Fr Anthony Paganoni CS: What happens when informality fails?

06 May 2009

By The Record

Does informality always work? Fr Anthony Paganoni, Scalabrinian, continues his series on a long-running successful initiative in youth ministry in the province of Lombardy, Italy.


Fr Anthony Paganoni CS


What happens when informal strategies put forward by experienced and skilled youth leaders fail to break through the wall of silence or indifference separating youth, as the adults put it, from the ‘real world’?
The research study found that adolescents, while still living at home, tend to spend a lot of their time hanging out with their peers.
These highly informal groupings become a laboratory slowly crafting what may turn out to be a weak sense of identity.
Together the gangs develop their own focus of interest, while privileging special friends, special times and places.
For most adolescents, this is a transitional phase, a springboard from which to tentatively ‘invade’ the adult world represented by the school, the church and employment. For a minority it becomes a self-perceived prison – locked into their myths and drifting into antisocial activity and petty crime.
Conspicuous by their tribal way of dressing, this latter group often comes from the same socio-cultural background. They usually include a small number of girls, who act as critical conscience when it comes to binge drinking and drug taking.
The leadership of the group is on a rotational basis and has a variable effect on the members.
Being together, rapping together and, more often than not, drug-taking are preferred activities.
They manifestly distrust both civil and religious authorities. These groups last for a year or two and afterwards may remain marginal in the lives of the young people – unless over the course of time, the members develop patterns of deviant behaviour.
Youth gangs such as these develop with monotonous regularity and with the same monotony come to be seen as testing grounds for youth workers. The research study identifies a series of strategies, listed below:
Make an effort to get to know the group, in its weaknesses and strengths, both in its internal support mechanisms and its desired (or undesired) impact on society;
Become aware of the specific areas within which dialogue and communication with the group can happen;
Encourage efforts within the group to think about its identity and its written or unwritten rules, its values and its drawbacks;
Channel the spirit of initiative, with a view to productively channelling feelings of boredom, inner emptiness and lack of purpose;
Support youth who are on the verge of becoming a ‘problem’ to themselves and within society;
If the time is ripe, introduce the activities of the Oratorio and encourage them to take part.
To be continued…