Youth Ministry: Presenting the Face of Christ

I was reading another blog yesterday when an interesting topic struck me, namely ‘youth groups’ and ‘youth rallies.’ The other blogger’s take on this phenomenon—which I’m not even really sure you could condense into one particular and distinguishable phenomenon—was that youth programs were at the heart of corrupting authentic Catholic teaching/living. He took the approach that all the youth events he had been to were poorly conducted and only driven by an emotional undercurrent, which after climaxing in the event (i.e. singing, enthusiastic prayer, etc.) left the kids without any real and substantial relationship with God. While I do not agree with his wholesale regard of youth programs as decadent, I do believe he makes an interesting point worthy of further discussion.

First, I’ll pose this question: What are we truly trying to accomplish by catechizing our youth? Perhaps better, what is the ultimate goal of any Catholic youth program? The obvious answer is, “Providing them with a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.” To this I would ask a second question: What, then, is the role of the youth minister/catechist in all this? The not so obvious—but altogether necessary—answer to this is: “To teach kids about the truths of the Catholic faith…while at the same time diminishing in their own presence so that the presence of Christ can increase.” Alas, here we find the source of great misunderstanding.

While trying not to be overly biased, I will say that in my experience of youth ministry, the most noticeable figure being encountered by young Catholics has not been Jesus Christ; on the contrary, it has been the youth ministers. (This is not meant as a diatribe against youth ministers, but rather food for some provoking thought.) The same tendency of human nature—to bolster one’s own persona in place of Christ’s—is present throughout the Church, however I think it manifests itself particularly and perhaps most dangerously in the realm of youth ministry. Where the soil is most fertile is precisely where we must do the most to ensure it is seeded with virtuous example.

If I have not been clear enough yet regarding what I intend to say, some concrete examples will surely help. Reverting to the blog post that prompted all this, I must say that most examples given by the author concerning ‘youth rallies’ fall into this category; in other words, how often do we see youth events that are more of a concert instead of an encounter with Christ? Are youth ministers really seeking to show the Incarnate Son, or their own inflexible ideas of what Jesus would look like if he were with us now? How often do we forget that the Logos—the Word of God himself—who is totally capable of expressing himself par excellence, is very much with us in the Blessed Sacrament, waiting to draw us into his self-revelation? If there is a base in the claim that ‘youth rally highs’ leave kids feeling empty afterward, we need look no further than the fact that we often neglect feeding them the “true food” that never fails to satisfy.

On a final note, it is not enough simply to put people in the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist; while this is efficacious and valuable in itself, if we continue to impose our own designs over and above the designs of God—for example, never allowing Christ to speak himself, but rather drowning out the silence he sometimes uses with our own formulation of relentless noise, music, etc.—how can we expect him to make a real impact? In God’s infinite and mysterious plan, he allows us to become helpers to one another in the ultimate salvation of the world. With this in mind, we ought not to underestimate the vast responsibility that faces us when showing our youth the way to Christ. “He must increase,” as St. John the Baptist testifies, “but I must decrease.” (Jn 3:30)