Faithful, but writing their own agenda
By ARTHUR JONES
Tall and short, robust and skinny, Asian, African-American, Hispanic, Caucasian and beautiful blend of several races, cultures and ethnicities, on stage they leaned against the back wall, laughed, giggled and made bold statements. They could be shy, yet gave evidence of take-charge capability; sometimes funny, their responses showed they could inspire. In every way they summed up what the American Catholic church needs by way of leadership, and said, Here we are.
Every one a teenager.
Their 100 or so peers urged them on, cheered, whooped and said yes. This impromptu leadership group was pulled together by Ann Marie Eckert, the provocateur who, in her Helping to Lead the Church in the 21st Century workshop, lobbed the kids questions like, What are the essential qualities in a leader?
They answered -- Rosemary Donnelly and Charles Chudabala, Alberto Pina and Mary Campbell and the rest -- with words and phrases like, enabling, organized, welcoming, able to listen, to inspire, considerate, be role models, to delegate, to step back.
Eckert, the Milwaukee archdioceses associate director of youth and young adult ministry, said, One thing about being a leader, your antennae should be up to know whos doing things well. We should be able to provide people with a way to celebrate when they do something special.
Articulate and pleased to be there, these teens from Catholic schools and parishes exuded confidence -- a pride in being Catholic. And they listened to Eckert because they were drawn into participating, and because they were excited and fresh -- this was their first workshop at the daylong Los Angeles Archdiocesan Youth Day that preceded the Religious Education Congress.
During breaks, teens from the dozen workshops swarmed outside. From Sacred Heart of Jesus High School in Los Angeles were 10th graders Vickie Munoz, Jennifer Muro, Jessica Fleytas, Veronica Jauregni, Mary Pinon and Denise Obian. Theyd been to Pam Stenzels workshop on Sex Has a Price Tag. Theyd found it interesting, supportive, and it made you think -- some of the things you can relate to.
What adults cant relate to, the girls agreed, was their music. Mary likes rapper Jay Z; Jessica likes Blink 182; and Vickie likes The Clash (a group of men in their mid to late 40s who cut their first record in 1977). Vickie said adults really criticize the teen music because of the violence and language. The high schoolers said adults need to listen to the lyrics. They talk to where were at, what we feel, said Mary.
The girls talked comfortably about their prayer life, more hesitantly about the Eucharist for divorced Catholics (theyre in favor if the injured party is able to forgive), and were imaginative about what married priests might bring to the church.
Theyd have more to talk about and theyd understand that people dont live perfect lives, said one.
Theyd know the problems if they had families, and the community would be stronger, more united, said another.
The young men had their turn. Parishioners and ninth graders at Holy Trinity in Atwater, Calif., Norman Angeles, Joseph Lopez, Josef Aranda and Jack Dizon had been to Bob McCartys workshop, Survival Skills for Catholic Teens. One skill, said Norman, is youre supposed to speak the truth about God. The quartet, who said they were attending the Youth Day because they wanted to -- they didnt have to attend -- felt theyd gotten something useful from it. All of them are active in their parish. Some serve as eucharistic ministers and as bearers of the gifts at Mass.
Their afternoon session was Bobby Fishers liturgical music-filled Liturgy Come to Life. Theyd enjoyed that because it was lively. Norman said, Everybody was into it, everybody was like clapping, everybody was talking about God and stuff.
Joseph added, Everyone got in with the crowd. The usual church music, they said, makes young people not want to go to church.
They said theyd attend another congress, that they had fun and learned a lot. But for many teens in attendance -- at workshops and even at the music rallies, there did seem to be a mood swing between morning and afternoon.
At Eckerts afternoon session, the new group -- by contrast with the morning -- had low energy, was listless, even sullen. At the music-filled rallies, though many teens throw themselves into the event, a high percentage seemed disinterested, leaning against rear walls, eyes closed or stretched out, not participating.
Why? Because they were teenagers. Some probably felt theyd done enough work in a day that was supposed to be fun as well as intense.
Youve got to let them be teenagers, said Fr. Tony Ricard, the New Orleans priest whose morning liturgy and altar call saw some 90 high schoolers crowd around the convention ballroom altar to attest they were at least considering perhaps becoming a priest, sister or religious brother. Theyll listen for just so long, said Ricard.
