3.

[6] Cf. Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples (Our Sunday Visitor: Huntington, Indiana, 2012), 63.

[7] Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi 22.

[8] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 266.

[9] Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples, 56.

[10] A disciple can be defined as one who has encountered Jesus, surrendered their life, and made the decision to follow, or be understood by its expression as provided by Fr James Mallon, as one who has a personal relationship with Jesus, shares faith with others, is open to the gift of the Holy Spirit, has a daily prayer life, with commitment to Eucharist and Reconciliation, can pray spontaneously out loud when asked, and sees their life as a mission field. Cf. Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation Guidebook: A Step-by-Step Manual for Transforming Your Parish (Novalis: Toronto, Ontario, 2016), 159.

[11] A Carthusian, They Speak by Silences (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1955), 38-9.

[12] John Shea, An Experience Named Spirit as cited in Robert A. Ludwig, Reconstructing Catholicism: For a New Generation (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2000), 61.

[13] Instrumentum Laboris for Synod 2018, 132.

[14] Everett Fritz, The Art of Forming Young Disciples: Why Youth Ministries Aren’t Working and What to Do About It (Sophia Institute Press: Manchester, New Hampshire, 2018), 46.

Advertisements

young in christ: thoughts on synod 2018

SynodI was grateful to be part of a workshop this week hosted by the Australian Catholic Youth Council in North Sydney. It drew together a select group of parish and diocesan youth leaders in conversation with Australia’s delegates for the October Synod on youth, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP and Bishop Mark Edwards OMI, as well as Archbishop Comensoli.

It was a great source of learning and uplifting to meet young leaders who are exercising what can only be described as remarkable spiritual entrepreneurship within the Church in Australia. Amidst the polarisations that can mark our Church these are the young witnesses bringing fresh heart to our faith, with the bold humility well described by an ancient apologist – ‘we others, we speak little, but we live’.

The fifteenth ordinary general assembly will focus on young people, faith and vocational discernment between 3-28 October 2018. The Synod and its outcomes will provide a telling insight into the Church’s approach to evangelisation at this time. This is because our commitment to reach out to the young reflects our commitment to reach out to all those who are unchurched or weighing up if the Catholic faith might still be central or relevant to the everyday project of their lives.

The reality of disengagement and even disaffiliation from the Church on the part of young people will always be a confrontation as it suggests something about ourselves – about our capacity for relationships of discipleship with young people both personally and as a community of faith.

The conspicuous absence of young people from many of our communities, worshipping life and ordinary ministries says something about our ability to enter into their experience of life, to grasp their sensibilities, and recognise their questions and searching as filled with promise and as authentic, a way of approaching God rather than an affront or the hubris of disobedience. The uneven journey of young people within the Church throws light on our ability to dialogue with those unlike ourselves and on our capacity to suggest compelling and personal forms of holiness amid a host of unsatisfying cultural placebos. Fundamentally, the presence or otherwise of young people in our Christian community reflects our ability to witness to and proclaim the Gospel as a way of life, as an invitation to fall in love rather than an obligation to fall in line.

Recognising the Reality

Youth MassAs the Church in Australia considers its future, it is imperative to understand the interactions and experiences that comprise young people’s lives for these provide the building blocks for renewed mission with and to young people. While the Catholic faith may today occupy less surface space in Australian culture, the rise of dedicated disciples within promises to bring new depths to our Christian living and cultural impact, and encourage the whole Church in its mission to the concrete people of each generation.

While the national survey and report findings (‘Called to Fullness of Life and Love’) produced by the Australian Catholic bishops ahead of the Synod did tend to underrepresent young people weakly attached to the Church, and overrepresent young adults who are highly involved, it nevertheless stands as a valuable and significant window into the experience of young Australians with regards faith and the Church.

Affirmed by the survey is the primary influence on young people of family and friends. These two natural influences can nurture, support and raise up faith. Each can also lead young people toward disaffiliation. This phenomenon can occur, for instance, when young people feel forced to attend Church with family members, perceive hypocrisy in the lives of those closest to them, come forward from situations which may not mirror a Christian understanding of marriage and family (e.g. a third of all births in Australia are now ex-nuptial births[1]) or when they are not supported by peers who value faith or religious practice.

bishops_surveyChallengingly, among Australian Catholic youth the influence of Church or religious leaders in their key decisions and directions is thin, identified as significant by just 11% of those surveyed and aged between 16-18 years. This meek influence might be explained by a lack of personal relationship amongst some clergy and young people, the broader collapse of the Church’s credibility in the light of the sexual abuse crisis, and the real struggle of Church leaders to listen or ‘hold’ the questions that young people are asking of the Church. On this score, young Australian Catholics rated their experience of being listened at a modest 5.9 out of 10.[2]

A number of young people have expressed their weariness at being disregarded within our faith communities because of their youth or else being catechised without the opportunity to enter into genuine dialogue about the issues of faith and belief that are significant to them. It is certainly true that when the Church appears more concerned with behaviour modification than a personal encounter with the young in Christ, our ecclesial influence will wane and the potential for accompaniment will give way to alienation.

