Category Archives: Youth Ministry

Youth Ministry after Evangelii Gaudium

115030I’ve just come back from Adelaide and the Australian Catholic Youth Ministry Convention. It was a great weekend!

This workshop looks at Pope Francis’s exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG) and ‘marries’ three key concepts from the exhortation with some key research from Dr Christian Smith of Notre Dame University Indiana which he presents in his 2014 book Young Catholic America.  This research examines key factors that are most likely to lead to practising young adult Catholics five years after they have finished high school.

Pope Francis’s three concepts are: evangelising communities, the kerygma or proclamation of the Gospel and missionary disciples.

In addition to these three concepts, I also reflect upon Francis’s reading of the signs of the times in EG, and the importance of ensuring that ‘Jesus and Justice’ go together: that a personal faith and a preferential option for the poor are inextricably linked.

I think these key points of EG and the research from Dr Smith have critical insights for the practice of youth ministry.

You can access the audio of the talk from our friends at Xt3 here.

This was the third time I have presented this talk: the previous two occasions were at the Catholic Schools Youth Ministry Australia conference and the Ignite Conference.

A huge vote of thanks to everyone who made ACYMC 2014 possible, especially the ACBC Office for Youth and the local organising committee in Adelaide.



Bring Forth Hope Interactive Edition

Hi everyone,

my book of reflections on Pope Francis’s messages to young people is now available as an “interactive” edition on ITunes for IPads and Macs.  The Ebook has all 52 reflections that the hardcopy edition has, but it also has a further 22 video reflections from me about Pope Francis and his conversation with the youth of the world.

I hope this might be a helpful resource for prayer in youth groups and RE classes, as well as for personal reflection.  The words of Pope Francis are well worth reflecting upon.

You can get the interactive edition by clicking the link below:

You can get the hardcopy from St Pauls, Garratt Publishing or St Mary’s Press.interactive screenshot

Talk: “The Catholic Thing” @ the Australian Catholic Youth Festival

PrintHi everyone, it’s nearly two weeks since the inaugural Australian Catholic Youth Festival.  It was a great success!  Xt3 recorded workshop talks and here’s the link to one of my talks.  It’s called the Catholic Thing… but the byline is a little misleading.  The talk is really about belonging, vulnerability, shame, courage and other universal experiences, and how the Catholic “thing” speaks to those experiences.

You can check out other great talks from the festival here.

Hope you enjoy it.

New Book: Pope Francis Speaks to the Youth of the World

You might be interested in my new book, ‘Bring Forth Hope: Pope Francis Speaks to the Youth of the World’.The book consists of 52 quotes from Pope Francis’s words to young people, a short reflection, a prayer and a suggestion for practical action based on the pope’s words.

Its been published by Saint Mary’s Press in the USA, while in Australia it will be available at the Australian Catholic Youth Festival, and then online through St Pauls and Garratt Publishing, or from Catholic bookshops.

You can have a look inside the book here

What is Jesus asking you to do?

This is my talk at the Australian Gathering at World Youth Day in Rio. It’s about vocation: how Jesus is calling each of us to make disciples.

Good Friday Homily

Here’s my homily for Good Friday this year. I was preaching at Light to the Nations, which is a biennial pilgrimage held by the Disciples of Jesus Community. The homily was recorded and you can listen to it on the CRADIO website here.

I haven’t been posting too much lately – I’m working on my PhD which, along with my responsibilities with the MGL formation program, doesn’t leave too much time for blogging.  Seeing Swans will be back though!  And I’ll keep posting the occasional talk here too.  In the meantime, I’m using Twitter to send out the occasional message into the social media realm.  So follow me there for updates on youth ministry, MGL stuff  and my occasional thoughts about God, the world and the love in between.

Happy Easter!

The Solo Youth Minister: Set up for Failure

Over the past couple of days I have been reading The Spirit and Culture of Youth Ministry by Roland Martinson, Wes Black and veteran Catholic youth ministry leader John Roberto.  The book presents the findings of a best-practice study (the ‘Exemplary Youth Ministry Project’) of 131 congregations from seven different denominations in the US.  There’s plenty of food for thought from the book, but at this stage I wanted to highlight this point:  all 131 congregations emphasized that they had adopted a ‘team approach’ to youth ministry.  ‘Aha!’, I hear you say, ‘it’s easy to have a team when you’re part of a cashed-up US congregation who can pay all these youth ministers, but it isn’t possible in Australia where we struggle to pay even one youth minister in a (Catholic) parish’.  The only problem with that response is that two-thirds of the congregations in the study don’t actually have one paid youth minister let alone a team of employees.   What they do have are teams of unpaid volunteers who are well-trained and resourced for their role under the leadership of the ‘youth minister’ who may or may not be employed either.

