This is my 40th year as a professional lay minister, my 6th year at Saint Anne, and almost all of it spent as a professional youth minister and high school campus minister. If I consider my first experiences of ministry in the Greensburg Diocese in Pennsylvania as a high school catechist, a Cursillo retreat and Charismatic prayer leader, this would mark my 46th year in lay ministry. I often go back to those beginning years to reflect upon what wisdom I have acquired in my work in youth ministry. This will be the focus of this article.
My entry into Catholic lay ministry arose from a very difficult time in my life at the age of 19, the end of my freshman year at Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh. I suffered from a major depressive episode that continued over the course of an entire year. My family was baffled as to why, of all people, Michael would be afflicted by depression. I was the proverbial dutiful son, always doing what was expected of me at home, at school or on the swim team. But here I was, struggling to get out of bed every day, having suicidal thoughts and feelings of self-loathing-symptoms typical of many people who are clinically depressed. With a supportive family, a number of visits to counselors and the tincture of time, the shroud lifted from my darkened spirit, and I arose from the dead. My depression was truly a hellish experience-a nightmare.
When it began, this Roman Catholic, raised in a devout Catholic family, spent much of my youth at my home parish selling newspapers and serving coffee and donuts after Masses. An active altar server, I expressed my feeling to the first counselor I saw as “being on the wrong side of God.” It was a strange expression given that in my high school years, I had broken away from all my Catholic affiliation and practices-God had ceased to be a factor or relevant to me. God was dead for me.
Who has come to be one of my favorite spiritual writers, the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton said, “only the man who has tasted despair can know God.” Paradoxically, in my despair of that horrible year, I did come to an awakening of the presence of God in my life, and specifically, God’s love for me in the midst of my brokenness and despair. In that summer of resurrection of 1972, Ifirst came into an adult relationship with God, and it has been the foundation of my personal and
professional life since. Becoming a lay minister (I considered priesthood for several years) seemed a good next step.
Ironically, there was nothing more valuable that prepared me for this important ministry than my choice to abandon my Catholic faith for those few years, combined with my decent into depression and despair. Adolescence is a time to find and secure an identity. Most of us stumble into that identity by making some good choices and some really bad ones. Such was true for me and for 99% of teens. The result? We get lost.
As a father of three children, and from my years as a youth minister, my best advice to parents is simple. If your teens do not embrace their Catholic faith as you do, not all is lost. Doubt is the fertile ground for fervent faith. The lives of the saints and holy ones reveal this truth-whether an Ignatius, Augustine, Francis, Dorothy Day or Mary Magdalene. Such faith, however, grows in God’s good time, seldom meeting our time expectations-which is, “I want results NOW, and not later.” This does not mean you acquiesce to their resistance or refusal to attend Mass or pray at home with you. Be flexible with your expectations around issues of religious praxis. A rigid, inflexible attitude is a good way to drive a wedge between your teen and God’s love.
What is as important as Mass attendance, and even more so, is their being able to witness Christ-like behavior in your home. “Values are caught and not taught.” Many a teen will castigate religion because they see adults in their lives, professing their faith in church, but living a most un-Christian life outside the church building. Developmentally, many if not most teens have the need to pull away from their parents’ faith perspective before they can claim their own. And claiming their own faith may not occur for many years. Sometimes it won’t take place until they marry and become parents. The operative words are “diligent and prayerful patience.” They need to see in you, parents who are aspiring to be Christ-like. Otherwise, Mass attendance will, in their mind, be an empty ritual, de- void of meaning.
My work as a youth minister has been to provide ways for teens who “feel lost” “to find themselves, and in doing so, find God. The most effective way to do this is to teach them the secret of developing relationships, really friendship, with others, to pull them out of their cocoons of fear, insecurity and self-consciousness and to risk loving others and accepting other’s love. 1 John 4:16 states it perfectly, “God is love, and those who live in love live in God and God in them.
When teens discover the secret of creating relationships, they have found the path to “fullness of life.” All else pales in one’s life when one knows he/she is loved and can love others-and see the immediate benefits of what love can do.
To date, I have found no more effective means of doing this than in the retreat format, especially the Kairos retreat and the multiple permutations of this retreat. It is a place where one can experience and learn how to create relationships with strangers and know first hand, outside the parental love of their family, what it feels like to be loved. Our summer mission trips provide similar awakenings, as does the one-day Spiritus retreat. But all pale in comparison to the peer-led Kairos retreat.
It seemed to me a natural choice, a God-chosen choice, after my adolescent plunge into depression and follow- ing recovery, to want to work with teens. I get the teen rejection of formal religion and their reasons for it. I get
the agnosticism that most teens experience. I under- stand the lure of “the world”-in my day defined as “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.” That allurement is still present today, with even more variations of it. Teen alienation, anxiety and despair are amplified by the combination of technology, social media and, of course, ever present mind-altering substances. A teen’s life can be ruined by one negative text or post that is seen, not by one person, but by hundreds, in a matter of seconds.
However, in the midst of this minefield of modern teen life, when they can pull away for just a few days and come to see what God’s love, found through others, feels like, despair, anxiety, depression and loneliness can give way to the “joy that no one can take from you,” as Jesus said. For me as a minister, I have found no better way to live out these last 46 years of my life. This is what we call evangelization. God is contagious, a healthy bacteria that multiplies the more God is shared. As Catholics, we scatter seeds, we water the seeds but God, as St. Paul says, makes them grow. I am grateful for my despair that brought me into farming in the Lord’s vineyard. I pray daily that it will continue to bear fruit in the lives of our young people at Saint Anne. And that they in turn will transform their world with love.