The reason that our influence – and therefore our listening – matters a great deal is because young Catholics are actively deciding whether faith and the Church will be a part of their life and future, and they are making these decisions from early adolescence. Disaffiliation is not a choice that is made with haste. As it has been suggested, it often mirrors the breakdown of any significant relationship – it happens one ‘chip’ at a time until one partner has had enough and ultimately decides it is ‘done’.[3] Provocations toward a final decision against the Church or Catholic faith can include a struggle with or disagreement with a particular Church teaching or teachings, a negative interaction with a Church leader or faith community, a process of steady emancipation from parents or grandparents committed to practice, and the accumulation of uninspired or wearisome experiences of the Church over time. Hence, the reported sense of relief for young people when they leave.[4]

Embracing the total picture of the reality of young people vis-à-vis the Church also means acknowledging those who remain engaged with the life and mission of the Church, of whom diversity remains a mark. Some young adults in the Australian survey passionately engage with traditional Catholic expressions of prayer and liturgy. Some want clarity of Church teaching amidst confusion and the cacophony of the blogosphere, while others seek less catechesis and dogmatism and more personal concern. Others shared their negative experiences when they have tried to promote Church teaching and practice in their own schools and parishes, and a lack of effective support in their practice of parish ministry, while others expressed their difficulty with the Church’s understanding of sexuality and relationships.[5]

Given the range of influences on young people, within and outside the Church, and their mixed experiences of faith, there is no one answer for the complexity of these situations, at least not without doing violence to the personal condition and circumstance of each young person which is the very subject of our evangelising mission.

Vocational Discernment

yobrek_021Positively, when Australian youth were asked how the Church can be of help to them, the responses actively invited our communities to provide guidance, to assist and counsel young people in their anxieties, personal challenges, understanding of sexuality and relationship issues.[6] As the meaning and direction of life is not uncovered in a single moment, it is incumbent upon the Church to journey with young lives in realising their own dignity and personal mission, both of which express a fundamental call to holiness.

The Synod’s preparatory document acknowledges that condescension and judgement are not helpful in this project. It also insists that mutual encounter rather than one-sided prescription will be the way in which we discover a personal form of holy living, “No vocation, especially within the Church, can be placed outside [the] outgoing dynamism of dialogue”.[7] This is because our vocational horizon is not “a pre-determined fate, a task to be carried out, a ready-made script . . . God takes seriously the freedom He has given to human beings and responding to his call is a commitment that requires work, imagination, audacity, willingness to make progress also by trial and error”.[8] Accompaniment and an apprenticeship in the life of faith are essential to growth in holiness, pursued by a state of life and also in professional life.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis has already advised “The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life”.[9] Accompaniment demands patience but can be sustained with the assurance that it has an immediate purpose, “To accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father . . .  Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelisation.”[10]

Picture4Frustratingly for many, the accompaniment urgently desired by young Australian Catholics and urged by Pope Francis cannot be found neatly contained within a package or program. It demands in fact an entire culture of ecclesial life in which discernment is a norm and in regular evidence. When genuine discernment is not practiced in our sacramental programs, leading to fruitless reception, when RCIA processes teach people about Catholicism but neglect to train them to live as disciples, when parish pastoral councils and parish groups are more focused on ‘who will do it?’ rather than ‘where are we going?’, the offer of accompaniment to young people will appear more like false advertising than the expression of a community fully open to what God wants for the Church. The preparatory document for the Synod minces no words, “We cannot expect our offer of pastoral accompaniment towards vocational discernment to be credible to young people, unless we show that we are able to practice discernment in the ordinary life of the Church”.[1]

Conclusion

If disaffiliation from Catholic faith and the Church is a process that unfolds over time, and the reasons that people leave contain the reasons they might return, then we must commit ourselves to the patient and thoroughgoing work of creating cultures in which accompaniment is not reserved for a select few or the ‘super spiritual’ but is the ordinary experience of young people in their contact with the Church.

As set out in the preparations for the Synod, it will demand of our communities mature disciples who are faithful Christians engaged with the Church and the wider world, who constantly seek holiness, can be a confidant without judgement, who actively listen to needs and respond in kind, are deeply loving and self-aware, and who can acknowledge their own limits and know the joy and sorrows of the spiritual journey.[12] In confronting the challenges and listening to the hopes of the young, we pray that the October Synod will prompt this depth of conversion in each of us as witnesses to God’s mission.

 

[1] Australian Institute of Family Studies, Snapshots of Family Relationships 2008.

[2] Dantis, Trudy and Reid, Stephen, Called to Fullness of Life and Love: National Report on the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Youth Survey 2017 (Pastoral Research Office, 2018), 30.

[3] McCarty, Robert J., and Vitek, John M. Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics (2017), 11.

[4] Ibid., 27.

[5] Dantis and Reid, 34-36.

[6] Dantis and Reid, 41.

[7] Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 140.

[8] Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 121.

[9] Evangelii Gaudium 169.

[10] Evangelii Gaudium 170;173.

[11] Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 139.

[12] Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 132.

the idea of the university

unistudentsPrior to my entry into the Church my experience of Christian campus ministry had been limited to members of the Evangelical Union at the University of Sydney who while dressed in matching t-shirts failed to convince me of the value of organised religion. Hence, my experience of Christian ministry in the university setting is limited to say the least!

It was an unexpected privilege, then, to join the campus ministry staff at the Australian Catholic University (ACU) this week for a conference of leaders, and share some thoughts about planning and evangelisation in a tertiary environment.