This data is vitally important in our efforts to continue to build youth ministry in Australia, because it suggests that the solution to our challenges does not necessarily lie in employing more people, but in changing our understanding of ministry.  It is all the more pressing because it’s not uncommon for extraordinary expectations to be placed upon a solo youth minister in a parish or diocese.  We should no longer be surprised when a youth minister burns out after a year or two, or moves on discouraged and disheartened when a role that began with such promise ends in failure.  After all, we have seen it too many times before.  We are setting these (usually young) people up to fail.  It’s because we ask them to do it alone and without adequate training or support. We sometimes hear critics complaining about the money that is invested in youth ministry for little tangible result.  If we are not getting the results we hope for in youth ministry in this country, then I suggest that this is a good place to start looking for a solution.

Poor management and organisational failure are usually blamed for such stories of failed youth ministry initiatives around the country.  While I think that is partly true I actually think that the real culprit here is pseudo-clericalism.  The solo youth minister model of youth ministry looks a lot like the lone priest in a parish doing all the ministry himself.  Its just been transferred to this (largely) lay context.   In other words, it’s a problematic ecclesiology that is undoing us here.  Instead of Vatican II”s vision of the Church which has everyone contributing their particular gifts for the sake of the Church’s mission our current practice actually reflects an ecclesiology that concentrates all ministry into the hands of the ‘professionals’, be they priests (clericalism) or employed laity (pseudo-clericalism).   And of course, this vision of the Church is thoroughly Pauline: I often wonder what we might be capable of as a Church if we really took the image of the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians seriously.

According to the study a thriving youth ministry could have twenty or more adult volunteers of all ages playing all sorts of roles in mentoring, supporting and encouraging young people in their faith.  I suspect it becomes more obvious at this point why the youth ministers in these exemplary congregations aren’t reporting high levels of burnout or dissatisfaction with their roles. Such involvement from a broad cross-section of people in our parishes will only be possible here if we can shrug off the ‘service mentality’ that most  Catholics have of their parishes in which they think that merely coming to Mass is a sufficient expression of their faith.  Of course, this mentality can also be attributed at least in part to clericalism’s highly dubious legacy.

I’d like to make it clear that I’m not arguing for or against paid youth ministers here.  I’m not arguing against the need for an identifiable youth minister either.  (Nor , I suspect it must be said, am I for doing away with the ordained priesthood in any way shape or form).  The exemplary congregations in the study have a youth minister, but these ministers never work alone or in isolation.  Instead, they are the leader of a team of youth ministers, and they are also an integral part of the life and leadership of the congregation.  So what I am arguing for is twofold: on a practical level we need to train youth ministers to recruit, train and collaborate with adult leaders (as well as youth or peer leaders).  But at a deeper level we need to ensure that our ministerial practice is informed by an appropriate ecclesial vision which does not merely pay lip service to the baptismal vocation to participate in the Church’s mission.

WYD Rio in 2 Years? A Couple of Things to Think About

Pope Benedict XVI announced yesterday that the next World Youth Day will be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2013.  It will be the second time that WYD has been held in South America, as Buenos Aires hosted the second WYD in 1987.  As the demographic centre of Catholicism moves south, it is very exciting that the youth of the world will gather in Brazil in two years time.

But it is only two years away.  At a practical level that means that Australian Diocesan Youth Ministry Coordinators and other youth ministry leaders will need to start gearing up for Rio pretty soon after they get home from Madrid.

I am also reminded of a passage from a letter that Pope John Paul II wrote to Cardinal Pironio on the occasion of the WYD seminar held in Czestochowa, Poland in 1996.  John Paul II wrote that

World Youth Day is the Church’s Day for youth and with youth.  This idea is not an alternative to ordinary youth ministry, often carried out with great sacrifice and self-denial.  Indeed it intends to actually consolidate this work by offering new encouragement for commitment, objectives which foster ever greater involvement and participation.

It seems to me that there is a very real risk that Australian preparations for WYD in Rio could swamp the ‘ordinary youth ministry’ that ought to be taking place, consuming our time, resources and energies that need to be devoted to the day-to-day mission of evangelising young people.

