I decided, straight from school, to go and study for the priesthood because, through youth groups, camps and even school, I knew a lot of priests, especially young ones, and I admired them and what they did for us young people. In time, as an older teenager, I worked alongside them and came to understand more what they were trying to do and the values they held. So I went to the seminary.
(The second part of the answer is about why in the end I got ordained and that’s about a six-year conversation with God at the end of which it just felt ‘right’ for me, like something I was supposed to do.)
Another thing I’m often asked, by older people this time and by parish councils, is: ‘Oh Father/Bishop, what can we do about the young people?’
It’s not a bad question, but I don’t always accept it at face value. When I suspect we’re just going to have a session of whingeing and hand-wringing, I’m inclined to respond, ‘I don’t know. What have you tried so far?’ All too often that brings a quick end to the discussion. Sometimes it starts a proper conversation about the quality of parish life.
Going back again to my own youth, I recognise that, while the young priest was important, my parish certainly conspired with him to ‘get the kids involved’. A pretty heavyweight parent committee worked in the background, and it was they, I now realise, who handled a lot of the politics.
When some parishioners didn’t like the kids taking over ‘their’ Sunday night Mass, it was the elders themselves who stuck up for us. It was they, I suspect, who at times sweet-talked or intimidated the Monsignor. Anyway, the youth group became the most prominent, distinguishing feature of life in that parish. Parishioners came to be proud of it, and I was in the middle of it.
These days, most parishes won’t be able to get kids together in big numbers as we did. But some things are the same. ‘What can we do about the young people?’ Don’t ask me, ask them. But first, see that a core of parishioners are fair dinkum about giving them a go, ready to give them real responsibilities in the community, ready to back them, trust them, ready to make allowances in superficial things like fashion sense and musical taste. Talk, explicit invitations to do things, trust, acknowledgement, responsibility, developing young leaders. It’s not rocket science.
We’re now into the Church’s ‘Year of Youth’, so I would hope that all our communities are thinking about how to recognise the contributions that our young people make and thinking about how they can do more to encourage and support them. They may be ‘the few’ these days, but how can the young people who are in our parishes be more involved, not just in special ‘youth’ bits around the edges of parish life, but in all parish events and activities? How can we be more young-people-friendly communities? How will the Year of Youth be real in our parish?
Most of my readers won’t be parish council members, but many of you will be regular parishioners. So I will close with a thought for us all, from a meeting between parish leaders and young people in one of my former parishes. A 16-year-old lad who was rarely seen at church was asked directly, ‘What would make it more likely that you’d come to Mass?’ His response has stuck with me over the years: ‘Perhaps if someone said hello to me’.
Some things we all can do. And sometimes it doesn’t take much.