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Christ the supreme friend

Talk by Archbishop Thomas Wenski at Lenten reflection with youth and young adults

Talk given by Archbishop Thomas Wenski at an Evening of Lenten Reflection sponsored by the Office of Youth and Young Adults Ministry. The evening was aimed at leaders of youth and young adult groups in the parishes, and took place at St. Martha Church, Miami Shores. Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015.

I thank Rosemarie for the opportunity to speak with you – and to thank you for your work with our young people – who are not only the future of the Church but the present of the Church. The re-opening of our Archdiocesan Office for Youth and Young Adult Ministry is a sign of real hope for the Church here in South Florida – for when the office closed I know that some were angry and many others just discouraged. 

But we are in a new place – of course the Office of Youth Ministry is not about trying set up an archdiocese youth group but to support what is happening, and what should be happening, in our parishes, our schools and universities. We have some challenges ahead of us – I think many of you heard Mr. McCarty’s presentation last September. He also spoke to our priests during their convocation. It’s not easy being a young person today – and it’s not easy for us to be guides and mentors to them today.

In another time, when the broader culture still was shaped by Christianity (what some might describe as Christendom) the faith was transmitted to the next generation almost by osmosis: You inherited Christian values and attitudes from the environment around you. People got the faith through custom, as it were.

But now the custom and culture that had once supported the faith has been eroded by an aggressive secularism which pretends that the life of society can be organized without reference to God. Even here in the United States, despite the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, our popular culture is increasingly hostile to religious faith. Public institutions, whether in government or the media, hardly ever take into account the role that religion plays in the lives of most Americans, except to criticize it.

The defection of thousands of Hispanics to Protestant sects and the fact that many of our youth abandon religious practice once they move out of their parents’ home are both indicative that the force of custom is no longer an effective means of keeping people loyal to the Church and her teachings. 

In the past, the force of custom in a culture that was friendly to faith gave rise to a sense of complacency among pastors and faithful. That complacency has led us to tolerate more than we should have the inadequate and even defective religious formation of our young people. Today, after some 30 years of “experiential” catechesis, most of our young people are religious illiterates. 

Future generations are unprepared to swim against the tide of a radical secularism that threatens to wash away traditional morality based on right and wrong and to replace it with one based on desires. The fragility of the family daily assaulted by these new secular ways is increasingly apparent as divorce rates soar, even as same sex couples attempt unions parodying marriage.

Like a lobster’s exoskeleton that protected it from predators and disease, a “faith of custom” at one time protected the believer and even “formed” him in faith.  Secularist culture has stripped away the outer shell of custom that at one time supported religious practice. Only a mature faith – freed of false fears, confident and unashamed – can witness convincingly to the truth of the Gospel in today’s world.

In an environment in which custom supported faith, youth ministry was concerned about giving young people opportunities to socialize with their peers of the same faith. (This was the old CYO model). This helped ensure that they had the chance to meet and fall in love with people who shared their values, etc. And that certainly is still a good goal; but since faith of custom has been eroded, young people less and less make religious faith or lack of it, or which religious faith, an important criterion in dating – which today for many has lost its orientation of finding the right life partner.  

So youth ministry needs to pass from beyond maintaining a faith of custom to helping foster among the young a mature faith, “expressed in clear, convinced, and valiant personal options.”

In other words, since the exoskeleton of religion-friendly custom has collapsed, in order to proclaim the Good News into the Third Millennium we need to be about forming Christians with “backbones.”

This is a daunting task – and when we consider the magnitude of it all, the best possible position for us to start from is “on our knees.” Nobody has all the answers, there is no one program, there are no magic formulas – so we do well to start off with a sense of humility, and humility has us turning to God and allowing him to lead us.

St. John Paul II said that young people are for the Church a special gift of the Spirit of God.” He said that, “Sometimes when we look at the young, with the problems and weaknesses that characterize them in contemporary society, we tend to be pessimistic.” But his experience with the young – and it was amazing how much young people were drawn to him even in his old age – but his experience with the young at World Youth Days, for example, taught him “that young people, whatever their possible ambiguities, have a profound longing for those genuine values which find their fullness in Christ.”

Again, “Is not Christ the secret of true freedom and profound joy of heart? Is not Christ the supreme friend and the teacher of all genuine friendship?”

If this is true – and I’m sure you believe that it is, otherwise you wouldn’t be in this ministry – it is true therefore that when “Christ is presented to young people as he really is, they experience him as an answer that is convincing and they can accept his message, even when it is demanding and bears the mark of the Cross.”

As John Paul II said commenting on his own ministry with young people: “…in response to their enthusiasm, I did not hesitate to ask them to make a radical choice of faith and life and present them with a stupendous task: to become 'morning watchmen' (cf. Is 21:11-12) at the dawn of the new millennium."

The phrase "morning watchmen" is taken from the prophet Isaiah – a prophet we hear much from during the Lenten Season. Morning watchmen announce the coming dawn – and so for people in darkness and despair they announce light and hope.

And what more do we need in our post-modern world – a world that increasingly seems like a desert from where God is absent – but the light and hope promised us in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. That’s what youth and young adult ministry is about.

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