Engaging Teens in the Faith, Part 3

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In the first two parts of this series on teenagers and the Catholic faith, I focused on what we parents could do to help our teenagers move from a feeling-driven to a faith-driven relationship with God.  Now I would like to suggest that we parents need help, too.  We need help in the form of other faith-filled adults in the church who are willing to be role models and mentors for our teenagers.

Across the country we have parishes that are healthy and robust, overflowing with energy and initiatives for our youth.  Unfortunately we also have parishes that are somewhat emaciated, scraping by with the bare minimum of preparation for the Sacraments.  Most parishes are somewhere in between, but in every parish there is room to become more teen-friendly on both the ideological and the practical levels.  Here I’ll focus on the ideological level.

On this level, a saving faith in Jesus Christ is our “product”, that one thing that our church family is uniquely “in business” to provide.  In the new book, A People of Hope, Cardinal Timothy Dolan expresses his concern that we may have forgotten this indispensable reality.

“I worry that we’ve become a glorified Rotary Club,” speculates Cardinal Dolan.  “We’re so stumbling over the how of Catholic life that I think we’ve lost the who, meaning Jesus.  I know how that sounds, and I know it’s tough to define, but we had it once upon a time, didn’t we?”  Put bluntly, have we Catholics in the pew as well as in the pulpit, perhaps, lost sight of Jesus amid a fog of institutional initiatives or social concerns?  Are we adults in the church, perhaps, behaving as hypocritically as our teenagers sometimes accuse, sending them to church but not going ourselves? Or, equally off-putting, do we sometimes march off to the church program du jour like “noisy gongs” or  “clanging cymbals”, but have not love for Jesus and the magisterial teachings of the Church (1 Cor. 13: 1)?  If the spiritual vision of a parish has gotten clouded, we may need to do something to rekindle the faith of the adults in the parish in tandem with our efforts to spark the faith of our teenagers.

Learning to trust our teenagers is another indispensable, ideological reality of becoming a more teen-friendly parish.  Of course this is not easy.  Teenagers are notoriously driven by peer influence, hormones, and feelings that are only quasi-logical.  Because of this, a parish often hesitates to give them any true responsibilities.  But Jesus showed us in the Gospels that trust is vital to a strong and maturing faith life.

For example, Jesus chose Simon Peter to be the leader of the Christian church in its infancy.  Having seen earlier in the Gospels just how emotionally-driven and quasi-logical Simon Peter’s decision making abilities could be, I have to say that handing him the keys to the Church, the keys to the salvation of all humankind, was a crazily trusting move on Jesus’ part.  On the scale of trusting I’d say it was at the level of handing a newly licensed 16-year-old kid the keys to a 15 passenger van full of babies and telling him to drive them to the pool for swimming lessons.  Yikes!

But what were the results of Jesus’ trust in Peter?  Well, if St. Peter had really been at the wheel of that van, we could easily say that based on the influence of the Catholic Church over the last two centuries, St. Peter not only kept those infants alive, but also successfully groomed the entire vanload into a gold-medal-winning Olympic swim team!

As unsophisticated as the analogy may seem, perhaps we can best understand the kind of ideological support a parish needs to give its teenagers and their families by considering Popeye the Sailor Man.  All that the bumbling Popeye needed to be able to thwart bad guys and perform feats of physical strength was a true love for Olive Oyl and a can of spinach.  Likewise, perhaps all our teenagers need to be able to thwart bad influences and perform feats of spiritual strength is a true love for Jesus and an empowering dose of our trust.  In the next column I will explore a few practical ways for a parish to put into practice the ideas presented here.

Copyright 2012 Heidi Bratton

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