We all have a moment in our lives when our innocence is lost, when we come to see that the world is sometimes a dangerous and fearful place. The sad reality is that we live in a culture of fear and personal pain that is the result of sin and selfishness.
As a Catholic youth minister, I witnessed many times the suffering experienced by teens who had lost their innocence through abuse, bullying, and family trauma. Too many of these young people chose to turn this pain inward — engaging in behaviors such as drug use, cutting, eating disorders and suicidal ideation — rather than to engage the broken world in which they lived. I discovered though a life-long walk with Jesus that the way to combat this fear was with words and actions of healing and hope based on the Word of God, the power of the sacraments, and the foundational principles of the Catholic Church.
My approach to helping teens overcome their life fears can be remembered with the acronym R.E.A.L. In my relationship with young people, I deliberately choose to be Real, Earnest, Available, and Loving. These four principles help teens grow in their understanding of how to engage a culture that seeks to hold them in an unhealthy cycle of fear and self-abuse. The beauty in these principles is that they speak not only to what I need to be to the young people, but also to the needs that have been distorted or destroyed by the loss of innocence they have suffered, and which lie waiting in the depths of their hearts for restoration.
Realness and Identity
I found in my ministry that young people never expected me to be one of them, but they did expect me to understand and accept them where they were. There was, at the core of their spirits, a basic identity beyond current cultural trends to which I could connect empathetically. This was by virtue of my own inner struggles and the Catholic faith that had helped me to walk through them. When the young people sensed that I saw into their hearts and responded to them with transparency and vulnerability from my own heart, they were able to open up and speak from their pain as well as their beauty. In sharing my own Catholic identity and the peace and purpose it brought to my life, it gave the teens a foundation from which they could seek to grow as well.
So many teens struggle these days with their identity, particularly with regard to their sexuality and their worth as it relates to their place among their peers. These young people are just coming to terms with what it means to be sexual beings and to have a place in society. Given time and support, they are capable of resolving these crucial identity questions. However, because society is so quick to “affirm” their confusion and rubber-stamp their feelings, many teens never quite move beyond the views of others. What is important is to help teens understand that they have an intrinsic worth as those who have been created in the image of God. Consider the following:
You formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, because I am wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works!
My very self you know. (Psalm 139:13-14)
When teens see that they belong to God, that they are more than the sum of other’s opinions, and that they are part of a Church that loves and supports them, they can begin to fill the empty, God-sized hole in their hearts with hope, and walk their own journeys counter to the culture around them.
Earnest Means Solid, Serious, and Solemn
It was one thing to be real, but my realness had to be grounded in something other than my own ego. I needed to have a sense of myself that mirrored the God I wanted to share with them. Being earnest meant taking my leadership role seriously enough to know who I was in Christ, to share what I believed as a Catholic, and to be comfortable in my own skin when it came to living out my faith in the real world. I wanted to embody Paul’s words to Timothy:
Be eager to present yourself as acceptable to God, a workman who causes no disgrace, imparting the word of truth without deviation. (2 Timothy 2:15)
Teens will be able to face this broken world when we are serious about our relationships with them. An earnest faith is one that takes God’s truth seriously and makes a sincere spiritual investment in the lives of the young people. We must be willing to walk the rocky road of insanity that is adolescence, taking with us an empathetic understanding that has come from our own transformed lives. Rather than being “experts” who have it all together, our goal is to lead the young people to safe and solid places within the Church where God’s Word and wisdom can guide them as they struggle against the falsehood and fallen nature of moral relativism, political correctness, and godless thinking.
Availability to Teens is More than Physical Presence
Being available to young people meant going beyond sharing the same space at a youth event. I knew I needed to be emotionally and spiritually present to them as well. They knew they could contact me when they needed help, and that I would always listen openly to their fears and concerns without passing judgment or providing easy answers. It meant being a shoulder to cry on and coach in their corner. I never tried to solve their issues in the sense that I provided a perfect, once-for-all answer to their fears; rather, I gave them a sense of hope by being someone they could always turn to for honest conversation, sincere prayer, and loving support. Grounded in my own faith, I was able to speak truth into their lives. I used as my guide the example of Jesus in John 13:1-20 (The Washing of the Disciple’s Feet) and passages such as those below:
Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, as indeed you do. (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15)
We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works. (Hebrews 10:24)
Being available means we are willing to sit with young people in those inner places of vulnerability and fear, not as spiritual “bodyguards,” but as those who has been wounded and are still walking the journey toward healing. It means letting the teens see our own flaws and struggles as believers, and sharing how Christ has helped us to overcome them. In this way, we provide a foundation upon which to build a relationship with Jesus within the Church. We are to walk with the young people as they tear down walls of fear and division, and be ready to lift them up when they fall. Once teens know they have this support from us and from the God we have made real to them, we can point them to the sacraments and the wisdom of the Church where they will find the strength they need to continue their journeys into adulthood.
Loving is Unconditional
Perhaps the most powerful part of my relationship with the young people was the love I shared with them. In one sense, the other three parts of this approach were wrapped up in how I imparted God’s love through my words and actions. I needed to keep in mind that this love came not in my own strength but from Christ and His Church in order for me to remain focused on the young people and not on my own needs. My love was genuine and expressed itself in my willingness to be present to them, and through my earnest devotion to their needs. My love worked best when, like the Savior’s love, it was sacrificial, unconditional, and other-focused. As our Lord Himself said:
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)
Teens can spot false love easily. They will drink in real love — godly love — with great joy. And as they receive love in the context of holy living, the Communion table, and the Confessional, it will strengthen them to go out into the broken world and stand against the fear and falsehood that tries to break them down. As they are shown the unconditional love and mercy of Christ, the natural beauty and sacrificial spirit that is a part of them will feel free to manifest itself in love shown toward others. Rather than reacting to the cruelty of the world with hatred or withdrawal, they will learn to respond to the brokenness of the world with compassion and self-giving.
Remembering the Other God
At the heart of this approach to ministering to young people is imparting the truth that Jesus Christ was the ultimate example of a real, earnest, available, and loving person. It should be our highest priority to show teens that Jesus is the One who can understand their fear and their pain perfectly because He lived a life of perfect love and self-giving. Catholic Singer Michael Kelly Blanchard has a beautiful song entitled, “The Other God.” In his haunting lyrics, he sings about how our noble and lofty images of God are broken down when we face our own frailty and the struggles of life. But it is there that we encounter “The Other God,” the One who was broken for us:
Yet humans have a human side that’s both vulnerable and flawed,
And when these common traits collide they seek the other God…
The other God, the broken One,
Who loves with tears, His broken ones,
And patches years as they come – undone!
The other God, the broken One.
(Michael Kelly Blanchard, “The Other God”, from the album Good Grief)
As members of the Body of Christ, we have been given a great gift to share with a broken world. That gift is the connectedness we have in our Savior through the Church. As we celebrate the sacraments, as we dig deep into the Word, and as we help one another to grow in the faith, we build upon the rock-solid foundation of saints who join together in the perfect love we share with Jesus. Let us remember to love those who struggle the most with this broken world: our young people. Let us be real, earnest, available, and loving ministers to them in the name of our Savior; and let us lead them toward heaven by walking with them on this earth in service and solidarity. God bless!