Teaching Our Faith — All of us are called to youth ministry

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.

In the world of youth ministry, we have felt the Holy Spirit moving in new ways for quite a while now. It was no surprise the Holy Father decided to address this last year in his apostolic exhortation, “Christ Is Alive!” He understood we had come to a place where, more than ever, we needed to be quiet and LISTEN to our young people.

What resulted is a love letter of encouragement. As has been referenced in earlier articles in this series, Pope Francis reminds us that youth are agents of youth ministry and we adults are here to accompany them. Each has gifts and talents given to build up the kingdom of God. We are journeying together. The youth have told us we need to become more flexible, more inviting and look past “labels” we give and are given. In “Christ is Alive,” Pope Francis encourages us to accept gratefully “the contributions of the lay faithful, including young people and women … No one should be excluded or exclude themselves.”

When we speak of outreach to our youth, Pope Francis says we need to use the language of closeness, “the language of generous, relational and existential love that touches the heart, impacts life and awakens hope and desires. Young people need to be approached with the grammar of love, not by being preached at.” I have known for a long time that young people can spot a phony or a self-righteous person from a mile away. They do not have any interest in that. When we become involved with them in the authenticity of our lives, though, we can share stories of our lives and God’s presence in them.

I have witnessed so many times youth ministers, campus ministers, adults heading parish ministries and others taking time to get to know our young people, listening to what they have to say and engaging in authentic relationships. I look back at my own teen years and am so thankful for the adults who listened and never judged my questions or suggestions, especially my beloved Franciscans at Mount St. Francis. More recently, I think of a parish’s two volunteer youth ministers who are listening to youth, both those born in this country and refugee youth born in Africa, to design a retreat day the youth requested. It is heartwarming and affirming to see each youth’s culture, questions and faith stories being lovingly considered.

In the area of spiritual growth, the Holy Father makes an important point: “rather than being too concerned with communicating a great deal of doctrine, let us first try to awaken and consolidate the great experiences that sustain the Christian life. In the words of Romano Guardini, ‘when we experience a great love … everything else becomes part of it.’ ” When our young people experience the unconditional love of Christ, or see us sharing that love, fertile ground is set for an even deeper connection to God. In fact, Pope Francis says, “it has to have a primary place in every project of youth formation and growth to maturity.”

Many of our young people experience Christ’s great love through mission trips and service. Pope Francis acknowledges, “… it doesn’t take much to make young people missionaries … They learn how to look beyond their family and group of friends, and they gain a broader vision of life. At the same time, their faith and their sense of being part of the Church grow stronger,” and “lead to a renewed experience of faith and even serious thoughts about a vocation.”

Most of us who have been ministering to youth for a while can tell you how youth speak of “looking into the face of Christ” when they connect with the people they serve on mission trips and other outreach. Some tell us they finally understand what Saint Teresa of Calcutta was talking about. They also share with us the gifts they received from those same people: humility, patience, understanding, fortitude, love, joy and many others. This often leads to an increase in contemplative prayer, a greater longing for the Eucharist and retreats and a desire for more inclusivity of all God’s children.

I humbly encourage you to listen today. Pope Francis tells us it is no longer a question of “if” you are being called to accompany young people on their faith journeys in this changing world. It is a question of “how.” Is it within the family, a community, a particular ministry, a leadership conference? Listen. The Holy Spirit and our young people will guide you.

Laura Zoeller is the associate director in the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Youth and Young Adults.

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