Tuesday 22 July 2014

Youth Ministry -Working For The Good Of The Youth: Catechesis and Liturgy

Engaging the youth with the Faith is a genuine concern for all of us, and we have the best of resources available to achieve it: committed youth workers and teachers. These folk embody our common concern for the youth and expend a huge amount of energy in trying to achieve the goal. Unfortunately, while our Youth Leaders are hampered by reliance upon today’s accepted formulae for youth programmes (emotive events such as ‘pop’ worship, reflection sessions etc) our teachers are hampered by curricula which utilise a ‘dialogue’ methodology: ‘the Church says...what do you think?’. Unfortunately our leaders and teachers are also hampered by their own formation: having been formed by the same 1960’s methodology they are all-but locked into the mid-set of these programmes and curricula.

I recently attended a meeting to plan a week-long ‘Youth Mission’ in a Catholic High School, and made the suggestion of including talks on Catholic teaching. The response was that ‘This is unnecessary since the faith is covered in Religious Education lessons’. But to quote two twenty-something men* who spoke to me after the meeting (and who attended two different Catholic High Schools): ‘but the constant repetition in RE of “what does that mean to you...what do you think?” just gave us permission to make up our own God and our own rules –and that’s hard to let go of when confronted with the Catechism. If you’re going to reject anything after that kind of formation it isn’t going to be your own opinion!’

This ‘what do you think?’ approach is positively counter-productive: it denies the Revealed nature of The Faith, intrinsically promotes moral relativism and inverts ‘forming our young people by the faith’ into ‘forming the faith by our young people’.  It is an own goal. When work with the youth omits clear, convicted instruction in favour of dialogue it omits presenting Christ as Truth Itself.

As Andrew McDowell and I noted after the meeting, ‘constantly asking “Do you agree?” wouldn’t be tolerated in English with its rules of grammar, or in Physics with its scientific method. In these days of aggressive atheism when reason is presented as triumphing over Faith we have to show the unity between faith and reason; demonstrate the rationality of Catholic doctrine, and confront head-on the errors of atheism. We need evangelisation, not subjectivism’. This problem of ‘formation by dialogue’ needs to be tackled by Bishops Conferences and by Catholic Education Services but I doubt any Conference or CES would be willing to make the necessary changes. And why would they? It’s because Islam asks its young people what they think about Mohamed’s words that Islam is so strong and advancing so rapidly...isn’t it?

Demonstrating to our young people the rationality of The Faith takes faithful, convicted catechesis rather than dialogue. Youth Workers should consider making Catholic teaching part of every youth event, as it is in Juventutem’s World Youth Day programmes since “Faith comes through hearing” (Romans 10v17), and the youth must hear the Faith –and hear it correctly, assertively and with conviction- before they can value it, celebrate it and “have a reason for the hope that is within” (1.Pet.3v1). I’m not suggesting that catechesis should be the focus or role of youth events -such a task clearly resides with the whole Catholic community- but imparting Catholic teaching cannot be excluded by those who seek to form the youth.

It was also stated at the meeting that ‘the aim of the Mission is not to get the kids to come to Mass but to stir their spirit; to deepen their relationship with God’. This is a very odd statement when 95% of our target group have no contact with the Holy Eucharist, from Whom the life of grace springs. In fact, the statement is very worrying: Vatican II reminded us that the Holy Eucharist is not only the summit of the spiritual life but its very source, and if we aren’t plugging the youth into the very source of the spiritual life, we are plugging them into....what, exactly?

Seeking a subjective ‘stirring of the spirit’ as the aim of a Mission is just too nebulous -and ultimately self-serving: by seeking a subjective response that cannot be objectively measured, failure cannot be ascertained or success measured.

‘Pop’ style events and paraliturgies are important and can productively make use of drama, mimes etc., but Holy Mass should be part of any youth event –and must be celebrated with solemnity, dignity and reverence since it is the ‘Actio Christi’ (the act/work of Christ). Further, it should be celebrated in accord with the universal norms rather than the options, which means using Latin chant, the altar-facing orientation and Communion on the tongue. Such solemnity and God-centeredness will contrast sharply with the paraliturgies and serve to highlight both the unique nature and central importance of the Eucharist.

The emotive youth ministry and dialogue methodology in RE have failed. They have dominated for the last fifty years -and spectacularly failed even to halt youth lapsation, never mind reverse it, yet we blithely continue on with them.

The problem we face in youth work is at least four-fold: the attractiveness of the world’s pleasures distracting the youth from God; today’s militant atheism warring against religion; the loss of faith in families as a lived value and the ‘dialogue’ method of delivering the Faith which promotes relativism. We have an up-hill task; the answer to rejuvenating the youth in the Faith is far deeper than can be addressed by relative methodology in the classroom and emotive youth Missions/Retreats, which should be highlights in the life of faith. But the answer must include instruction rather than ‘formation’, and the Eucharist rather than emotion.

*One of these young men stayed in the Faith when after leaving school he discovered the Catechism and the Extraordinary Form; the other returned to the Faith when he had a child of his own and recalled the example of his debilitated grandfather shuffling to Mass in all weathers.


  1. Is it any better to replace 'The Church says … what do you think?' with 'the Church says … so you've got to believe it'? And can people have any real sense of what the Eucharist is if they do not have a relationship with God?

    I am often struck by the book containing the RCIA programme. It has pages and pages of liturgies and rituals, but at the beginning there is about half a page saying that before engaging with the catechesis there needs to be an open-ended time in which enquirers are helped to have a genuine relationship with God in Christ. I am not sure, however, if the Church knows how to go about that. It is much easier just to say, you ought to come to mass. As a priest I know used to say, 'The trouble is we are trying to catechise people who have not yet been evangelised.'

    1. Thank you for your comment, Savonarola.
      If Christ is Truth and the Church is Pillar and Guardian of the Truth the Church, then the Church teaches Truth and need to say ‘the Church says....you must believe it’; Truth alone sets us free from the tyranny of self-rule against which we have struggled since the days of Adam and his original sin.
      Open-ended enquiry is by definition a never-ending search; there has to be a point where Truth is met. Questioning the faith is good when it is on the lines of ‘how does A fit with B” which demonstrates its integrity, and when it is about developing our doctrine, but questioning when it is about asking ‘is this OK for me? Is this even right?’ is contrary to Revealed Faith. Either The Faith is Revealed or it is not. As for the Eucharist, we cannot have any real sense of It if we don’t meet and understand Christ as Truth (in doctrine) and Life (by prayer and active charity).
      It is true that we cannot simply impart doctrine to those who have not read the scriptures or prayed, but the one does not exclude the other. Catechising evangelises when done with prayer and reading of the scriptures, and evangelisation must be catechetical since it seeks to impart Truth.
      God Bless.


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