I focused on the context of campus ministry, briefly addressing the critical role of the university within the Church’s life and then identifying some of the challenges for mission in a tertiary environment.

Without doubt, the Catholic university retains its significance as a primary way in which young adults can encounter the person, a community and living tradition of Jesus Christ, perhaps with more impact than other institutions. In the late twelfth century, with the emergence of the Cathedral School of Paris – which by 1170 had become the greatest university of Northern Europe, the University of Paris – and with the monasteries shutting their doors to secular students, the Catholic university became a central way by which the Church invigorated the Christian culture of medieval Europe.

The university embodied an ideal, a community of learning where the fullness of truth was sought through various branches of knowledge and through which faith became credible to human reason (you can read Blessed John Henry Newman’s The Idea of the University for a deeper consideration of universities as schools of universal knowledge). All in all, the great Catholic universities of Europe were not places for the mere communication of content but were schools for the formation of the human person in the light of truth and wisdom.

campusministryThis ideal, of the university as a place for the formation of the mind and soul, remains relevant for campus ministry today as a counter-image to those who would view or engage with the university only as a form of factory for the training of workers and professionals to serve the economy and the interests of the State. Universities can underline for students that we do not simply do things but are, in fact, called to be someone, that we are persons with a vocation. Our universities can bring the resources of the Catholic intellectual tradition to the living of that vocation in human society.

In other words, Catholic universities ought to aim for nothing less than preparing persons to undertake a redemptive role in the world and to bring a Christian perspective to the progress and future of humanity. The culture of our universities ought to incarnate and testify to the fact that faith enriches and deepens our human experience, that faith allows us to encounter life, even suffering, in a new way, and gives direction, purpose and coherence to life.

To highlight the importance of the university consider this scenario. We know that young adults are absent from our parishes which remain (often despite themselves!) the basic unit of the Church’s life. Among all young adult Catholics aged 20-34, only 5-6% would attend Mass on any given weekend. In short, for young people parishes are simply not the primary connection they maintain with the Catholic Church today.

Even in middle high school, for instance, there are more students involved in church-related activities apart from Mass than would be inside our churches on any given weekend. That is, the connections between students and the Church are not primarily through attending worship but through church-related sporting teams (e.g. a netball or soccer club), a music or drama group, a community welfare or justice group, or a youth group, event or festival. All these attract more youth participation and engagement than the average Catholic liturgy (read the Christian Research Association paper on this subject here – PDF, 1MB).

In a similar way, our Catholic universities enjoy more daily contact with more young people in a faith-based environment than our parishes do. Each week, thousands upon thousands of students take part in an explicitly Catholic community of learning whether they have a faith commitment or otherwise. By bringing a strong and articulate tradition of faith to a contemporary culture, by mediating the living experience, culture, and language of Christian faith to young people who may never or are unlikely to darken the door of our parishes, universities can become once more centres of evangelisation.

The Pentecostal megachurches are learning in their own mission that they cannot rely on the experience of worship alone. While an experiential emphasis on faith, the professionalism of their worship services, and variety of programs have seen such megachurches enjoy tremendous growth in their first decades, as people come to maturity an overemphasis on individuality and the ever present danger of superficiality can lead to a plateauing of their life.

If churches want to ensure their survival over the long term, they must branch into education and social welfare, as Pentecostal churches such as Hillsong have done in recent years and as the Catholic Church has done for centuries. So the importance of the university and university ministry within the breadth or totality of the Church’s mission should not be understated as a way by which the Church meets and shapes contemporary culture.

Challenges

BrisbaneWhile I have spoken of the ideal of the Catholic university in terms of Christian vocation and identity, this promise is not always so easy to realise.

One of the cultural realities for our universities is what has been described as an ‘educational reductionism’ which impacts not only on students but also our staff members. There are at least two principle factors driving this ‘educational reductionism’, which can leave universities as institutions focused on teaching students how to make a living rather than how to live.

Firstly, there is materialistic ambition which leads to a conception of the university as solely a means to private wealth and advancement. Secondly, there are the societal-economic expectations that come with government funding of our universities, governments that are concerned with a return on investment and productive citizens rather than necessarily good or virtuous ones.

To underscore the danger of such a utilitarian approach to education, consider this letter from a survivor of the Shoah which has relevance to the kind of universities we want:

Dear Teacher, I am the victim of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no one should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers; children poisoned by educated physicians; infants killed by trained nurses; women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education. My request is help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmann’s. Reading and writing are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

The potential of the Catholic university and campus ministry is to foster a genuine Christian culture of learning and excellence which forms people not to be highly-skilled racketeers but to be moral agents who pursue the common good in the light of faith.

It is true that once upon a time, the faith and practice of Catholic families, the surrounding Christian values of the wider community, combined with childhood catechesis followed by sacramental initiation might have been enough to sustain Catholic identity into adulthood for some, even if not all. Even then, it could be intimated that many were perhaps ‘sacramentalised’ without being evangelised. Today we meet second-generation unchurched families and students in our parishes and universities with little memory or familiarity with the faith. This might include the staff members of our universities as well as their student body.

