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The Necessity of Youth Ministry

May 23, 2016


Recently, one of my priest colleagues here at the seminary emailed me about a new essay on youth ministry. The piece was entitled, “The Problem With Youth Ministry,” written by the young, brilliant, prolific, and envy-inducing, Marc Barnes over at Bad Catholic. Barnes is almost half my age, yet I look up to him. He knows his faith, he gets the culture, he writes very well, and he’s funny. 

Barnes’ essay on the problem with youth ministry is provocative, which is evidenced by the many comments, likes, and re-posts of this particular work. His thesis is that, unlike the family and the apostolic priesthood, which maintain a natural authority to proclaim the Gospel to young people, youth ministers have no natural authority to do so. Barnes argues, “Youth ministry as a primary catechetical and evangelical tool only exists as a necessity if the family has failed.” Youth ministers, according to Barnes, are spiritual band-aids that are doing important work, but in a perfect Catholic world, there would be no need for youth ministers or for youth ministry as we know it.

Barnes is right that the home is the fundamental and original source of catechesis and evangelization – he cites the Catechism twice to ground his argument. Let me bolster the argument even more by referencing the Rites for Marriage and Baptism.

First, before a couple professes their vows at the altar in the sacrament of marriage, the priest or deacon asks them three questions. Here’s the third: “Will you accept children lovingly from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and His Church?” The minister needs a public confirmation from the couple that they understand that their duty as a husband and wife is to be open to bringing children into the world, and to educate those children in the Catholic faith. As Barnes notes in his essay, parents have a natural authority over their children and it is fundamentally their duty as Christian parents to hand on the Faith to their sons and daughters.

 Second, in the Rite of The Baptism of a Child, just before the Renunciation of Sin and the Profession of Faith, the priest or deacon speaks to the parents and godparents: “On your part, you must make it your constant care to bring him (her) up in the practice of the faith. See that the divine life which God gives him (her) is kept safe from the poison of sin to grow always stronger in his (her) heart.” I have always liked the tone of these words – they are pointed and serious. They make demands. Sometimes parents and godparents gulp when I deliver them. And that’s a good thing. It means that they understand their responsibilities.

 Following the actual baptism, the anointing, the clothing in the white garment, and the presentation of the candle, the minister offers prayers over the mother, the father, and then the entire assembly. Here’s an important excerpt from the prayer over the father: “He and his wife will be the first teachers of their child in the ways of faith. May they also be the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by what they say and do.” This prayer supports Barnes’ argument as well. To quote Barnes, “The family consists in a natural authority, and as such, is a fundamental space in which to proclaim the Gospel.” Amen.

 Barnes and I agree that the fundamental and original source of catechesis is in the home, and it comes specifically from mothers and fathers who have a natural authority over their children. Parents have a privileged role in passing on the Faith to their sons and daughters, not just in what they say, but more importantly, in what they do. Moms and dads are called by the Church to be disciples of Jesus in order to show their children how to be disciples.

 So what of youth ministry? Is Barnes right that if Catholic parents simply did what they were supposed to do (as the natural communicators of the Gospel to their children) that the American model of youth ministry would have no need to exist? I don’t think so, and I’d like to suggest a few reasons why youth ministry is necessary, good, and dare I say, supernatural.

First, in this Year of Faith – a time when we’ve been asked by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to study not only the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but also the documents of the Second Vatican Council – let’s see what, if anything, the Church has to say about lay ministry, in particular, youth ministry. Lumen Gentium states that “the laity can be called in different ways to more immediate cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy. . . . (t)hey may, moreover, be appointed by the hierarchy to certain ecclesiastical offices which have a spiritual aim.” (LG §33) Barnes argues that only the family and the apostolic priesthood enjoy a natural authority in the proclamation of the Gospel, but Lumen Gentium seems to indicate that some lay people are indeed called to direct cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy. In other words, the Church extends some of its natural (or supernatural) hierarchical authority to the laity.

A shorter document from the council, The Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (Apostolicam Actuositatem) states that “different fields of apostolic action are open to the laity” and it mentions ministry to “the young” in particular. (AA §9) Barnes is right that the apostolic priesthood contains a natural authority, but the Church insists that the laity are able to participate in that very authority through their baptismal priesthood. The Council reminds us that, “Their activity within the church communities is so necessary that without it the apostolate of the pastors will frequently be unable to offer its full effect.” (AA §10)   Youth ministers may not be clergy, but the clergy need them to help carry out their mission. 

