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Catholic freshman proves labels aren’t what they used to be


Start with http://member.aol.com/nreha/pcy.html and you end up with Kevin Ahern and the Web site for the Progressive Catholic Youth. Visitors to the site range from youth ministers in the United States to campus ministers and students in the Philippines to critical letters from conservatives who accuse Ahern of being “un-Catholic.”

Start with Ahern himself, however, and you’re in touch with an 18-year-old Fordham freshman whose interests include the National Catholic Student Coalition (he’s metro New York representative) and monitoring human rights in Geneva for Pax Romana, the international Catholic student movement. His searching takes him far beyond the limits suggested by the word progressive. (Indeed, Ahern’s interests and range provide older U.S. Catholics with the needed reminder that Catholic labels aren’t what they used to be.)

Ahern is playing catch-up. Five years disappeared from his life between fifth and 10th grade when he contracted Lyme disease, before the disease had a name. “Three years of my life I just don’t remember,” he said. He was in a semi-conscious state on 24-hour IV support.

But because this was a disease without a diagnosis, the medical insurers would not pay for Ahern’s treatment. That’s when Holy Name Parish in Valhalla, N.Y., stepped in, organizing fundraisers for a “Francis Kevin Foundation” to help with medical expenses.

Ahern’s father is a professor at Westchester Community College; his mother has a degree in education and works as an administrative assistant. Both have been deeply involved in Catholic organizations and parish life. Older brother Shawn is a guidance counselor; sister Zoe Ahern Prince an events marketing planner.

As a captive audience of one, Ahern met a wide variety of Catholics.

“All the time I was ill we had parish people coming to the house helping my parents. And much of the time I was bounced around from hospital to hospital because they didn’t know the disease too well.”

At 14 and 15, he began to recover and could involve himself intermittently in everyday life. He wanted to thank the parish and gradually became involved in a physical renovation project, organizing people to help.

“I still wasn’t back in school full-time, still trying to get readjusted to society,” he said. He joined the youth group at a neighboring parish, Holy Innocents in Pleasantville -- “mainly to recruit people for my project.”

At Holy Innocents he became involved in a high school student faith community. “It was so strong. The youth minister was Roseanna Olsen. The spiritual environment was wonderful. I know for a fact that that youth ministry saved people’s lives, saved them from making bad decisions.”

The group attracts from 20 students on a Sunday evening to 50 for retreats.

“The leaders are usually the older peers. So people would share their experiences … [and] end the night with shared prayers, petitions they’d like prayed for, and wrap it up with the Lord’s Prayer. I can honestly say I have seen successful youth ministry -- preventing people from taking their lives because of low self-esteem, many things. I really feel blessed and happy.”

Not everyone was Catholic. “People came in and out as they needed it.”

Ahern was facing his own problems re-entering school after years of home schooling due to illness.

“I was outcast. Entering back was very difficult,” he said. “I had eye difficulties. My eyes are very sensitive to light and I was required to wear sunglasses. I don’t think I’d have had the strength to survive without the youth ministry where I met wonderful people who instantly became my friends. Because of the ministry, I developed this love of my faith, and felt called to try to share it with people my own age who don’t really have what I have. That saddens me a lot.”

Because of a nurse who was a family friend, he was exposed to many currents within that faith -- Terry Dosh’s Bread Raising, Call to Action, Future Church. “I really began to read and develop. I started to realize, slowly, that a lot of kids had no knowledge of Vatican II [1962-65] or all the hard work my parents’ generation had put in -- that was being lost to these young people.

“If I was sitting at home ill, I had time on my hands, so three years ago I decided to spread the message that there is a Vatican II, and this is what it means. That there is a global church, global ministry, global community. So I created the Web site. As a result of this wonderful combination of everything, I became a strong leader in my youth ministry and that fit me very well.”

He enrolled for a while at Westchester Community College where, if he had to miss a class through illness, his father could pick up his books and assignments. There was no Catholic campus ministry at Westchester (and the Christian ministry “wasn’t too welcoming,” he said) so he became involved in New York University’s campus community and, through that, the National Catholic Student Coalition.

The coalition (about 500 or 600 students attend the annual gathering) is a sister organization to Pax Romana. Ahern serves with Pax Romana’s nongovernmental organization at the United Nations. He’s also on the board of the U.N.-affiliated International Catholic Organizations office.

He worries about his generation. A lot of young Catholics are just there, not thinking about what they’re being told, not debating it in their minds -- “In one ear, out the other,” he said.

“There’s these organizations like Communion and Liberation that set things back. You look at a church with a growing number of vocations, and they’re all these conservative orders. That shouldn’t be -- because I think a lot of these things are based on misconceptions and poor sharing of knowledge.

“I really, really would like to see more dialogue among young people on key issues.”

He’s attended meetings of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (“I was the youngest person there by at least 15 years”), and national Call to Action. He’s studying anthropology, has an interest, too, in theology and returned from his U.N. Geneva stint with Pax Romana with a heightened sense of the need to promote human rights.

His prayer life doesn’t involve saints. (“I like to pray to the top.”) He has a prayer corner in his room, enjoys liturgies that are “praise and song,” and likes attending them in different settings, though he generally sticks close to his parish because of weekly commitments.

He said that liturgies should and could be made more appealing to a younger congregation, because he wants to see young people more involved in them, just as he wants them more involved in the church itself.

His Web site “is a resource for young people who are interested in finding progressive Vatican II ideas. I would like to expand it into something where it can reach out and educate people on what the council was and what it means in their lives.”

“For me,” he said, “basically the main focus would be to educate young people on a lot of things in danger of disappearing.”

That statement provides a neat analogy to what got Ahern involved with his peers to begin with -- the physical restoration project at his parish.

There had once been a brick path leading from the parish church into the woods. And alongside the path were stone statues depicting the Stations of the Cross. Way back when, the path had connected the previous church building with the school and parish hall.

Two decades of neglect and vandalism had reduced the trail to a dirty wilderness, the statues broken or carted off to the middle of the woods. The path had become tangled with bushes and trees and covered with debris.

Methodically, Ahern set about recruiting labor for the restoration and holding silent auctions, pleading for donations, and petitioning local businesses to restore the statues. He believes much that had been was worth saving, restoring, hallowing. His Web site intends the same.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor-at-large.

National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 1999