RIESTLY ministry is incredibly varied. In just over six years, priesthood has taken me to soccer sidelines, finance council meetings, Penance services, block parties, middle-of-the-night deathbeds, prison visits, Pre-K classrooms, gravesides, beef-and-beers, two World Youth Days, countless Communion calls, crime scenes, and much, much more.
Amidst all the variety, one thing that has been a constant for me as a priest has been involvement in youth & young adult ministry. This continuous connection to young people has, for me, been welcome. It has also given me a perspective on the Church’s approach to youth ministry that is both enthusiastic and critical.
I would like to expound upon that part of my perspective which is critical. Allow me to do so by means of a story.
This summer, I had the opportunity to participate in a wonderful program for high school-aged boys and girls. All of the nearly 100 participants were Catholic, and their commitment to the faith could be described as above average. They hailed from across the United States, and they represented a wide assortment of educational backgrounds, including public/charter schools, Catholic/Christian schools, and homeschooling. Their talents and interests were as diverse as one might expect in a group of 100 teenagers.
Something interesting happened during a Mass that was celebrated during this youth program. All the teenagers were present, along with a handful of adults, and there were a number of priests concelebrating.
After Communion, the main celebrant of the Mass invited the other priests to join him in singing the Salve Regina. This invitation was accompanied by a lengthy, nearly apologetic explanation to the teenagers of what they were about to hear. Assuming that the young people would know none of the Latin, he encouraged them to follow along by praying the Hail, Holy Queen in their hearts.
The priest intoned the Salve Regina, and about half of the congregation sang along lustily.
After the final blessing, the person playing the guitar and leading the music invited everyone to sing the recessional hymn, Shine, Jesus, Shine. This invitation was accompanied by no further direction. Assuming that the young people would chime right in, the guitarist strummed a few chords and broke into the refrain.
No one but the guitarist and some of the priests even opened their mouths.
I interpret this experience as anecdotal evidence of something that I believe is generally true: the typical practicing Catholic teenager of today is more likely to know the Salve Regina than Shine, Jesus, Shine (or any number of other songs from a bygone era).
The point is that young people are often nowhere near where their priests, catechists, music ministers, and youth group leaders think they are. We would do well as a Church to admit that to ourselves and then work toward bridging the gap.
When the decision is made to sing something at Mass “for the kids” or to sing something that “the young people will like,” it is fair to question whether this is actually being done “for the kids” or rather for the ones promoting X, Y, or Z. It is time for the world of youth & young adult ministry to stop infantilizing young people. “Young” is not a synonym for shallow, frivolous, or stupid.
Instead of preparing liturgies for young people based on what we think (often erroneously) will be familiar or make them comfortable, we should be looking at our young people and asking ourselves what great things they are capable of learning, achieving, and contributing.