To Teach the Faith to Teens

Guest post by Allison 
On Friday, which marked the two-month anniversary of the Haitian earthquake, our parish youth group met in our parish hall to fast and pray and raise money for Haiti. It was a quiet, meditative evening for the handful of teens and their parents who gathered to offer up our temporary discomfort as a prayer to relive the suffering of the 200,000 Haitians who died in the earthquake and of the millions who survived. No matter how inconsequential we feel on this planet, faith gives us the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. I pray we pass on the Church’s spiritual gems to the next generation of Catholics.

With our pastor’s blessing, a parish friend, Vicki, and I restarted the youth group about a year ago. It had not been active in at least five years. We started off slowly, hoping to build a sense of belonging among the teens. Deliberately, we’ve offered more social than spiritual activities: board game nights, hikes, barbecues, and ice skating. Friday was the first time we hit them with spirituality straight on.

The evening opened with reading A Prayer After the Earthquake in Haiti, written by Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, who is chairman of Catholic Relief Services. I had found his prayer on his blog. This beautiful prayer reads, in part, “As the things we have built crumble about us, we know too well how small we truly are on this ever-changing, ever-moving, fragile planet we call home. Yet you have promised never to forget us. Do not forget us now. “

Next, a young mother in the parish, also named Allison, explained to us all how our fasting is a form of prayer. Allison outlined the seven corporal and spiritual acts of mercy. Then, she talked to us about the exquisite Catholic notion of redemptive suffering.

Allison, a philosophy doctoral student, went on to explain to us how whenever we suffer in life, we can choose to give it meaning, by offering it back to God—to save someone’s soul, ease someone else’s pain. She read to us from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, which he wrote during his imprisonment in Rome. In that letter, Saint Paul talks about in which says: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church, of which I am a minister.”

The teens listened without speaking, nodding as the parents then talked about some of the difficulties they had faced as adults and how it was a comfort to know they could offer their suffering to ease the pain another soul was enduring. Later, we walked through the rain to our Eucharistic Chapel for Stations of the Cross. We ended the evening back in the Parish Hall, watching a few short videos culled from youtube about Catholic Relief Services’ work in Haiti.

This youth group began because many adults in our parish are troubled about the precipitous drop in Mass attendence that happens, paradoxically, after children make their Confirmation. Not unusually, even parents stop attending Mass once Confirmation is “over.” We also saw the teens lacked a sense of Catholic identity and community. Ours is a small, older parish in a town of 20,000 residents and five Jewish synagogues.

Friday night’s Fast for Haiti brought out a smaller number of teens than most other youth-group activities. Some of our regulars had “Bye Bye Birdie” rehearsal at the high school, one was at an NHL game to celebrate his16th birthday party, and still another one was training for a national swim championship. My own son couldn’t make it because he had an orchestra rehearsal. To top it all off, the evening was rainswept, almost forlorn. But our parish measures success, not by the number of teens who show up for various youth group activities, but by whether the ones who do have fruitful experiences.

It’s tough to tell with teens how much impact we are having. By introducing some Catholic spiritual disciplines to them on Friday night, we hope our parish will begin to be a place not only where teens can play pingpong, but also where they can start to find comfort and meaning in the sacramental and devotional life of the Church.

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  • Fr. Dan A.

    So wonderful to see this. The laity make up 99.9% of the Church. Think of what would happen if this kind of initiative and ownership took place in every parish. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • Dee

    AllisonThanks so much for all you , Vicki and the other parents do to help form the faith of the youth of our parish. When my children were teens we also had a small youth group at the parish. My children still remember the special Stations of the Cross we did – parents and children together- and the trip we took in to NYC to see a remake of Jesus Christ SuperStar.

  • @Dee: I am glad to hear these now-adults remember your efforts. Also, I am going to ask to rewrite the post a bit. I did not mean to make it sound as if our parish never had a youth group. It has had a very robust one at various points in our history….

  • Anonymous

    Hi. (I feel like I'm commenting once too often here! :)). Anyway, where I'm from, one of the ways the youth got involved was through the Catholic Charismatic movement. It was Catholic and yet had alot of the 'feeling' & 'fun' kind of stuff that is important to youth. And more than that, I think what made the difference was that – the animators and leaders were all other young people. I dont know if you have strong Catholic youth movements there, but if you do, having them come over once in a while, I feel, will make a big difference. Jason Everett of is a good example and is also a great resource.Rose

  • @Rose: Not at all! I welcome hearing from people and their experiences and what helps shape their faith. One of the reason I had a young mom speak to our group is so the teens can see it is not just forty-something parents encouraging them.

  • I was in a very large evangelical youth group when I was in high school(200+ teens). The key to the success of that youth group was a youth pastor who had a strong belief that young people could have a serious relationship with God equal (if not better) than adults. I recently asked one of the youth leaders what made the group successful. He said, "I'm not talking about acting like a kid or all the activities you can provide, but I'm talking about the pure joy of what you do."

  • Webster Bull

    I cannot let pass this discussion–prompted by another good Allison post–without mentioning that Communion and Liberation has a vital youth organization. CL was founded by Fr. Luigi Giussani in a high school in Milan in 1954, and the entire Movement evolved from that nucleus. Today, children and adults of all ages participate actively together in meetings, retreats, and annual vacations. More information is here.

  • Jason — you hit the nail on the head — about the "joy of what you do" attracting others…especially the young. It's the Holy Spirit that gives us this joy — no matter what has hit you in the days or hours before it's time to begin a class. There is nothing more discouraging that having the desire to teach…and allowing a busy day to detract from your joy of what the Spirit is calling you to do — teach. I find that it's best to just pray for the Spirit's guidance and protection, and just plunge in with the teaching anyway — give it your all with joy.The enemy enjoys stealing the joy of those who teach — it allows him the opportunity to enter into you and into the group you are teaching.

  • @Stefanie and others: I think what has worked with our youth group is it is not obligatory and we don't give kids guilt trips if they can't make an activity. We vary the times we meet and the kinds of activities we offer to "hit" different teens at different times.Sometimes, in CCD classes, kids get the (correct) sense that they HAVE to be there, and that drains all the joy from it, both for the teachers and the students.This can lead to the sense that Catholicism is just about a set of rules they have to follow.