It underscores for us that personal and ecclesial faith has never been the mere consequence of having Catholic parents or having attended a Catholic school as much as these may be helps to holiness. Faith is communal and ecclesial but always grounded in a personal decision to live in and for Christ, a decision that cannot be delegated to any other.

bibleThe university may be one of the last communities of the Gospel within which the riches and dynamism of faith is presented and offered to students who are at their age testing the possibility of any form of commitment in life before  they embrace their futures. It is a time when young adults are asking questions about their identity and their future, asking who they are and what to live for.

We must offer our students a compelling theological anthropology, a story about who we are under God with significance for our relationships with one another and our vocation in the wider world. The university must connect that perennial, personal search for meaning with the Gospel, a Gospel that opens up the deep dimensions of life and interprets that life with a greater end or teleology in sight. As a learning and research community, the university must connect creation to redemption, nature to grace, culture to covenant so that young adults can take their proper place in the world, not as mere producers and consumers, mere citizens of the State, but as virtuous Christians, saints-in-the-making.

As the ecclesiologist Joseph Komonchak avers:

To enter the Church is not to leave the world, but to be in the world differently, so that the world itself is different because there are individuals and communities living their lives because of, in, and for the sake of Jesus Christ.

To be Church, to be a community of believers and ministers within a university, is never to withdraw from the complexities of culture but to speak, witness and inhabit this world, a world which is very much in our hands, with a perspective and a commitment that claims to illuminate its depths and heights. As Komonchak continues, it is to insist that the truth and meaning of this world cannot be found in its fullness apart from what God has revealed in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. This is our identity and our mission within the university. Indeed, this proclamation and witness forms our Christian vocation in the wider world.

 

reforming our parishes

SB048It is relatively easy to speak and write about ‘the Church’ in general terms. Drawing on our tradition as well as reflecting on the contemporary context and its challenges, it becomes possible to articulate visions of the Catholic Church for the future. It is perhaps ever easier to hold varied opinions about the Church and suggest reforms if you never have to put those opinions or ideas into practice.

The task of translating Catholic identity into mission, theology into practice, is a particular responsibility of local bishops, ministers, planners and lay leaders in the Church, including pastoral workers at a parish level and even those in your local parish ministry group. Again, a serene vision or theology of the Church is one thing, the experience and practical realities of Church life and reform are a little more complex (the move towards reform of the Roman Curia will no doubt prove the rule).

The challenge of implementing church reform has come to the fore in recent days through a number of conversations and forthcoming commitments. There is the task of writing an implementation guide for parishes as part of the Pastoral Plan I’ve been working on for the Diocese of Parramatta (how do you write an implementation guide for parishes that are unique in their gifts and needs, while holding them together as members of one local church?), there are preparations for Proclaim 2014, a conference led by the National Office for Evangelisation, which will continue its focus on transforming parish life, the experience of lay ministers I teach, many of whom experience keenly the gap between their best hopes and experience of community life, and then an upcoming address at a clergy conference for the Diocese of Lismore next month on the very subject of parish culture and practices of evangelisation.

SB058All this has brought home the challenge of reforming our parishes in particular as the primary experience of the Church’s communion for most Catholics and the most immediate opportunity for a new evangelisation. The parish community is where visions of the Church and visions of reform are tested, either brought to concrete life or else struggle in their realisation. Unlike Europe where the new ecclesial movements have filled the void left by parish decline, when we talk about ‘the Church’ in Australia we are most often talking about our parishes (and sometimes, though less commonly, our schools).

In preparing for some of the work above, here are a few points that struck me about our parishes as relevant to our future mission as a Church. I hope these will be helpful as points of ongoing reflection for those at the coalface, serving in our parishes from week to week with inspiring dedication to the Gospel:

