Is youth ministry Australia’s greatest challenge? Fr Anthony Paganoni, Scalabrinian, continues his series on a long-running successful initiative in youth ministry in the province of Lombardy, Italy.
By Fr Peter Paganoni
Is youth ministry just one of many pastoral challenges laid at the doorstep of our churches today? Or is it rather the number one issue that could make or break the Catholic Church or the other churches planted here since the European settlement of this continent? No matter how we go about answering the question, I believe that youth ministry in Australia, as in other western societies, is now up against a ‘cultural shift’ rather than a ‘generation gap’. “Young people are today growing up in a different world, if compared to that experienced by previous generations”, decried a study in Britain as long ago as the 1970s. The refrain is repeated with monotonous regularity in the recent (2006) Australian study Spirit of Generation Y. Final Report of a three-year Study: “Most young people said they had some purpose in their lives, although some felt that their lives did not fit into the wider scheme, that they did not really belong anywhere and ‘were hurting deep inside’”(executive summary).
This cultural shift has magnified the tensions that have always existed between generations and have always been present in youth ministry. Contemporary work with young people will always make the adult congregations seem at least ‘out of touch’. Manuals offering “everything you need for youth work” sound naïve and simplistic. Sociologists of religion are quick to point out that there could be a deeper problem. It could be summed up: “How come if you want to become or remain a Christian, you have to find a way of living in a culture that no longer exists in everyday life?”. This is why in a recent issue of the Youth Worker Journal (July-August 2007), the index of the articles is so revealing: New Paradigm, New Bible, New Illiteracy, New Music, New Humans, New Preaching etc… New world! According to the Spirit of Generation Y study, Churches must take seriously where young people are at, sidestepping the barriers of irrelevant forms and symbols and taking seriously ethical issues like the equality of women and men and protection of the environment.
Churches must engage in dialogue, exploring faith with young people without first requiring commitment from them. While many young people show little if any interest in spirituality, others, a small minority, display an inspiring commitment to their faith and to the wellbeing of others. That there are still a goodly number of young people like this was demonstrated by the World Youth Day celebrations in Sydney last July. Of course the extent to which that successful project has triggered a new awakening in the lives of many of them remains to be seen. The ball is in their hands, we might say. Of course communities and other groups can be of help. Pastoral workers as well as theologians may well discuss styles and approaches, while many young people will remain on the sidelines waiting for someone committed to standing with them, by engagement and dialogue, discerning what is clearly difficult to anticipate. This conversation – a ministry from alongside rather than from in front – will be enormously enriched by ongoing experiences gained in other socio-religious contexts. The experience of the Oratorio in Italy is a notable example.To be continued…