Catechizing Youth: Walking with Young Missionary Disciples

At the recent USCCB Convocation for Catholic Leaders, I was asked to be a part of a panel that was addressing adolescent catechesis through the lens of missionary discipleship. We addressed two questions. 

The first one was: "What are you passionate about within adolescent catechesis?

This was my response:

My name is Tom East, I am the director of the Center for Ministry Development. I'm passionate about situating adolescent catechesis within the bigger framework of evangelization and the engagement of youth in growing as disciples. I am incredibly inspired by the preparation document for the upcoming Synod on Youth, Faith and Discernment which emphasizes seeing youth, listening to them, walking with them in their questions and helping to facilitate the dialogue between young people and our loving God. I am passionate about an accompaniment approach to catechesis that places the emphasis on a faith community journeying with its young members. It's about relationships and the way that Christ is revealed when we walk with young people. As youth and families are changing, many ministry leaders wonder "when will they get with the program?" They're never going to get with the program – we need to get with the relationship.

We were also asked: "What is missing in the Church's current response to catechizing youth?"

This was my response:

I think what is missing is the big picture of a faith community's relationship with her young members. We need to climb to the balcony and really look at where we're going, really see youth and see their families. Right now, we seem to be too stuck in a programmatic response which isn't where young people are. In a programmatic response, we spend a lot of time selling (or requiring) that youth join a program that we've decided will be good for them. The preparation document for the synod states: "Pastoral activity with young people, which is called upon to start processes more than to dominate spaces, shows, above all, the importance of service to the human growth of each individual and the educational and formative resources that can support it." (Section III, #4)

Sometimes our programs "dominate spaces". The process is the relationship that God has already initiated with young people. We need to walk with them, side by side – not judging – not pushing – not pulling. In an accompaniment approach, we could engage lots of active disciples in the parish community to walk with youth as they encounter Christ through hands-on experiences. We could accompany youth as they ask their holy questions. (I've always thought we should stop as a community and bless the holy questions as young people begin to discern and question their faith.) We can accompany youth to learn the practices of discipleship – how to pray – how to apply their faith to their everyday life decisions – how to discern their future in concert with God's loving plan.

This kind of catechesis would focus on experiences of faith. It would focus attention on parents and families. It would include lots of people – not just those that we typically think of as catechists or youth ministry leaders. We could open up parish life – connect youth in ministries, leadership and service roles. We could accompany them as they see how God is working through them. This is catechesis. This is the road to Emmaus: Walk with them in their questions – lead them to encounter, to Eucharist – watch them as they witness and join in mission!

Youth need adults to walk with them, which is highlighted in this line from the Synod document: "The role of credible adults and their cooperation is basic in the course of human development and vocational discernment. This requires authoritative believers, with a clear human identity, a strong sense of belonging to the Church, a visible spiritual character, a strong passion for education and a great capacity for discernment." (Section III, #2) 

This is our stance as we catechize adolescents: we focus on God's work and God's conversation with the young person and their free response. We avoid manipulation or coercion; we don't force fit youth into pre-determined solutions or programs. With humility, we serve and follow what God is doing. 

What is your response? What are you passionate about within adolescent catechesis? What should we be doing? What do you think is missing? 

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