Sometimes we in the church expect them to somehow be adults -- in all the things that work for adults, as well as in their faith expression, he said after a photo op with dozens of teens who took turns in small groups having their picture taken with him.
He was realistic enough, too, to suggest that of the 90-plus teens whod responded to the altar call, maybe 10 would still be interested in a vowed or professed vocation five years from now.
We forget, Ricard said, theyre teenagers in the middle of that great hormonal fight, great enthusiasms, in the middle of all the anxieties they have about school, friends, family and the pressure of grades. When I go out and give talks, I try to let them be teens. Ill incorporate music, dancing, a few jokes. The joy Ive found is that once they realize Ive a little idea of where theyre at and what theyre dealing with, theyll listen to what I have to say.
During her workshop, Eckert touched on the same thing when she said, Leaders have to have an encouraging heart. She did elicit from the afternoon group the elements of poor leadership, that bad leaders dont listen, have a lack of vision, dont worry about anyone but themselves, dont help, lack courage and blow you out of the water because its all about me.
Good leaders, she said, enter into the lives of people and help them where they are. She also mentioned being attentive listeners, but with the group he had, that was obviously uphill work.
Educating the young in religion is a vocation, a pitch -- and a business. The congress enormous exhibitors hall, packed with almost 800 stalls and booths selling everything from stained glass to religious bric-a-brac, concentrated primarily on books and tapes aimed at young Christians or their catechists.
A random sampling included Zondervan publishings Peters First Easter (by Walter Wangerin, for ages 4-8) and For the Graduate: Gods Guidance for the Road Ahead (a compilation of Christian authors). Loyola Press had a Christ Our Life series (for K-8) and Raising Faith-Filled Kids by Tom McGrath. Benzinger, with a selection of resource books in Spanish, also had The Catechists Companion, by Cullen Schippe. There was ACTAs Starting Out: Reflections for Young People, by Patrick T. Reardon -- small enough to drop in the pocket. Gardens were in at Thomas More, which had Christina Keffler and Rebecca Donnellis Garden of Virtues (illustrated by Suzanne Etman) and Tend Your Own Garden: How to Raise Great Kids, by Timothy OConnell.
Finally, typical of what was available higher up the young-adult pecking order was Augsburgs, What Next? Connecting Your Ministry with the Generation Formerly Known as X, written by a Project Team.
Two people whove touched the GenX and now Millennial generations in everyday work staffed the booth for the Los Angeles archdioceses campus ministry program. Archdiocesan campus ministry director Joan Lester and Cindy Yoshitomi, campus minister at the University of California at Los Angeles, gave their views.
I like these younger guys better than in the 80s, said Yoshitomi. The 80s were all about money.
This generation is very faithful, said Lester. They take the church seriously, but theyre writing their own agenda.
Yoshitomi said, The church isnt connecting with them as well as it thinks.
Lester said, They dont buy into the institution. They like the pope.
Yoshitomi added, Theyve only lived with this one pope. Hes stability. Hes always been there. Hes an icon in the same way grandparents are. And in their life theres not a whole lot of stability -- they were born in the 80s.
Young Catholics are going to walk away if they dont get what they need, Lester said. They want the stability of the church. Theyre looking for that in their lives. They know its always going to be there, provide for them and nourish them. But if you come down with rules and obligations -- or prejudices against other religions -- youre not going to hold them.
Dont forget, Yoshitomi said, these kids are being raised by our generation. Were the ones who went through the Vatican II experience -- and stayed faithful. These kids are so active and so faithful. We get 800 students at a Sunday Mass, and they dont have to come.
Outside, by mid-afternoon, there were lots of girls sitting at the tables, and lots of boys eyeing them, with rallies going on inside at two locations. It seemed to me that what all 10,000 really needed after a workshop, liturgy and lunch, was somewhere to dance.
It was a successful youth day, but these were teens spending the day with the groups they came in with and would go home with. They needed more venues to interact, to draw strength from new Catholic acquaintances and potential friends.
Maybe forget the afternoon workshops. Turn those meeting rooms and arenas into mini- and maxi-dance halls. Give out the tickets and let them meet and mingle with other Catholic teens for a couple of hours.
Dancing would do it.
National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001