  • Sadly, many of our parish cultures can actually work against the call to discipleship by their silence on this very matter. This point is made forcefully by Sherry Weddell of the Siena Institute, “Catholics have come to regard it as normal and deeply Catholic to not talk about the first journey – their relationship with God – except in confession or spiritual direction . . . Unfortunately, most of us aren’t spiritual geniuses . . . To the extent that we don’t talk explicitly with one another about discipleship, we make it very, very difficult for most Catholics to think about discipleship.” (Forming Intentional Disciples, 56). Weddell goes on to note that those who do talk about Jesus and their relationship to God can be viewed with suspicion, as either ‘Protestant’ in spirit or as pretenders to sanctity. I agree. While we are certainly not called to be spiritual exhibitionists, there is, I think, a challenge here – to revive the language of discipleship in our parish culture and to encourage explicit conversations about its meaning at all levels of Church. There is nothing more biblical or traditional than the concept of discipleship as the expression of faith received.
  • SB007Related to this pervasive silence about discipleship, and so a lack of focus on this relationship at a parish level, is the phenomenon in which the Mass and the sacraments in general, given to us precisely for a life of discipleship, have come, for many, to replace that journey. As it has been said, people may be ‘sacramentalised’ without ever having been ‘evangelised’. Flowing from this confusion of one for the other is a surface level emphasis on attending Mass in our parishes rather than an accent on a whole life of discipleship within which the sacraments hold a central, inimitable place. If discipleship is reduced to liturgy alone then even the practice of attending Mass is likely to weaken over the long term as the point of a sacramental life is lost on those participating. This whole phenomenon calls on preachers, parishes and diocesan centres of adult formation to again put discipleship at the front and centre of a parish’s identity but also to make explicit the link between the Eucharist and mission for example so that, as Henri de Lubac notes, it becomes clear that the point of this Eucharist is not simply the conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ but our conversion by our reception of him. We learn as much from the account of the Last Supper in Luke’s Gospel (Lk. 22:14f) in which Jesus links the remembrance of him at table to the act of service, as well as the description of Eucharistic gathering provided by Justin Martyr.
  • Moving from the internal life of parishes to their external organisation, it has only recently dawned on me that parishes in Australia are likely to becoming, over the long term, geographically larger while often numerically smaller with the practice of parish amalgamations and the continuing erosion in those identifying as Catholic. A fairly simple and obvious point I know. However, this reality of parish structural change only bolsters the argument for reforming our parishes in terms of discipleship and mission for these concepts provide a larger framework in which to understand and respond positively to such change. If laypersons and clergy alike are focused on the mission for which the Church and each of us personally exists, then structural reform may at least be better understood or contextualised even if not always accepted. To put it simply, sometimes dioceses need to close or change parishes in the interests of the mission of the wider Church and structural change does not need to impede or dampen the missionary initiatives and hopes of the people involved. While this broader missionary identity and purpose of the Church has been a constant refrain of our tradition, reawakened in the minds of both committed and nominal Catholics by Pope Francis in particular, the institutional or even territorial view of our parishes and the Church still dominates to the detriment of a sense of mission.
  • Laity 3One final point that could be made about our parishes is that even ‘successful’ or vibrant parishes, and there quite a few around the country, can become victims of their own success if not constantly vigilant. As has been pointed out, even flourishing parishes can become comfortable in a self-affirming culture while the larger culture continues to move in other directions, leaving a disconnect between the parish and the wider community. All structures, and not merely ecclesial ones, can become introverted and Pope Francis has laid emphasis on this danger throughout his pontificate to date. At a parish level, most of us will know of youth groups that have grown quickly only to experience decline as it finds it difficult to integrate new and other members into the existing group. In the Church and its groups there is always a delicate balance between an internal identity and purpose and an outward mission for which the group exists. Similarly to youth groups, parishes can have a ‘family feel’ that is nice and a comforting experience for those within the group but their relationships can be so intimate that it can be difficult for outsiders to join the community or shape its spirit or direction.

The very complexity of parishes expresses the fact that what lies at the heart of each and every parochial community is not simply a geographical jurisdiction but a fundamental network of relationships. In this sense, though properly a constituent of a diocese, each parish must be sustained from below, not merely by what Karl Rahner SJ described as “folkloristic attachment” to the Church but a real and intentional communion based on a lived discipleship for the sake of the world. A Church grows and is reformed by parishes and communities that focus anew on discipleship and the mission that flows from that relationship. Parishes grow and are reformed by having groups and individuals that are focused on the same.

on world youth day

wydrioWorld Youth Day has arrived. This time around it will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, between the 23-28th July, 2013, the 28th such event in the official count. It will see the first South American pontiff greet hundreds of thousands of young Catholics from around the world, bringing attention to the Church in the Americas and the surrounding social and political milieu to which Pope Francis will no doubt speak.

It is no revelation that opinions differ about the value of World Youth Day, both here in Australia and abroad. In my experience it tends to be fairly evenly split between those who uphold the event as a transforming experience for the young and the cities and nations which host them, while others dismiss World Youth Day as an expensive jamboree that proves of little lasting significance for the ordinary life of the Church.

I think it can be recognised that this triennial – or as it tends to be now, biennial – gathering does in fact shape young Catholic imaginations about the catholicity of the Church, understood as a reference not to the mere geographic reach of the Church but the inherent variety of expression or styles that it contains and embraces.

More fundamentally, it offers the young an experience of pilgrimage, a tradition reaching back to first centuries of the Church’s history (this practice has largely been rejected by Protestantism due to the devotions and relics often associated with such travel). What has been said of the life of the French theologian Yves Congar can be affirmed more generally, “a journey only becomes a pilgrimage through consciousness of the goal that gives meaning to the way”. Pilgrimage calls for interior work that brings together an outward practice with the person and message to which such an undertaking intends and World Youth Day provides just such an opportunity for such growth in faith.

A Mixed Picture

PIGLRIMS PRAY DURING EUCHARISTIC ADORATION AT WORLD YOUTH YOUTH DAY VIGIL IN MADRIDOf course, the real impact of World Youth Day – which epitomises on a grand scale the events-based approach to youth ministry which is becoming more popular in dioceses and even our parishes – depends largely on the receptivity of participants themselves.

As the American journalist John L. Allen noted some years ago, World Youth Day pilgrims can usually be divided up into three broad groups:

  • those attending with personal intent, commitment and fervour (described as a “gung-ho inner core”). These “evangelical Catholics” are devoted believers, often attend Mass more than once a week, accept Church teachings and have a strong sense of Catholic identity;
  • a more lukewarm cohort who are open, identify as Catholic but are not as zealous about the faith; are willing to agree with some Catholic teachings but don’t necessarily accept them all;
  • and then there are others who are just along for the ride, perhaps because friends are going or their parents were prepared to pay for World Youth Day but not a summer in the Bahamas. These are the kids you find playing handball or loitering outside during the catechetical sessions; they have a looser affiliation with the Church and low levels of religious practice.

