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Youth ministry challenges for the church

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On the 4th of July 2017, I celebrated the second anniversary of my priestly ordination. It is five years since I completed the Shekinah Youth Retreat Training Course. Reflecting on the last five years, I give thanks for the formation I received in Shekinah in 2012 under Sr. Jennifer Perkins and Fr. John Horan, empowering me to work more competently and effectively in ministry with young people.

This area – youth ministry – contains some of the greatest challenges for the Church and for believers. This has always been the case but never more so than today. In an era of ‘believing without belonging’, of private spirituality, an era where the faith community is manifestly failing to attract many of the next generation into the fold, we find ourselves at a crisis point. Each new generation is called to take up its place in the Church. But now we are afraid because so many of the current young people are drifting and we seem powerless to bring them back. There is a genuine and appropriate fear when we examine numbers and age profiles. Crisis can be defined as make or break. Our faith assures us that God will not allow us to break. In saying that, our faith also demands that we enter into the real conditions of our time and witness to God’s kingdom. This time is presented to us through his providence so that we can once again take up the mission to announce in a fresh way and unveil for our young people, the hidden presence of God in their lives. This too is the basic premise of the Shekinah programme.

Priestly formation emphasizes that priests should become bridges and not obstacles for this encounter of people with Jesus Christ.[1] The knowledge, skills and attitudes that I learned in Shekinah have helped me in the last two years to enjoy some modest success connecting with young people. Genuine evangelical connection is not an easy thing to achieve. It is difficult to strike the right balance. It is possible to connect fairly well with the normal young person who has not been too damaged by the trials of life. It is not difficult or impossible to share experience of sport or popular culture with teenagers. Unfortunately, not many young people are patently thirsting for doctrine at this time. Not many want to take up the discipline of prayer in a serious way. It seems to me that they look at the visible Church today and see it as something older people do. They probably have an intuition of the gap between the teachings proclaimed and the lives being lived. They struggle to reconcile their scientific type education with the mysterious and miraculous stories of the Bible. Many teenagers, with their sense of justice, cannot understand some of the Church’s stances on ethical issues like contraception, homosexuality and the role of women. These issues, though unspoken, are real live coals that present obstacles to young people from engaging. Without doubt, the uncertainties, fears and existential unrest that have become hallmarks of the new millennium echo in the lives of our young people too. We have a duty to offer them the shield of faith. We have the task of helping them to align the apparently separate elements of their lives in to live-able world-view. We ought to be helping our young people to discover the deepest meaning of vocation – the plan that God has mysteriously hard-wired into our lives. Vocation is the secret to true well-being and the authentic flowering of our abilities. Faith is the pearl of great price that we ought not to hide.[2]

In the formation offered through the Shekinah modules, there is a very credible process which encourages and empowers any youth minister to gain traction in this challenging horizon. Pope John Paul II promoted the new evangelization by calling us to preach the same message, the one Gospel of Jesus Christ – but with new methods and new ardour.

The first step in the Shekinh process is experience. We are never ready but we all bring some experience. We cannot anticipate everything. We will never have all the answers. Shekinah sets up a safe way that allows us to come face to face with real live teenagers in a faith context. We might call it ‘a safe vulnerability.’ As part of a team, with a solid plan and plenty of resources and training behind us, we get a first-hand experience of leading young people in a retreat. In one of my retreats, I can remember bringing the group to the Redemptoristine Church at the Ruah retreat centre grounds, in St. Alphonsus’ Monastery. I was explaining the tabernacle and the presence of Jesus within to some 5th years. There was a girl in the group who was very uncomprehending especially with all the bowing and genuflecting. It was difficult for her to get her head around the idea of the real presence of Jesus under the species of bread. After several attempts to build a bridge for her, she said – “I get it now.” I was sure by her tone that she may have caught the idea but not the faith. I am glad to have had such real experiences. At the least now, for that girl, a question of the mysterious and transcendent had opened up, regardless of how she herself would address it. And for me, I had a better idea of where many young people are at vis-à-vis faith. Only through engagement can we begin to gauge the reality of young people and come to understand both how open many are to faith and also how far off many are from what we might consider the ideal.

This is the second step of the Shekinah process: to gradually acquire an accurate understanding of the terrain. I would much rather honestly affirm the true situation of the young Irish Church and address it adequately, than believe the untruth that all our young people are faithful, informed and engaged in matters of faith. As Aristotle said, not many people are either angels or beasts but in-between. The Shekinah inputs about things like sub-cultures among young people and the stages in personal and spiritual development and maturity have been invaluable to me. Each new experience confirms that we cannot apply an old model with young people. The new wine needs fresh skins.[3] Shekinah has empowered me to re-engage and re-experience with deeper vision. We can bring out from our resource pool things old and new[4] – new technologies, methods and resources as well as age-old proven aspects of our faith such as Marian Devotion, adoration, spiritual direction, vocational exploration and confession depending on the level of formation we meet.

Then comes engagement. In a synergistic way, with other trained retreat facilitators, we learn to put together an extensive and holistic retreat plan. The plan would be made up of many elements including scripture, story, music, art, dance and drama as well as multiple engagements with modern teen life. A crucial element in the retreat are the smaller groups where some stimulus encourages reflection and conversation on the part of the young people. Often, in my role as a Priest, listening is the greatest gift I can give and this is true in the small groups. The retreat plan would have built in contingencies and great variety. Its implementation, like all grace-filled ministry, begins, proceeds and finishes in prayer. Naturally enough the learning is never complete. I am still a novice in these areas and constantly trying to gain a foothold on this mountain. Every retreat finishes with honest assessment and shared reflection so that learning is carried forward to future engagement. I relish the challenge of encounter with teenagers. Unlike my own era, where it was more likely to be one-way traffic – where all the talking was at the youth and all the listening on their side – now youth ministry is now a real encounter and a two-way relationship. We have much to give them, especially in the pearl of great price which is the gospel but we also know that in them we can already find the gospel out of the mouth of the child.[5] In my two years of ministry, I have seen both ends of the scale. I have heard confessions for hours in Roscrea at the Youth 2000 annual retreat and been amazed at the level of faith I found there. I have gone to classrooms where students showed very little enthusiasm or energy. I think the Shekinah retreat model offers a good system to cater for different levels of faith.

Having said a lot, it all comes down to the grace at work in ways that we can barely appreciate.[6] If we can open a space for God’s grace then we have achieved something lasting. In all ministry, the techniques, the technologies and the methods we use will always fall short of their goal, if they are not backed up by the personal pursuit of holiness by the minister. Children and young people are amateur psychologists and they can spot a half-hearted or un-authentic approach. In this, as in all things, let us rely on the Lord, for the grace of God is our strength. To finish, I would recommend the Shekinah course to anyone who is considering it. The course has a lot to offer and most of all the empowerment, confidence and resources to push out into deep water and pay out the nets for a catch.[7] Duc in altum and may God be with you.

Fr. Vincent Stapleton

[1] Pastores Dabo Vobis 43

[2] Matt 13:46

[3] Mark 2:22

[4] Matt 13:52

[5] Matt 11:25

[6] Ephesians 3:20

[7] Luke 5:4

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