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Teens seek more ‘youth-friendly’ liturgies

NCR Staff
Kansas City, Mo.

Organizers who brought thousands of Catholic teenagers here Nov. 20-23 wanted to discern the voice of the young church, and the yearning it seemed to speak most clearly was for more youth-friendly Sunday liturgies.

“Kids get bored with going to Mass,” said D. O’Hara, 17, of Kansas City, Mo., expressing a commonly voiced sentiment among participants in the biennial National Catholic Youth Conference. “It’s supposed to be a celebration, but if it is, it’s one of the worst parties I’ve ever been to. Nobody gets up to have fun. We need to have more celebrating.”

Hearing such perspectives was part of the purpose of the conference, sponsored by the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministers. The event -- the nation’s largest gathering of Catholic youth -- also aimed to build leadership skills so that the 14,000 teens and 3,000 adults who took part can invigorate parish youth ministry programs. Over four days in Kansas City’s Bartle Hall, delegates discussed what it means to be a Catholic teen today -- and how teens might contribute to shaping a more dynamic church.

On the positive side, participants spoke of the value they attach to their identity as Catholics and of their respect for the church’s moral teachings. They sought ways to apply the enthusiasm and creativity of young Catholics more integrally in parish life.

While desire for change in the liturgy bubbled up in informal conversations, in working sessions, in liturgies planned by the youth, and in a dialogue between 23 bishops and 300 teenagers, that desire did not center on many of the issues familiar from adult debates. Participants didn’t have much to say about restoring Tridentine observances or correcting postconciliar “abuses.” Instead, they said they were seeking more energetic and involving liturgies, regardless of the form they take or the language in which they are celebrated.

Often-heard suggestions for improving the Sunday liturgy included:

  • Better and more modern music -- including occasional use of musical styles that appeal to youth, such as alternative, pop and rap.
  • Involving laity, especially youth, more extensively -- including delivering homilies.
  • Activities that get people up out of their seats and doing something -- whether it be dancing, clapping or moving around and interacting.

“I have a big problem with the kids at our church not taking part in the Mass,” said Miranda Daugherty, 17, of Youngstown, Ohio. “Change the tradition a little bit ... make it fun, so we can understand it and want to be part of it. Don’t be so strict, loosen up and let people enjoy themselves.”

“Make it more like this,” said Andy Pace, 14, of Kansas City, Mo., referring to the involving style of liturgies at the conference, “instead of just sitting down listening to the old guy speak. This is fun.”

Attendance at the conference was up 60 percent this year, attributed by organizers to stirrings in parish youth ministry dating back almost two decades, as well as the energy generated by Pope John Paul II’s visit to World Youth Day in Denver in 1993. This year’s gathering was part music festival, part high-tech trade show, part big-tent revival, and part nonstop lunch break at the biggest Catholic high school in America. There were concerts, workshops, testimonials, interactive computer exhibits, service opportunities and most of all virtually unlimited opportunities for Catholic youth to hang out with other Catholic youth.

“There’s an incredible energy here with all the kids,” said Lauren Flamingo, 17, of Stromsville, Ohio. “There’s a real sense of unity. It’s so much fun meeting kids from all over the country.”

One focal point over the four days was the “Forum on the Voice of Youth,” which brought 300 teens and 23 bishops together in one room -- though the prelates shuttled in and out -- for several hours of conversation. The participants were divided into groups of six to 10 teenagers, an adult moderator and a bishop. Each group gathered around a table. The goal was to give young Catholics an opportunity to talk about the gifts they bring to the church and to air their views on church issues with the bishops.

It was here that concern about liturgy seemed most prominent. While the youth represented a fairly wide spectrum of political, social and ecclesiastical views, a surprising degree of consensus emerged that too many parish liturgies turn young people off.

Ely Guess, 17, of Birmingham, Ala., said teens in his area are sometimes allowed to plan special “youth Masses,” but they need involving, enjoyable liturgies on a more regular basis. “We need it every Sunday, not just on special occasions,” he said.

Candace Hartz, 17, of Chattanooga, Tenn., gave a brief talk to the forum on how another youth gathering had inspired her to see Christ in other people. She said the most frustrating thing to her is how “people can be so on fire for God” at events such as the youth conference, but when they return home, “it goes away.” Her answer? Better liturgies in the parishes. “They [youth] will come if you put forth the effort,” she said. “But it has to be exciting, empowering and fun.”

When participants in the forum were invited to respond to the question, “How can we bring youth into the church?” most answers seemed to center on the liturgy: “a mix of modern and traditional music,” “youth homilies,” “liturgical dance” and, most ubiquitously, “make the Mass more fun.” When asked to list the gifts young people bring to the church, many answers focused on “energy,” “excitement,” “involvement” and “making the church come alive.”

“It’s a great lesson,” Bishop John F. Kinney of St. Cloud, Minn., said of the emphasis on the liturgy. “We have to make the parish and especially the Mass a welcoming place for youth to be.”

“The point I would emphasize is that the kids were not just talking about ‘teen Masses,’ “ said Mike Moseley of the Center for Ministry Development, who moderated the bishops’ forum. “They were talking about being a full part of the worshiping community.” Moseley said that making liturgies more accessible to young people would require adults taking adolescent stories and experiences seriously, as well as involving teens in the liturgical ministries available to them -- serving as lectors, eucharistic ministers and in other roles.

“It’s not really a matter of fixing the liturgy,” Moseley said, “but of how we enliven communities. We’ll have the right liturgies when we have young people involved in all aspects of community life.”

The culminating Mass on Sunday -- planned and executed by conference participants -- provided a glimpse into what a youth-oriented liturgy might look like. There was an eclectic mix of music, some of which sounded like it came straight off the top 40 charts, and some of which would have been at home in a Cistercian monastery. The central motif seemed to be involvement, as youth were invited to sing, dance, clap, move and generally get into it.

During his homily, Msgr. Ray East of Washington called on the youth to shout “amen” at certain points, and the resulting din reverberated through the large hall. At the close of his remarks, East borrowed from the evangelical tradition and asked the youth to make an “altar call,” standing if they were willing to witness to Christ at home. East called on them to make an emotional, personal commitment. As the youth stood up, East turned to the bishops and said, “I give to you, at least 14,000 strong, not the church of the future but the church of today.”

The young people who gathered in Kansas City seemed to identify solidarity as their biggest gain from coming together.

“Sometimes you feel alone if you try to live your life in a good, moral way,” said Flamingo. “Here, with so many kids who share the same values, it’s a great affirmation. Here you’re in the majority.”

“I’m so glad I’m here. I’m so glad I came,” said Kelly Annino, 17, of Norwich, Conn. “It’s incredible -- the number of kids, all here for the same reason, because we believe in God. You don’t get that every day ... Here, you come and everyone’s chanting, ‘We love God!’ It’s just incredible. No one’s walking around like, ‘This is so dumb.’ Everyone is glad to be here. It helps me keep going on.”

O’Hara put the point simply. “Here at this conference,” he said, “you know you’re not standing alone.”

It was this aspect of the conference -- the mutual support offered by teenagers struggling to make the right choices -- that National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministers executive director Bob McCarty wished to emphasize.

“I hope the media takes away the story that there are 17,000 pieces of good news here,” he said, suggesting that teenagers normally draw attention from the press only when drugs, violence or crime are involved. In truth, McCarty said, “Our kids are alive and well and doing great things in the church.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 12, 1997