As for the cities that host World Youth Days, the responses are now familiar. The initial announcement of the event is normally greeted with negativity (as it was in Sydney and has been the case for Rio which hosts two other world events in as many years), there are predictable fears of disorganisation and a cost blowout, but all this eventually gives way to a warmer reception as the prospect of a civic apocalypse recedes.

wydsydPope Benedict XVI himself recognised this gradual acceptance of World Youth Day in host cities, in remarks to a seminarian soon after the Sydney event (2008):

At first [Australians] looked at this World Youth Day with great scepticism because it would obviously cause a lot of bother and many inconveniences to daily life, such as traffic jams etc. However, in the end – as we also saw in the media whose prejudices crumbled, bit by bit – everyone felt involved in this atmosphere of joy and faith; they saw that young people come and do not create problems of security or of any other kind, but can be together joyfully. (L’Osservatore Romano, 13-20 August 2008).

Is It Worth It?

Catholics, too, can be tempted to take the line of scepticism or cynicism towards World Youth Day with the concerns being twofold: accessibility and impact.

SB050Given that for Australians World Youth Day involves a substantial airfare, insurances and accommodation, there can be concerns that the event is not only unsustainable for families, local churches (dioceses) and their parishes but that the expense involved restricts access to a privileged few unless participation is heavily subsidised. On average, the cost of attending World Youth Day from down here in the Antipodes ranges between $5,000-8,000 depending on destination and it is unlikely to get any cheaper in years to come. Hence the need for concerted fundraising to get people there.

The second concern is that World Youth Day has little impact or effect on the lives of young people let alone the dioceses and communities from which they come. The two polarised views we hear about the effect of World Youth Day – the conviction that absolutely each and every participant becomes a fully-fledged disciple of Jesus Christ following the event, and the opposite belief that no one is moved a jot – underscores the need for research in this area.

As a nod in that direction, study of World Youth Day Sydney has demonstrated that the impact of the event on a believer has much to do with their starting religious point. Those starting from a lower point of religiosity – there more for the social than the spiritual aspects of World Youth Day – tend to report some increase in confidence in their faith (“I’m not embarrassed now to let others see that I am a believer”, “I’m now more interesting in learning about my faith”). For those with a stronger religious starting point, World Youth Day often serves as a catalyst to make an even more decisive commitment to their faith (“To accept Jesus as Lord of my life”, “Now I want to live as a disciple of Jesus, a witness to Him”).

Notably, it is usually from among those in the second group that you’re likely to hear World Youth Day described as a “life-changing experience”. Perhaps it is because these young people are already devout that this large-scale, Spirit-filled event fires their energy and consolidates their identity in ways that just aren’t experienced by those of lesser conviction, hence the claims to its power of conversion.

You can read more about the impact of World Youth Days in this session of the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (2009), entitled “Shoring up the foundations:  the large-scale international youth festival as a strategy for the retention of Catholic youth”.

Most of us with involvement in youth ministry would view World Youth Day in positive terms while at the same time acknowledging it is no silver bullet for outreach to and engagement of youth.

Implications for youth ministry

wydsyd2For those close to the ground in ministry with youth, is the events-based approach – epitomised by World Youth Day – the way to go? As intimated, it has certainly become a dominant model in dioceses and some parishes, and the advantages are apparent.

Youth ministry programs and groups often fail or succeed on their ability to attract a “critical mass” of attenders. No young person wants to go to an event with only a handful of participants. In the youth ministry game, for better or worse, numbers matter. So, rather than the week-to-week youth program of old, some parishes and dioceses are favouring the occasional, bigger budget, showcase event.

The downside of this approach is that it can lead to a rather lazy form of youth ministry where one-off events are thrown on the parish or diocesan calendar without any thought to the faith development of young people over the medium to long term. Unfortunately, this is all too common today and the lack of continuity and personalisation of youth ministry can lead to a loss of potential young disciples who were open, maybe even seeking but who never quite found a place to land.

While large youth events make everyone feel good and may serve the youth minister well in terms of visible accountability (‘proving’ the position is justified), the capacity of such gatherings to bring about actual growth in faith can never be assumed. People turning up doesn’t mean people ‘turning on’ or people ‘turning around’. Holding an increasing number of youth events may actual divert energy from more intimate forms of ministry which may better generate disciples and help identify future leaders than the event-driven model.

SB051Whatever the preference, consistency in youth ministry is key because each generation deserves to hear the Gospel in the context of a community. Curiously, some would suggest there is too much emphasis on youth in our Church. Others would counter with humour, “Look around – everything we do seems to be for the elderly!”

While parishes do not hesitate in organising and funding services and outreach to the aged, primary school aged children and other distinct segments of the community, they often need real encouragement in responding to adolescents and young adults. One would have thought evangelisation and pastoral care admit of no exceptions.

As I’ve suggested in a previous blog, our parishes so often want these young people for their energy, witness and the hope that they bring to a greying Church but young people will not be attracted to communities that show no life, enthusiasm or generosity in themselves. I maintain that the absence or presence of young people in the life of the Church is, in part, a function of the vitality of its adult members whom they will one day become.

Conclusion

christtheredeemerAll in all, as a recurring feature of the Church’s outreach to youth, World Youth Days should be commended and supported. Of course, cynicism within and beyond the Church about this international event will continue to abound. However, cynicism is often a buffer against personal commitment and the folly of hacks and commentators who often make little effort themselves in this area of the Church’s life. An alternative to cynicism is hope and World Youth Day brings tonnes of it.

