I would be lying if I said I’ve always loved youth ministry; in fact, there was a period in my life when I didn’t even like youth ministry.
I had spent eight years sitting in religious education classes and thought that Confirmation would be my graduation from obligations other than weekly Mass. I was ready to be done, ready to spend my Sunday evenings how I wanted to spend them (which was anywhere but the church basement). Looking back, I am so thankful that my parents took their responsibility to raise me in the faith seriously – I wouldn’t be the woman I am today if it weren’t for their loving kick in the butt.
A lot has happened in the seven years since I’ve been Confirmed; I’ve grown up and matured to a deep love of the faith I once only tolerated. This transformation didn’t happen overnight, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the opportunities that were open to me through my participation in my parish’s youth group. The community that I found every Sunday impacted my life more than they could ever know, and I am now blessed to work in the same church basement I used to dread (the Lord works in mysterious ways!!) and minister to students that are just beginning their journey of faith. How did I get here?
There are days in your life you’ll never forget, for various reasons, and one day that I will always remember is October 31, 2011. I was 14 years old and upset that I was spending my Halloween at a youth conference instead of with my friends. I had no one to be angry with expect for myself, my parents didn’t even know the conference was going on until I mentioned it (Thank You, Holy Spirit!). We carpooled to the convention center downtown and I didn’t say a word to anyone I rode with. As soon as we were signed in and I knew where to meet my youth minister at the designated times, I took off and did everything possible to avoid talking to anyone (which was a lot more difficult when you didn’t have a smart phone!). I was pretty successful at this, relatively few people tried to talk to me as I walked through the expo. I wasn’t convinced anyone from my youth group even noticed I wasn’t with them anymore.
When the talks started, I stood in the back of the room by myself. I didn’t want to listen, I wanted to go home. I ignored everything the various speakers talked about until a teenage boy, only a few years older than myself, stood on stage with a microphone in his hand. He was nervous but determined. After a few tries, he finally got his testimony out. This young man had lived a life that was peppered with so much pain and suffering, but the undeniable triumph of Christ’s love and light overshadowed the hurt. The walls I had built to keep God out suddenly came crashing down because in that moment I finally understood that Catholics aren’t perfect people.
A lot more happened on that retreat, so much that I could spend pages writing about the goodness of the Lord in my life, but everything else I experienced was a “retreat high.” The impact from this young man’s testimony is what stuck with me. As a 14-year-old girl I felt broken, unwanted, and unlovable; I didn’t care about being Catholic because all the Catholics I knew were these perfect people that I thought never struggled or sinned. I couldn’t relate because I knew the depth of my brokenness, I knew the depth of my sin, and to a young woman that believed Catholics were perfect, I thought I obviously didn’t fit the bill.
My life didn’t change dramatically after that retreat, but something inside of me changed. I had a willingness to actually hear what people of faith were saying, whether that was through a homily, a retreat talk, or a one-on-one conversation. The more I opened myself up to hearing, the more I was made aware of my brokenness and I started the process of discovering that the mercy and love of the Father is more than enough to get me through what would be impossible on my own.
Throughout this growth, which took place over several years, I learned to lean on those around me for support when I didn’t have the strength to even say the Name of Jesus Christ. Through youth ministry I discovered a community that I had no idea existed, and I am so thankful that it does. Even though I came in as the only student from my high school, I was able to build friendships that have been stronger, and lasted longer, than the relationships I built in my (public) high school.
Throughout my four years (as a student) in the youth ministry programs at my parish, I transformed from an angry, reserved, and desperate girl to a young woman that is confident in the fact that she is loved by Love Himself. The community embraced me and challenged me, consoled me and pushed me, and did all of this when I needed it the most (even though I wanted it the least). The opportunities I had to go on various retreats, lead camp small groups, volunteer with local organizations, go on a mission trip, eat ice cream, play laser tag, jump into foam pits, and laugh until I cried are opportunities I want every young person to have. And in those times that I faced struggles, I found lasting friends that supported me more than I even knew possible.
If you feel like you don’t belong, allow me to be the first to tell you that you’re welcome here. The fact that you’re reading this article, and reading it to the end, means that you’re searching for something (even if you won’t admit to it). You’re welcome and you’re wanted exactly as you are right now. Youth groups aren’t filled with the crazy, stereotypical “Jesus freaks!” but filled with teenagers that face the same challenges as you, and can help you grow in your faith so you can become confident in Whom you belong to. Youth ministry changed my life when I least expected it to; your story may not be so different.
“Dear young people, let yourselves be taken over by the light of Christ, and spread that light wherever you are.” – St. John Paul II