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June 30, 2010
Laying a firm foundation
By Christopher Stefanick
I’m not in youth ministry for the money … I know … hard to imagine. I, like thousands of others, am in it because it’s one of the most important jobs on earth. For all the ways we help young people build their lives, youth ministry offers the foundation.
I was blessed to speak at the Steubenville on the Bayou conference last weekend in Louisiana—one of 14 Steubenville Youth Conference locations around the country that more than 40,000 people will attend, including almost 2,000 at our own Steubenville of the Rockies coming up July 16-18.
One participant, a teenage girl in desperate need of a foundation for life, told me that she was raised without faith. Her father had left her family years ago and her mother and siblings were all killed in a car accident that she survived, as was evidenced by the scar across her face. She went to the conference because a few friends had invited her. She left with new hope and a new sense of belonging. She was planning on signing up for RCIA as soon as she got home. Another participant approached me after a powerful experience of worship and adoration with his daughter. “I did a lot of drugs in college,” he said, “but I’ve never felt anything like that. Ever.”
I saw 3,000 kids jumping up and down like they were at a rock concert, but instead of glorifying MTV culture they were singing the song lyrics, “Tell the world that Jesus lives!” I saw them kneeling in silence, fixed on the Eucharist. I watched “tough” high school guys huddle, foreheads touching and arms locked as they prayed for one another during the men’s session.
Vocation shortage? Not at Steubenville Youth Conferences. When Bishop Sam Jacobs of the Houma-Thibodaux Diocese asked those interested in the priesthood to come forward hundreds of young men approached the altar. More than 9 percent of the total vocations ordained in the United States last year went to one of the Steubenville Youth Conferences as a teen—a huge number considering that only a fraction of the total Catholic population attends the conferences.
But more important than vocation calls, rock concerts for Jesus, or moving experiences, is the fact that life on a whole starts to “make sense” for young people at experiences like this. The end goal of these conferences, like youth ministry in general, is not just to get teens involved in youth groups. It’s about building a foundation for their lives. And as excited as I am for these teens, I lament the fact that there are so many who leave faith on the periphery of their lives and never find the solid foundation that only Jesus Christ offers.
Then-Cardinal Ratzinger, reflecting on life that is not built on faith, said, “The deepest poverty is the inability of joy, the tediousness of a life considered absurd and contradictory” (Address to Catechists and Religion Teachers, Dec. 12, 2000). We can give young people the tools to excel, but if they don’t grasp the purpose of it all, why should they bother? Life starts to look like a poor attempt at modern art: random shapes and explosions of color with no form, no big picture, no meaning.
Ratzinger continued, “If the art of living remains an unknown, nothing else works. … This art can only be communicated by … he who is the Gospel personified, (Jesus Christ).” One of my best friends entered youth ministry after years working as a parole officer. He realized that for all the government programs he could point teens to, their lives would simply “not work” without faith.
Studies prove time and again that religious teens are simply turning out better than non-religious teens. According to one recent survey, the National Study on Youth and Religion, very religious teens are far less likely to smoke, drink, use pot, and be sexually active, among other things. They even watch far less TV. Most important, they have a deeper sense of hope and purpose, greater strength to get through hard times, and are more motivated to be moral and altruistic than their non-religious peers. Perhaps this should all be obvious. If a firm foundation is in place, life “works.” What isn’t so obvious then, is why we Catholics are investing so little in youth ministry.
The 40,000 teens attending the Steubenville Youth Conference nationally is great, and I’m thrilled that close to 2,000 come to our own! But there are millions of Catholic teens in America and there are tens-of-thousands of them in the Archdiocese of Denver. There are approximately 2,300 parishes offering significant youth ministry programs in the U.S, and that is wonderful. But that is out of 19,000 parishes, most of which do very little for teens.
It’s important that we invest in education, sports, and a whole myriad of programs to build up our young people. But building all that without a strong faith is like building a skyscraper on the sand. If your parish isn’t investing much in youth ministry, it’s time to stop overlooking the foundation!
STEUBENVILLE OF THE ROCKIES
Deadline to register has been extended to July 9! Interested in attending? E-mail email@example.com or call 303-715-3245.
Speaker and author Christopher Stefanick is director of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministry for the Denver Archdiocese. Visit www.chris-stefanick.com.