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Special section: Family Life

An ‘advocate for teens’ heads up national group for youth ministers


“Jesus played with the kids and taught the adults. We’ve got it the wrong way round.” So contends Bob McCarty, executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry. “We need to shift vision and renew the emphasis on adult catechesis,” he said.

“And let’s separate the media image of young people from the reality,” he said. “There’s a media bias against young people. If your impression comes from TV, you’d believe they’re morally bankrupt and out of control, chaotic and violent.”

Contrast that, he said, with the statistic that in each of the past two years, “young people have performed 1.2 billion hours of voluntary service in the United States. Youth voluntarism is as high or higher than any other segment of society.”

McCarty, who spent 14 years in youth ministry in the Baltimore archdiocese and still volunteers at his local parish, said, “All this good stuff happening doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. There are serious issues around drugs and alcohol. But even the rate of violence is dropping off. Trouble is, drastic incidents catch the media’s attention and offset the gains.”

McCarty said that kids are hungry for meaning and purpose in their lives, “desperately trying to make sense out of all the pieces of their lifestyle, wondering why they should bother with education.”

“They’re worried about how permanent their relationships -- including family relationships -- are,” he said. “The realization -- especially with the reality of abuse -- that this family values stuff isn’t all it’s cracked up” to be. And a hunger for connections.

“They want to be connected,” he said, “to family most of all, but at school, in the community, in church. They need to feel they have a place where they belong.

“It’s a mistake in youth ministry to think your job is to bring God to kids,” said McCarty. “What’s needed is to recognize that God is already active and present in their lives. But sometimes they don’t have the language to help them understand their own experience. Gallup says that by age 16, one in three teenagers reports a personal experience of God. That’s pretty incredible.”

McCarty, who worked his way through college as a youth minister, is a great advocate for teens. He said the good news is that more communities and parishes have started to pay attention. “And at best what the church provides is satisfaction for their hunger for the holy.”

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, based at Georgetown University, shows that “kids who participate in Catholic youth ministry programs are at Mass more often than both their peers and their parents. They’re involved in service and take their Catholic identity seriously.”

McCarty is off to Australia later this year to talk with Catholics about youth ministry.

Where do parishes and parents turn for good material on youth ministry? McCarty likes the Boys Town resources but acknowledges that there’s a shortage of good stuff out there. Which is why, he admitted, he has his own book, Tips for Raising Teens: A Primer for Parents (Paulist Press), coming this month.

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998