Shepherding the Young
If done with courage, rewards of youth ministry are abundant
In the current state of the Church, many of us priests often feel uncomfortable around young people. We wonder: Am I saying the right thing? Am I doing something that can be misinterpreted? Am I making sure I am visible to other adults? These questions are good to keep in mind. They should be a part of our consciousness whether we like it or not.
In his address at the opening Mass for World Youth Day in January, Archbishop José Domingo Ulloa Mendieta of Panama, the host country, encouraged the youths to “keep making the adults nervous.” He was not saying it to provoke fear in us, but to challenge us to be better witnesses of the Gospel — for ourselves and for these young people who are the future of the Church.
And yet, as awkward as we might feel and as nervous as we might get, there is something inspiring that comes from ministry to and with young people. As a young priest and pastor, my role provides opportunities to dialogue with young people, and they challenge me to be better, to explain more plainly and to pray more profoundly.
I know that many of us priests are doing the best we can with what we have at our disposal. For more than a year I have been entrusted with parish administration at 30 years old, and it has its challenges and graces. Many days I think that I can’t possibly do more. But then I realize that God gives me the strength to allow him to do more in and through me.
When traveling with our group to Panama for World Youth Day, I remember there was a bad movie playing — not evil or offensive, just poorly written. The movie was like a train wreck — so bad that you can’t seem to look away. Part way through the movie, I realized that there were only a handful of us still watching. After we landed, I ended up discussing the movie with one of the teens. This shared experience sparked a conversation and dispelled the awkwardness. But awkwardness is OK as long as we’re trying to make a genuine connection.
With many of the youths and young adults, I find that there is a wide difference in their understanding and experiences of faith. One of my favorite parts of ministry to youths and young adults is how they challenge me to know and be ready to explain my faith, the teachings of the Church and how we can better prioritize our faith as we navigate the realities of our day-to-day lives. The questions of a person’s heart often are awakened in the most unexpected times and places. I often think of what we hear in the First Letter of Peter, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (3:15).
I never know when a person will approach me after mustering up the courage to ask the question that has been on their heart for some time. “Father, I know that we are in a parking lot waiting to go to the next activity, but can you hear my confession?” I will venture to say that opportunities like this do not just happen. As Pope St. Paul VI put it, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” Often there has been a movement of the Holy Spirit in the person, but also there is something about the priesthood that acts as a catalyst for what could be an awe-inspiring encounter with the Triune God. But we must respond if we are to allow ourselves to be bridges of his presence.
I am no expert in this area; I am simply a witness to what the Lord has done in and through me by disposing myself to be available to those he entrusts to me, even for just a moment. And I know that there have been many times when I have been an obstacle rather than a bridge to the presence of God for others. I pray the Lord will forgive me these transgressions, and that he allows me and my brother priests to make ourselves disposed to be the instruments and witnesses of his mercy and grace in the lives of young people, no matter how awkward we may feel.
FATHER BRYAN GARCIA is a priest for the Archdiocese of Miami and serves as parochial administrator at St. Bernadette Church in Hollywood, Florida.