Monday, March 15, 2010

To Teach the Faith to Teens

Guest post by Allison 
On Friday, which marked the two-month anniversary of the Haitian earthquake, our parish youth group met in our parish hall to fast and pray and raise money for Haiti. It was a quiet, meditative evening for the handful of teens and their parents who gathered to offer up our temporary discomfort as a prayer to relive the suffering of the 200,000 Haitians who died in the earthquake and of the millions who survived. No matter how inconsequential we feel on this planet, faith gives us the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. I pray we pass on the Church's spiritual gems to the next generation of Catholics.

With our pastor's blessing, a parish friend, Vicki, and I restarted the youth group about a year ago. It had not been active in at least five years. We started off slowly, hoping to build a sense of belonging among the teens. Deliberately, we've offered more social than spiritual activities: board game nights, hikes, barbecues, and ice skating. Friday was the first time we hit them with spirituality straight on.

The evening opened with reading A Prayer After the Earthquake in Haiti, written by Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, who is chairman of Catholic Relief Services. I had found his prayer on his blog. This beautiful prayer reads, in part, "As the things we have built crumble about us, we know too well how small we truly are on this ever-changing, ever-moving, fragile planet we call home. Yet you have promised never to forget us. Do not forget us now. "

Next, a young mother in the parish, also named Allison, explained to us all how our fasting is a form of prayer. Allison outlined the seven corporal and spiritual acts of mercy. Then, she talked to us about the exquisite Catholic notion of redemptive suffering.

Allison, a philosophy doctoral student, went on to explain to us how whenever we suffer in life, we can choose to give it meaning, by offering it back to God—to save someone's soul, ease someone else's pain. She read to us from Paul's Letter to the Colossians, which he wrote during his imprisonment in Rome. In that letter, Saint Paul talks about in which says: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church, of which I am a minister.”

The teens listened without speaking, nodding as the parents then talked about some of the difficulties they had faced as adults and how it was a comfort to know they could offer their suffering to ease the pain another soul was enduring. Later, we walked through the rain to our Eucharistic Chapel for Stations of the Cross. We ended the evening back in the Parish Hall, watching a few short videos culled from youtube about Catholic Relief Services' work in Haiti.

This youth group began because many adults in our parish are troubled about the precipitous drop in Mass attendence that happens, paradoxically, after children make their Confirmation. Not unusually, even parents stop attending Mass once Confirmation is “over.” We also saw the teens lacked a sense of Catholic identity and community. Ours is a small, older parish in a town of 20,000 residents and five Jewish synagogues.

Friday night's Fast for Haiti brought out a smaller number of teens than most other youth-group activities. Some of our regulars had “Bye Bye Birdie” rehearsal at the high school, one was at an NHL game to celebrate his16th birthday party, and still another one was training for a national swim championship. My own son couldn't make it because he had an orchestra rehearsal. To top it all off, the evening was rainswept, almost forlorn. But our parish measures success, not by the number of teens who show up for various youth group activities, but by whether the ones who do have fruitful experiences.

It's tough to tell with teens how much impact we are having. By introducing some Catholic spiritual disciplines to them on Friday night, we hope our parish will begin to be a place not only where teens can play pingpong, but also where they can start to find comfort and meaning in the sacramental and devotional life of the Church.