Where are all the young people?

Speaking on ABC radio earlier this year, young local Catholic, Hannah Williams, challenged the stereotype that young people no longer engage with their faith.

“Attending World Youth Day (WYD) in Poland really affirmed that the Catholic faith is not dying. It’s alive and there are so many young people out there ready to carry that on,” said Hannah.

Hannah is right. Youth ministry is alive and well in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and it’s going to take off in new and exciting ways with an estimated 15,000 young people set to attend the Australian Catholic Youth Festival (ACYF) in Sydney this December. A large contingent of 15-30 year-olds from our diocese will take part, kicking off the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s Year of Youth in 2018, celebrating ten years since WYD was held in Sydney.

There is a number of long-established and thriving youth groups in various pastoral regions of the diocese. One of these is ACTiv8 Youth in the Chisholm region.

ACTiv8 is in its 12th year and brings together children from most of the primary schools in the Chisholm region, including some public schools, in three venues over three nights each week. A senior youth group for young adults meets twice a month and a youth Mass is held twice a week on Sunday and Tuesday nights. ACTiv8 is staffed by a youth ministry co-ordinator and young adult and teacher volunteers from around the region.

The youth ministry co-ordinator for ACTiv8, Bec Piefke, believes that making the youth group fun is vital.

“We offer a wide variety of activities to help build relationships and illustrate a particular gospel message. We start with an opening game as an icebreaker, do something fun and then, to help foster the children’s spiritual growth and understanding, we hear the upcoming gospel, explain it in a language they understand and then have a discussion or activity. The fun things we’ve enjoyed over the past year have included water games, Zumba class, Melbourne Cup high tea, Christmas photo booth and chocolate fondue night,” said Bec.

The Western Pastoral Region has IMPACT Youth Connect and a monthly youth Mass at Wallsend-Shortland parish. IMPACT Youth Connect was established six years ago by Cathy Feenan with the help and blessing of retired Sugarloaf parish priest, Fr Peter Rees.

“My husband Michael and I lost our nephew to suicide when he was only 21 and had run Team Mak Youth Camp on the Gold Coast, which was designed to empower young people to discover their gifts, break through limiting beliefs and create an action plan to realise their potential. IMPACT Youth Connect was born from these experiences,” said Cathy.

IMPACT occurs every six weeks with Year 5 and 6 children from St Benedict’s, Edgeworth, Holy Cross, Glendale and St Patrick’s, Wallsend and Year 7 students from St Paul’s High School, Booragul, in attendance.

Blackbutt Pastoral Region enjoyed a successful youth group based on Life Teen, an American program that is a mixture of fun, catechesis and relational ministry, from 2010 until 2015 before transitioning to Pure Flame Youth. Some 15-20 regular participants have taken part in a retreat at Anna Bay every second year and a fortnightly youth Mass.

Co-ordinator, Ellen Hazelton, believes parishes can support the youth in their midst by helping them to attend ACYF and WYD.

“We hold an annual fundraising trivia night which usually raises around $1500 to support attendees for ACYF, WYD and our retreat. These big events provide a variety of faith experiences with kids their own age, but also young adults who can be seen as role models, loving God and witnessing to their faith as a natural part of life, not something hidden away,” said Ellen.

Chair of the Diocesan Council for Ministry with Young People (DCMYP), James Elliott, agrees.

“WYD and the ACYF provide a great opportunity to shake up and wake up the Church. I think their greatest value is they show people the Church isn’t a dying community, but one full of other young people on a similar journey, asking the same questions. They are not as alone as they imagined. They are a different experience and can be moving, energising and challenging while still reflecting our unique Catholic identity,” said James.

The DCMYP’s vision is to provide opportunities for all young people to be inspired and empowered to “Be, Grow, Show” – to be people of faith, who grow in our faith and show our faith.

It would be wonderful if more young people were at Mass every Sunday, but just because they aren’t doesn’t mean that our youth are not engaged with their faith.

“Jesus met people where they were – he went into the houses of outcasts and sinners; people who didn’t believe they had a place at the table. I see a lot of similarities with young people who do not feel welcome, or see relevance for themselves in Mass on Sunday. Of course we want people to participate fully in the Eucharist, but arguing that God wouldn’t be going out and encountering them in their lives through their families, friends and schools seems counter to the Gospel to me,” said James.

Last year, Bishop Bill spoke a number of times about young people and their faith and he encouraged parishes to “truly foster and encourage ‘the young church’”.

“It’s a moving thing to see our young people realise that a life of faith is not just ‘going to church’, it’s a life of faith. And the thing is, they’re young enough to get it,” said Bishop Bill.

People involved in youth ministry agree on how to connect young people to their life of faith.

“Youth will go where there’s fun and love and they’re accepted for who they are,” said Cathy.

“To encourage young people to engage in their faith is to keep inviting them. We need to look at how we are welcoming and worshipping together,” said Ellen.

“I hope that the people in our parishes are the ones who drive engagement with young people,” said Bec.

As the diocese’s vision for youth ministry states, ‘we will be a Church…where young people understand that they are the Church of today and not just the Church of the future’.

Let’s get behind the Church of today and support as many young people as possible to attend this year’s ACYF in Sydney.

For more information visit ACYF. If you would like to find out more about the many opportunities young people have to participate in the life of the Church in our diocese please contact the DCMYP on 4979 1111 or email Youth Ministry.

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Joanne Isaac Image
Joanne Isaac

Joanne is a Communications Officer for the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and a regular columnist for Aurora Magazine.

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