This series of teaching editorials focuses on “Christ is Alive,” the 2019 apostolic exhortation by Pope Francis and our youth and young adult ministry efforts in the Archdiocese of Louisville.
As I write this, we are in a near-global lockdown, isolated and distanced from one another to slow down the spread of the coronavirus.
When I was invited to reflect on “Christ is Alive” a month ago, I knew I would focus on what I believe is the essence of youth ministry: accompaniment. For me, that means showing up, even when I have no idea what to say. It is walking with someone where they are, rather than expecting them to meet me on my terms. It’s listening and paying attention to ensure that the other feels seen and heard. It’s meeting youth on their turf and investing time and presence in ways that foster authentic, meaningful conversations and belonging.
In paragraph 185 of “Christ is Alive,” Pope Francis sums it up quite simply with a single sentence (that I highlighted, underlined, and starred when I read it): “The Church needs to make a commitment to accompanying these young people.”
Engagement looks radically different now from even one month ago, much less 5-10 years ago and especially from when I was a teenager in the 1980s. The world is turned upside down and “showing up” for each other is limited to text, Instagram, FaceTime, Zoom and other virtual spaces. How does anyone foster openness and connection while at a minimum distance of six feet apart? And while immersed in uncertainty, anxiety and isolation? Authentic engagement requires some vulnerability — letting yourself be seen as you are and, thus, inviting others to do the same. Attempting that online can feel superficial. Fabricated. Phony.
In “Christ is Alive,” Pope Francis addresses the limitations and deficiencies inherent in virtual communities. “It is not healthy to confuse communication with mere virtual contact. Online relationships can become inhuman … Digital spaces blind us to the vulnerability of another human being and prevent us from our own self-reflection.” He also acknowledges that “the web and social networks … provide an extraordinary opportunity for dialogue, encounter and exchange between persons.”
I am woefully unprepared to navigate the virtual world as the primary means of connecting with the students I serve. I barely manage the campus ministry Instagram and Twitter accounts I have. My teenage daughters help me learn about new apps, but this is mostly uncharted territory for me.
Pope Francis counsels us that “Anxiety can work against us by making us give up whenever we do not see instant results.” My first attempt at creating and posting a video on YouTube took three days and included countless mistakes and retries (and tearful outbursts of anger and frustration). But then seniors (to whom the message was addressed) and alumni sent replies filled with gratitude: “Thank you for your video. Needed it and your message really hit my heart.” “With all this chaos and hardship, nice to take a moment and get some perspective.” “I have my (senior retreat) medal hanging from my rearview mirror. I am so grateful for you and for everything living the fourth stands for.”
They reminded me that connection is only possible if we open ourselves up to it. I may be a rookie as I traverse into the virtual world to accompany young people where they are, but I am still showing up! No matter how awkward or out of place or inadequate it might feel.
In calling the Church to accompany young people, I think Pope Francis is saying that, ultimately, the way we show up is not nearly as important as showing up for young people with our hearts open, without judgment or conditions. We must welcome and hold them with love and acceptance, even when they come with questions, doubts or disbelief.
If we show up for youth in this way, then we become the conduits through which they encounter God’s love. As Pope Francis says, “Instead, let yourself be loved by God, for he loves you just as you are. He values and respects you, but he also keeps offering you more: more of his friendship … more desire to live by his Gospel … becoming more fully yourself.”
In this challenging time, may we all continue to encounter God’s love through our connections with one another. As Saint Paul reminds us in his Letter to the Romans, “Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Mary Emrich is the director of campus ministry at Trinity High School.