Closing the Loop
This past week, thousands of high-schoolers from all over the country descended upon Indianapolis for the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC). Perhaps your parish sent these young people off with a special blessing at mass, wishing them safe travel and a fruitful conference. This summer, thousands more young people will go off to various retreats, institutes and missions: Catholic Hearts Workcamp, Steubenville, Encounter, and (God-willing) One Call, to name a few. Our parish communities will, again, extend our hands in blessing over the young church as we send them on their way. This act of sending is not relegated to retreats and other far-away events. Those parishes that celebrate the Children’s Liturgy of the Word send those children off elsewhere, some parishes send their middle school and high school students off to separate masses. Right or wrong, often the only, or at least the most visible liturgical interaction many parish communities have with their youth is in the act of sending them away.
Every conference and convention I go to has a multitude of breakout sessions and workshops addressing questions like “Where have the youth gone?”, “How do we get youth to become more involved?”, “Why are millennials leaving the church?”. I would half-jokingly respond that it is because we have “sent them away” with no path or plan of return.
Of course, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the act of blessing or sending forth the young church as they embark on missions and retreats. It becomes a problem when we are not equally engaged in the act of welcoming them back. Those high-schoolers that attended NCYC will be returning just having experienced a profound few days of mountaintop experiences where their faith has been jumpstarted, where their curiosity has been stoked, and where their enthusiasm for Christ has been set on fire. As well as we craft blessings to send them forth, we must have plans in place to welcome back this new energy back into our parishes.
In my experience working at youth programs like Music Ministry Alive!, I am often surprised and heartbroken to hear the stories of students who said that these programs are the only places they are asked to use their gifts. For whatever reason, they are unable to minister at their own parishes. Youth programs serve a special purpose in being a place where many students are able to realize their gifts and potential for the first time. However, the mission of these programs is to send these students back, equipped with enhanced musical and ministerial skills, in hope that their parish communities will utilize the special gifts these students have formed.
So how do we accomplish this? We must first recognize that the young church is present; they are here, they are ready, and they are on fire. You can look at all the social media from NCYC to see the vibrance and faith of the young church. We must start looking at ways to close the loop; that for every act of sending, we are also planning for the return. Many of our parishes and ministries are structured with adults as the gatekeepers. These adults must actively engage in finding ways to incorporate their parish youth in the work they do. This is done most successfully capitalizing on the inspiration found at events like One Call, NCYC, and others. One Call is ready to assist parishes in doing this. This is why we offer a concurrent Advocate Track for adults in roles of leadership where we equip adults with tools and strategies for closing this loop. It is time to open the gate.