What particular actions does the Church envision from such lay persons? Here’s a nice list: “(T)hey engage zealously in apostolic works; they attract people towards the church who had perhaps been far away from it; they ardently cooperate in the spread of the word of God, particularly by catechetical instruction; by their expert assistance they increase the efficacy of the care of souls.” (AA §10) The best youth ministers I know embody this list in their parish or campus apostolate. 

Youth ministry, when it is being what it is called be, is not out to replace the family or the apostolic priesthood – it offers humble and zealous cooperation in the Church’s saving mission which begins in the family and continues in the ecclesial community. 

Second, we must not forget that youth ministry has been around for a long time –we just didn’t call it “youth ministry.” Men and women in religious communities played the role of “youth minister” for centuries, and they were good at it. Think of all the Catholic grade schools and high schools that were once staffed almost entirely by consecrated religious. Parents wanted other faithful people to play an important role in the religious formation of their children, and they knew that religious communities could offer such help and cooperation. In other words, they looked to other faithful people to assist them in raising and forming their children. 

Do men and women religious who are not ordained to the apostolic priesthood have a “natural” authority over children? Maybe not, but surely they have some authority – it’s the authority that comes from their baptism. It may not be natural, but perhaps “super-natural” is more than sufficient. And maybe that’s what Jesus was getting at when he told the crowd, “Who are my mother and my brothers? . . . Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” 

Third, recall Pope Francis’ words from World Youth Day 2013: “What is the best tool to catechize a young person? Another young person.” It’s true that parents are called to be the first and best teachers to their children in the ways of faith, but they can’t do it alone. Even good Catholic parents are constantly longing for other credible models who can affirm all that has be learned in the home and expand upon it. They know that they need the help of the church community to raise their children well. Children eventually come to a point in their lives where they ask, “Is everything I learned at home true?” Having credible witnesses close at hand is necessary to confirming all the good work that began in the home. Teens need to see people other than their parents living a rich life of faith to assure them that what they’ve been told is actually true. (Trust me, I’ve worked with many parents who did a fine job communicating the Gospel to their children in the home, but whose children are now very far from Christ and his Church.) 

Fourth, “LifeTeen” and “Edge” are not meant to replace the role of the family in religious education and formation. Both the middle school and the high school programs exist in order to bring teens closer to Christ and his Church, regardless of family background. My first parish assignment was a “LifeTeen” parish, and I will admit that I too approached the program with suspicion. But when I noticed that teens from very solid Catholic families were participating to grow deeper in their lives of faith, and then would reach out to minister to their peers whose faith and whose families weren’t so strong, I changed my tune. Moreover, when I witnessed a youth minister and his core staff modeling good Christian living as they often played the role of father, mother, sister, and brother to teens who needed to know that they were loved, I was reminded of the way that many religious communities took care of young people as their own throughout the history of the Church. And when teens who came from non-practicing families experienced profound conversions through their participation in youth ministry, and then were eventually able to catechize their own parents and bring them back to Jesus and his Church, I was sold. (It’s also worth noting that that same parish has eight young men studying for the apostolic priesthood in our diocesan seminarians, and not all of them come from “ideal” Catholic families.)

Finally, it’s important to remember that our world is fallen. Yes, Jesus has saved us, and yes, original sin is washed way in baptism, but the effects of original sin remain with us, even after baptism. Augustine called this reality concupiscence, and its power should not be taken lightly.   People are weak and they do stupid things, and a lot of the time they don’t even know why they do them. Often, they don’t even want to do them, but they do them anyway. I’ve never met an engaged couple that planned on getting divorced after marriage or a seminarian who hoped to leave priestly ministry after ordination, but unfortunately it happens. We ought to do everything we can to prevent it from happening, but it happens. And every time it happens, it’s sad. 

So what do you do with children who come from divorced families, or families of unwed parents, or families who don’t practice their faith, or families who get to church on Sunday but lack even the most basic understanding of Catholicism? Who is going to evangelize their children? Who is going to help parents in their Christian formation of their children? Should we leave them in the dark? Of course not. 

Parents are supposed to be the fundamental, original source of catechesis and evangelization to their children, but many parents fail in this responsibility. Marc Barnes is right to say that parents need to be better at parenting, to do the work that they promised to do at the altar and at the baptismal font. But as we’ve seen, even the best of parents need help from the Church in raising their children in the life of faith, and that help comes not only from those in the apostolic priesthood, but also from youth ministers, whose authority comes to them through baptism and who have been entrusted “with tasks more closely connected with the duties of pastors.” (AA §24)

The world is fallen, but ecclesia supplet.