A second announcement at WYD in Madrid also has significant implications for youth ministry in Australia.  At the Australian Gathering, the Senior Projects officer for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Malcolm Hart, announced that plans were underway for a National Youth Day for Australian Catholics.  The first such gathering is proposed for 2013 also, and is intended to take place every two years after that.

I am excited about a National Youth Day.  I think it gives young Australian Catholics an important opportunity to gather together to celebrate and deepen in our faith.  Like WYD it will give young Australians the opportunity to discover that they are part of something bigger with many other young people in the Church.  It will also be a great celebration and intensification of our unity. And as an Australian event it will be more accessible to far more Australians than an overseas World Youth Day will ever be.  I think it has great potential for building and developing Catholic youth ministry here.

I think that there should always be plenty of young Australian Catholics at every international World Youth Day, and we should in no way abandon our commitment to WYD.  But preparations for those WYDs cannot consume all of a diocese’s, parish’s or a community’s youth ministry resources if Catholic youth ministry is to fulfill its mission in this country.  It is my very real hope that the Church in Australia at every level and young Australian Catholics will get behind a National Youth Day.  But we do need to think very carefully about how and where we devote our time, energy and resources to make sure that WYDs and a National Youth Day are working in concert to support the grass-roots work of youth ministry in Australia.

The Divinity of Christ, the Papacy, and 1.5 million young people

Photo from S+L Media

Like all Catholics and indeed most Christians all over the world, the 1.5 million young people who gathered with the Pope for World Youth Day in Madrid listened to the Gospel passage from Matthew 16:13-20.

The story begins with Jesus asking the disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’  The disciples tell Jesus that others are calling him John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets.  If we were to ask people in 2011 in Australia, Spain, or perhaps any other country in the Western world, the actual answers would be different but the sentiment would be basically the same: popular opinion now as then considers Jesus to be a wise figure, a guru, a noble  teacher – and that’s all.

In fact, as I listen to people today the most common position is probably summed up by the title of Philip Pullman’s book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ:  Jesus was a good guy, noble, nice and now very dead.  As far as Pullman and indeed many of our contemporaries are concerned, the divinity of Jesus is a fantasy dreamt up by the Church at  a much later date and a terrible distortion of what the ‘real’ Jesus was on about.

In the Gospel though Jesus is not content with popular opinion.  He wants an answer from the people who have walked with him, from those he has chosen and called to follow him.  And so he asks the disciples, ‘Who do you say I am?’.  We’re told that Peter then spoke up.  I think that implies a deathly silence after Jesus asked the question.  No one was game to speak for a moment or two.  And then Peter declared, ‘you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’

It would be a mistake to think that Peter’s profession of faith here means that he understood precisely what Son of God meant in the technical language that would be used in the 4th century to define Jesus’ divinity.  It’s anachronistic to think that Peter had access to language that the bishops at the Council of Nicaea employed to unequivocally affirm the divinity of Christ in AD 325 in the statement popularly known as the Nicene Creed.  But that’s precisely the point: the bishops at Nicaea weren’t saying something new about Jesus when they declared that Jesus is ‘the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages’.  They were expressing the consistent faith of Christians from Peter down to their own time.

What the bishops were trying to do in AD 325 was to clearly articulate the Church’s belief in Jesus’ divinity because a man named Arius had denied it, and so the Church needed to re-state what Christians had always believed.  As a consequence they came up with the statement above and the following to describe what Christians believe about Jesus:

God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.

From Peter to Nicaea to our own time: to be a Christian is to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.  It means that in the man Jesus of Nazareth God is completely and uniquely present.  Our faith hangs on this, because our faith is based not simply on Jesus’ teaching, but on who he is.  If Jesus is only a human being, then what he says might be interesting, it might be profound, but his teaching can be no more important than the legacy of any other teacher, leader or prophet.  But if Jesus really is divine, then his teaching is universally valid and relevant for every human being.  More than that, if Jesus really is divine then it is through him that we are able to share in the very life of God.

Many of Peter’s contemporaries found this to be a scandalous claim.  People today find it scandalous too.  It is the ‘scandal’ at the heart of the Christian faith.  But as the encounter between Peter and Jesus tells us, to believe that Jesus is the Son of God is ultimately the result of God’s revelation, of God’s self-giving communication that resounds in the hearts of those who are open to it.

What has this got to do with a gathering of 1.5 million young people in Madrid this weekend?  Simply this: that in Benedict XVI the successor of Peter is still speaking up, still declaring, in spite of many voices that ridicule and deride him for doing so, that Jesus is divine.  This is the deepest purpose of the papacy: to profess, in continuity with Peter’s declaration, that Jesus is the Son of  God… and to invite others to do the same.