As for the next World Youth Day? The safe money is on Krakow, Poland, given John Paul II’s impending canonisation and his status as the originator of the World Youth Day events. 2015 also marks the 10th anniversary of the pontiff’s death so we could see the next World Youth Day a little sooner than expected. World Youth Day has been held in Poland just once before, in 1991, hosted by the southern city of Częstochowa.

As a local plug, you can read about the experiences of pilgrims in Rio from my own Diocese of Parramatta at their blog. Don’t hesitate to share your own views on World Youth Day and comment on how it might be better supported and integrated here in Australia.

getting started in ministry

planningLast week I met with a diocesan youth minister who was seeking advice on planning for parish communities and better coordinating their activities toward a unified mission. For me it was an opportunity to learn more about the organisation of other dioceses and their parishes which differ quite considerably across the country.

One of the recommendations that I made was that whether you are working within the context of a parish ministry, a religious order, or for a diocese it is essential to put aside some specific time for planning rather than jumping headfirst into frenetic activity.

Gregory of Nyssa, the fourth century Cappadocian Father, warned that the mere appearance of Christian activity and practice does not mean any genuine progress is being made. He likened directionless activity to

. . . those who toil endlessly as they climb uphill in sand. Even though they take long steps, their footing in the sand always slips downhill, so that, although there is much motion, no progress results from it. (The Life of Moses)

Genuine progress demands beginning on firm ground, including the effort to plan, otherwise we risk expending a lot of energy in ministries that make little progress or have little impact. As it has been put, without proper planning, direction and goals, we can be ‘paying people to be nice’.

Here are a few pointers which may be helpful for those just beginning in ministry as well as those further along in experience. These can assist both lay and ordained ministers to make the most of their opportunities and reduce the amount of energy lost to initiatives that are uncoordinated or ill-conceived from the start:

  • windowUnderstand the ecclesial context, history and organisational structure. One of the first things I did, and found helpful, was to request an organisational map of the diocese before all else. One of the advantages of working within the Catholic Church is that there will be a relatively firm structure, that is for sure! A map of these structures and relevant organisations within your diocese, parish, or religious network will help you identify who the stakeholders are, to identify those who link with your work and help you to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes! It is also important to quickly become familiar with the history of the context you are working in. This helps you understand people’s attitudes, opinions and actions in the present. All of this takes time, though after a year or so you should be picking up the ‘lay of the land’. If you don’t have a clear picture of the ecclesial landscape and dynamics you are working in it can be difficult to make genuine progress. After all, you can’t do it alone and need to collaborate with others.
  • Ensure ownership of your ministry by those you report to, as well as the provision of adequate resources to fulfil your ministry. This includes the need for your own ongoing formation. Accountability and governance are not only important dimensions of the Church as a human organisation but a part of the Church’s self-understanding as a theological reality. The Church is structured in such a way as to not only safeguard but to strengthen an apostolic proclamation from generation to generation. This means that those you report to, often an ordained minister, a vicar, a head of a religious institute or perhaps even a bishop, need to exercise oversight and take ownership of the work you have undertaken. Sometimes a helpful distinction is made between ‘responsibility’ and ‘accountability’ – you may be responsible for a particular work but someone ‘higher up the chain’ will be ultimately accountable for it. So regular meetings with your superior are a must. Your overseer also has responsibilities and they should support you not only in rhetoric but also in practical resources. All church organisations should be resourcing their people to succeed, not to fail, so it is important to ask for a budget that allows you to get the job done. If they could have done it for less or without expense, they would not have employed you in the first place! Finally, securing resources for your ministry also means ensuring you are not working in isolation and that you have opportunities to network with others and receive formation and/or supervision of some kind. Working in the Church means working with people and there is nothing more rewarding and challenging than that. Good supervision, networking with others and ongoing formation are essential for your longevity as a leader.
  • Establish a coherent framework for your ministry. Take youth ministry in a diocese for example. Is your ministry going to be parish-based, diocesan events-based, or a combination of these and in what proportion? No one can ‘do it all’ so what will your approach be, your principle message for young people, and what are the three goals you seek to achieve in the first year? Clarifying these basic goals and approaches to your ministry are important. It strikes me that in speaking of a ‘framework’ for your ministry those who take up an existing role often feel an expectation to simply duplicate what was before. However, again, if what had gone before was so successful or sustainable, it is doubtful that your predecessor would have moved on or that the organisation would have employed you to take it up. Once you familiarise yourself with the context and history, have the courage to begin to shape the goals that you discern as critical to the life of your community. You, also, need to own the work if you are to carry it out not only with competence but personal passion.
  • Build a reliable team throughout the planning process yet still assert leadership. As I’ve mentioned before, often Church organisations have strategic plans that no one really cares about other than its authors. No one else feels invested in the plan and so few are likely to respond to its initiatives. When you start out in your ministry, start collecting names and remembering profiles of good people with a proven record for getting things done. Remember, these may not be the people recommended to you by predecessors or the people currently in place! Ask the skilled and capable people you have identified for their views as you plan for your ministry. Not only are you getting wise advice from a gifted cohort but they may also form a future team that can help you turn the vision of your ministry into a reality. By having their say, people become genuine owners of a plan and you are on your way to building and nurturing a reliable team. Keep in mind this does not mean handing everything over to committee – it remains important to lead from the front and it is indeed an old saying that ‘if you want to kill something off send it to committee’. Work towards a style of leadership that is genuinely consultative but is unafraid to make decisions and exercise leadership when called for.

