Home Catechetical Corner Parenting: With teens, community, youth ministers, affirmation can make a difference

Parenting: With teens, community, youth ministers, affirmation can make a difference

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In this 2005 file photo, Meghan Blake from St. Michael Parish in Wheaton, Ill., breaks an egg as Kristi McHugh, a youth minister from St. Mary of Gostyn Parish in Downers Grove, Ill., and other volunteers help make breakfast at Nazareth Farm in Salem, W.Va. Our communication of Catholic social teaching should be hands on. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

It was Aug. 31, 1997. My teenage daughter was flying home from World Youth Day in Paris. That same day, Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in that city, an event that shocked the world. But my mind was on my daughter.

Elizabeth had saved, babysitting and cleaning houses, for this journey with our parish youth group. St. John Paul II was pope, and over 1,200,000 youth from across the world filled the streets of Paris for the event.

My 15-year-old described one moving moment: With the Parisian subway crowded with kids, someone started a popular Catholic hymn in their own language. Soon, the subway echoed with hundreds of teens singing the same song in different tongues. It was a “God moment.”

Great as that trip was, it’s not necessary to spend thousands of dollars to give your teen a God moment.

Some aspects of my daughter’s experience present universal ways to invite teens to faith, a definite challenge at this moment in our Catholic journey.

Kids today thirst for community. Increasingly, teens lead lives online through social media, and our recent isolation made that even worse. Many teens today experience great loneliness. I feel blessed remembering how involved my daughter was in her parish youth group.

A vibrant youth minister is essential to a good parish. Preferably someone young, enthusiastic, open-minded and deeply in love with kids and Christ. If you don’t have one in your parish, lobby for one.

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The trip to Paris presented an opportunity for community on a grand scale. But we can offer community to teens in other ways.

We all need a reminder that the church is much bigger than the U.S. church, which sadly today often seems mired in politics. This is turning off not just kids, but many of my adult friends. Our teens need to feel part of a universal church that is bigger than petty division.

At the beginning of Pope Francis’ pontificate, a priest friend of mine was walking downtown wearing his clerics. He passed a disheveled girl sitting on the sidewalk. Perhaps a street kid, maybe homeless. Noticing him, she shouted, “Hey, I like your pope!”

This affirmation speaks to the genuine goodness and Christ-centeredness of our pontiff and of the church as it should be, inviting and welcoming to all. This resonates with the young.

Catholic social teaching also speaks to teens. The more we can involve kids in the life of the poor, the deeper will be their thirst for the Christ who lived his life on the margins with the poor.

Our communication of Catholic social teaching should be hands on and go beyond just a visit to a shelter or a food pantry, wonderful as those can be. Maybe an ongoing project with the poor, a way of becoming friends?

If we’re going to spend money on travel, how about a trip to the U.S. border to assist groups there that are struggling to help migrants? What a field trip that would be.

Exposure to Catholic Relief Services, Jesuit Refugee Service, Catholic Charities USA, any group that shows our church laboring in communion with the poor will impact teens.

Give them Jesuit Father Greg Boyle’s book, “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.” Father Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, introduces Christ through humor, grace and gang life.

Many teens dispute the church’s teachings on sexuality. In an era of promiscuity, pornography and family disintegration, the church can offer a vision of life-giving wholeness. We need to do this while welcoming and showing compassion and support for the struggling.

At the end of the day, the best we can do is offer our own example. Our teens see us pray, they see us welcome the stranger, forgive generously, live with integrity, put Christ before worldly possessions, work for a better church community.

Or, they don’t see this. It can make the difference.

Caldarola is a columnist for Catholic News Service.