For Insomniacs and Pilgrims – A WYD reflection

World Youth Day week is about to start in Madrid, and I’m confident that all those who are going WYD have already arrived in Spain.  Which makes it possible for me to share the reflection for pilgrims that I was asked to write for the WYD Journal that all Australian pilgrims received.  For those of you who aren’t attending WYD, here is a little reflection on what I think awaits our Aussie friends.  This week, why don’t we make a little pilgrimage of our own to a church we don’t normally visit, and pray for the pilgrims.

Dear pilgrim,

I’d like to think that right now you are thousands of metres up in the air, and that far below you the lights of Dili, Delhi or Dubai are winking up at you. Everyone else on the plane is asleep, and you have picked up your World Youth Day Journal and have begun to thumb through it (ok, so I know that you may actually be reading this in your bedroom before you leave, or maybe even after you have arrived home from Spain.  If that’s so, humour me a little and pretend that you are on your way to Europe, and the whole adventure still lies ahead of you).  I hope you have a lot of fun!  In fact, I’m sure you will have an amazing experience.  And you never know, it might just change your life.

No doubt that even before you left Australia, your group leader had already fed you the line: ‘you’re a pilgrim not a tourist’.  It’s one of the things group leaders say to prepare you for the worst that your journey will bring: long queues, big crowds, cold showers, school floors.  It’s more than just a line though.  You really are a pilgrim.  You have joined a countless queue of people throughout history who have made a journey to a sacred place.  So welcome to the club.  Here’s the thing though: you are currently travelling thousands of kilometres in order to visit breathtakingly beautiful and important places, but the most sacred journey a pilgrim undertakes is actually a journey of the heart.

In the past, people went on pilgrimage for lots of different reasons.  Some definitely took it all very seriously, and prayed the whole way, and no doubt got really excited when they arrived in Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, or whatever shrine or religious hotspot they were aiming for.  We know from the history books that lots of other people went on pilgrimage because it was really the only form of tourism that they had available.  They wanted to see the world, and pilgrimage was a respectable way of leaving everything at home behind in order to check out somewhere new.  Not much has changed.  There are some of you who know exactly why you are going to World Youth Day.  You are hanging out to go to Mass with a couple of million other young people and the pope.  That’s great.  But there are others who somehow also got the chance to come and it seemed like a great opportunity.  You might not be all that sure about all the religious stuff that’s going on.  My tip, whether you are a WYD groupie or a complete WYD newbie is this: pay attention to your heart.  As you experience all that this 21st century pilgrimage has to offer, listen to what the deepest part of you is telling you.

That’s because you aren’t on this plane by accident.  God got you here and whether you know it or not, God has some very definite purpose in mind for you over the days and weeks ahead.  So, as you have a fantastic time experiencing all that Spain (and whatever other countries you visit along the way) has to offer, keep listening to your heart, and keep paying attention.

In particular, listen to what your heart is telling you when you hear the stories of faith from the other young people in your group, and when you meet other pilgrims from other parts of the world.  Listen also to the witness of the stones, stained glass and art of the cathedrals and churches that you visit.  They are ‘words’ set in stone and sand and paint that can speak to you of previous generations’ faith and love.  When you take a moment on the bus to write in your journal, when you stop for a moment’s silence in a church, as you sit in a plaza (that’s Spanish for ‘square’) and have a coffee, when you are speechless at the sight of the natural wonder and beauty before you, and even when you find yourself in conflict or struggling with someone or something on the journey, stop again and listen to your heart.

And when you’re at the WYD vigil and everyone has lit their candles, and all you can see in every direction are flickers of flame held aloft by young hands from all over the world, and as you realise then and there that you belong to a universal family called the Catholic Church, listen to your heart then too.  You aren’t alone.  There are so many young people like you who are listening to their heart at that moment too.

I’m going to spoil the surprise and tell you what’s going on: In all those moments it’s someone knocking on the door of your heart that you can hear.  That’s because your destination at end of your pilgrimage is not a place, it’s a person.  The goal of this journey is a meeting, an encounter with Jesus Christ.  He is alive, risen from the dead, and that means he is the answer to the deepest questions, the deepest desires and longings of your heart.  He wants to be the source and foundation of your lives as you are planted and built up in him.  He wants you to be firm in your faith in him, because he is the sure hope, the solid ground on which you can base your lives.

Vaya con Dios, peregrino (that’s Spanish for ‘go with God, pilgrim’).  Vaya con Dios.

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