Catechetical Formation of the Young Today

Richard Marsden FAITH Magazine November-December 2006

Young people readily embrace a straightforward, Christ-centred and Eucharistic spirituality as long as they have first been given a clear and coherent account of the contemporary credibility of the Catholic Faith. A Catholic student shares his own experience.

It’s lunchtime on Northumberland’s stunning Holy Island at a retreat for Catholic students. The retreat organiser approaches the priest leading the group and inquires about the arrangements for the afternoon ahead designated as sacred space on the itinerary. “So, are we having
Exposition then?” the organiser says. “Well that might be a problem as there is nothing in the tabernacle.” (Note that Lindisfarne is a remote island with no resident priest and infrequent Sunday Masses) “If you wanted exposition, you should have asked me and I would have consecrated an extra host at Mass yesterday.” A few more words are exchanged and then the organiser replies: “OK, we won’t bother then.” And so the four-day retreat passed without a monstrance in sight.

Sadly, at numerous spiritual events for young Catholics, this is an all too apparent reality. Indeed, we live in an era in which, often, the physical presence of Christ comes second best to a coffee table draped with colourful fabric topped with multiple candles as a focus for prayer. This is not good enough. The Blessed Sacrament, the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ on earth, must be at the heart of any spiritual event for young Catholics, through the Mass, Exposition and His reservation in the tabernacle.

Before going any further, we must point out that youth work for teenage Catholics is a significantly different ministry than that for Catholic students and young adults. But the latter grows and develops directly from the former. Catechesis, it seems to me, should begin with the basics, so that children and teenagers are given reasons for believing in God, God made Man, and the Church rather than just being told that Jesus loves them. For young people to grow and mature in their faith, any teaching at school, in Holy Communion groups, in Confirmation groups and in youth groups must be firmly rooted and focused on the fundamentals of Christian doctrine “imparted, generally speaking, in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life”(CCC 5).

In my experience Youth days and Summer Camps run by Faith Movement are good examples of formative catechetical youth work. At the four-day Summertime events, children between 10 and 14 years old, are presented with a logical and coherent vision of the Faith. The talks follow the following pattern: How can we be sure that God exists? Why is man so special in God’s creation? What is Christ’s mission? How can I meet Christ here and now through the Church? Why do we go to Mass? The talks are followed by workshops and the afternoons occupied by sports and activities. At the centre of each day is Mass. Not a Mass dubbed as “youth”, with dozens of kids on the sanctuary dancing and clapping, but a liturgically straightforward weekday Mass.

Contrary to popular belief, the simplicity of a weekday Mass is of huge benefit to young people at these kind of meetings. It gives them a flavour of parish life and gives a subtle encouragement to attend Mass during the week back at home. It worked in this way for me and many of my peers. It also drives home the fact that children do not have to do anything practical to participate fully in the Mass. I once heard of an occasion when a primary school teacher insisted that every child take up one of their exercise books up at the Offertory of a school Mass so they could all “participate” in the celebration. Clearly the true, Catholic—Second Vatican Council—sense of “participation” has been bypassed here.

How much more could young people participate fully in the sacrifice of the Mass by being with Christ at Calvary, by being united with all souls in Heaven and Purgatory, and by receiving Christ’s Body and Blood, therefore being closer to Him than at any other point of their earthly existence? The point is, if children are taught in detail what the Mass is from a young age and, from this, they fall in love with the Eucharist, all further catechesis about the truths of the faith will flow logically from this deep yearning for Christ.

Unfortunately, the teaching of the Faith in our schools often seems far from this ideal. 'Religious Education' involves little detailed teaching of the Faith upon which the school’s ethos is based. Indeed, many schools spend an unnecessary amount of time teaching the beliefs of the other world religions. My contemporaries would not object to the inclusion of Islam and Judaism in religious education programmes, but nor would they object to this being kept brief and put in the context of the Catholic Church’s relationship with these other faiths.

In some schools, the faith is taught using textbooks which haven’t been granted an imprimatur. They make inaccurate claims about some of the most basic principles of Christian doctrine. If the orthodox teaching of the Catholic faith is not presented comprehensively and with enthusiasm, then teenage Catholics will have little incentive to grow deeper in their love for Christ and pursue further spiritual development. This seems to have been the difference between young people who still practise their faith and those who do not.

Turning back to youth ministry for young adults, Catholic University Chaplaincies can and do play a vital role in looking after and developing the spiritual needs of students. They offer a place where all Catholics, no matter what stage of their journey they are at, can come together and grow in the knowledge and love of their faith through talks, discussions, prayer groups and, above all, through the Mass. All are places where long lasting friendships, and even marriages, begin. Social events organised by Catholic societies can be some of the most enjoyable a student will experience. There are also some great examples of CATHSOC outreach to students of all faiths and none.

But the make-up of ministry to Catholic students is not without its faults. There is a big inconsistency in the structure and spirituality of university chaplaincies throughout the country. Some offer a wide range of styles ranging from Charismatic to the more traditional. Others can seem too exclusive, where one kind of spirituality is unfairly dominant over another. The results are that you get to know of quite a few students who much prefer to go to local parishes because they are not comfortable with the chaplaincy atmosphere.

Also, many chaplaincies do not concern themselves with diocesan activities or participation with external organizations, such as the new movements. This means that there is a lack of encouragement for students to become more active in their faith after they have graduated. In fact, some graduates become almost obsessed with chaplaincy life and find it difficult to return to a mainstream parish.

It is quite staggering how many students do not understand some of the most simple doctrines and liturgical practices and, indeed, do not accept, or feel uncomfortable with the Church’s teaching on moral issues. The issue of abortion is barely talked about in Catholic circles at some universities and there is distinct lack of support for pro-life activism. There are just over ten official pro-life societies in 125 educational institutions in the United Kingdom;
this is hardly going to be effective for combating the vehemently pro-abortion policies of the National Union of

Students and of individual Student Unions. The continual breakdown in catechesis and the lack of formation can be quite clearly seen in evidence amongst students at university level. The practice of genuflecting directly to a crucifix instead of the tabernacle or showing no sign of reverence whatsoever, for instance, is commonplace.

But it’s not all doom and gloom in the formation of young people. At diocesan level, the knock on effect of the World Youth Day in Cologne seems to have revived enthusiasm, with new groups and events springing up as a result of people’s long-lasting memories. One of my friends said to me on the ferry on return from the pilgrimage that he had had the best week of his life. This undoubtedly speaks for many more who made the trip to see the Pope and, above all, to adore Christ with a million other like-minded people.

Pope Benedict engaged with the youth of the world in a radically different, but equally effective way to John Paul II. His humility and wise words of guidance to young Catholics battling with secularism proved popular and were met with deafening renditions of the now famous chant, “Benedetto”. In fact, he tried to silence the chanting of his name on a few occasions and told people to sing “Jesus Christus” instead. This is what was most poignant about Pope Benedict in Cologne; the way he continually directed all attention from himself to the physical presence of Christ at Exposition and during the Mass.

In his homily on this year’s low-key World Youth Day in April, the Pope appealed to his young friends to “love the word of God and love the Church [which] will give you access to a treasure of very great value and will teach you how to appreciate its richness”.

“Love and follow the Church, for it has received from its Founder the mission of showing people the way to true happiness,” he said. “Jesus taught us how this can be done: ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’ (Jn 8:31-32).” Maybe the answer to our ever-dwindling numbers of young Catholics is an official visit to Britain by the Supreme Pontiff himself, something which, of course, is out of our hands.

Faith Magazine

November - December 2006