There are many other dimensions of good planning in ministry and while few of us, including myself, manage to apply or appropriate them all, it is helpful to have them before us as a resource for future thinking.

greatgrace2013For those interested in further reflection on ministry, especially since the Second Vatican Council, the Sydney Archdiocese is hosting the “Great Grace” conference next month. It is well worth attending if you can. I’ll be there speaking on the subject of “co-responsibility” and you can read my abstract and those of others here.

As the landscape of ministry develops across our Church, I will be suggesting that it is indeed possible to affirm the integrity of ministry by the non-ordained and uphold the unique charism of the ordained without compromise or a diminishment of either. As so often happens in the Church, the practice of co-responsibility is outpacing the theology and Church policy in this area. Yet this does not necessarily mean a distortion is taking place. In fact, it can herald development that is authentic to our tradition, including our self-understanding as a ‘communion’.

I hope to share more reports on the Conference and reflections on ministry in posts to come.

dilemmas in planning

consultbhOne of the best aspects of my role as a diocesan pastoral planner is the opportunity to meet with others engaged in similar projects, in parishes, ministry groups and ministry networks across Australia and abroad. This week was no different and the experiences that were shared brought home to me the very complexity of planning for church communities.

While pastoral planning sounds terribly bureaucratic and less glamorous than other aspects of ecclesial life, it is important for the reasons I’ve outlined in a previous post – to cultivate a clearly owned vision of identity and mission, to draw on the sense of faith that is given to all members, to match church structures with mission, and to enable faith communities to respond effectively and proactively to change rather than being passively shaped by outside forces.

StonesAll communities need to make plans because wanting to grow is not enough. We need to plan to grow and be explicitly organised to grow the faith of our members as well as to evangelise. Indeed, a long line of Church research reveals that making no plans for growth results in little or no growth every time. So without a commitment to planning, church communities and ministries do not grow and, in fact, risk decline.

Though the rationale for planning is clear, the reality is never so simple. Anyone who has attempted to plan for a parish, for youth leaders, youth groups or adult ministry knows how difficult it can be to cultivate ownership, engagement and commitment to a vision with even the best intentions.

So, why is planning in our church communities so difficult? Below are a few reasons that came to mind. If we can name some of these challenges upfront as we prepare to plan for our group or network, we can consider responses and adjust our strategies and expectations along the way.

  • Negotiating diversity in the group: all parishes, groups and ministry networks are marked by diversity of one form or another, whether it is ethnic background, social or economic status, education, theological literacy, or ecclesiological viewpoints to name only a few. This plurality complicates the pursuit of unitary goals within the group even while it offers a diversity of perspectives on faith and community.
  • Defining the problem and priorities: it follows from the above that achieving a consensus on the core issue or issues at the heart of the community’s life or, alternatively, the key priorities for its growth can be difficult. Even when a consensus is achieved within a group as to a decision or course of action, it can represent the ‘lowest common denominator’ that is acceptable to all members i.e. it can signify the least we can agree on. For this reason any consultation process on problems and priorities must be paired with leadership for good leaders, whether they be ordained or lay, can challenge communities to look further than they might otherwise be willing to for the sake of a stronger mission.
  • Cultivating ownership of the vision: too often the only persons truly engaged and who understand the strategic or ministry plan are its authors, usually a small group or select committee, while the community it is intended to serve may be scarcely interested or committed to its vision or contents. Planners cannot afford to be naïve to this reality, that few others are likely to regard ‘your’ plan as important as you do! However, rather than sink into resignation, this gap between the planners and the community provides you with the strongest spur to constant communication, including consultation throughout the process, the provision of regular feedback on progress and proposals, and bringing people ‘into’ the project as early as possible ahead of implementation. The bottom line is that you can never communicate enough.
  • Recognising limits of planning in an ‘open’ system: solving a problem within parish life is not the same as a problem of mathematics, such as solving an equation, nor is it the same as playing a game of chess. In the latter instances, the ‘mission’ is clear and it also clear when the problem has been resolved – the equation is solved or checkmate is declared. In planning for a church or faith group, however, the ‘problems’ never end because there is always something more that could be done in the name of the community’s life and mission. More realistically, the church leader or planner will say, ‘that’s good enough’ or ‘this is the best we can do for now.’ Those responsible for planning for church communities will tend to disappoint to the extent that they can never ‘solve the problems of the Church’, as it were, that others, somewhat naively, expect them to. Community expectations can be unrealistic and this explains the cynicism that leaders can encounter at the beginning of their planning process. Parishes and ministries are ‘open’ and complex systems, organic networks of relationships, both spiritual communions and human organisations, that are never closed, static or as ‘resolvable’ as they appear.

Before embarking on a planning process, it is good to have in view the many challenges that will arise in cultivating a common vision within a diverse and multidimensional Church. It also underscores the importance of networking with others in the field and sharing approaches in what is an intensely rewarding process that brings ecclesiology together with pastoral practice for the good of Christian faith, discipleship and mission.