"Preferential Option for Youth in the New Evangelization"

A Dominican Religious Sees Signs for Optimism

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WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 9, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The success of World Youth Days in North America in the past decade are showing that young people are deeply attracted to the Catholic Church.

That’s how Dominican Brother Nicholas Lombardo sees it. A religious studying for the priesthood at the Dominican House of Studies here, he has been active in youth ministry since 1997 and has served as a speaker and retreat leader for youth groups and college students in the archdioceses of Washington and Cincinnati.

He has also preached and served as a theological consultant to the YOUTH 2000 movement.

Q: What is your evaluation of the present state of youth culture and the possibilities for evangelization?

Brother Lombardo: Last year a few priests from my community helped with a large youth retreat held in a suburban parish. None had preached to teen-agers before in such a setting, and they had some apprehension about the retreat.

When they returned, they were conspicuously cheerful and refreshed. The teen-agers’ enthusiasm for their faith had made the event an extremely positive experience.

Their experience captures the complex dynamics of today’s youth culture. When given positive options, youth often respond with courageous enthusiasm, as seen in the growing popularity of community service among young people. Their commitment to a virtuous life is often precociously internalized precisely because it is a personal choice rather than the consequence of social pressure.

At the same time, many are facing serious personal difficulties on an unprecedented scale, and vast numbers of baptized Catholics are alienated from their Church.

These trends, both the positive and the negative, cry out for a response. There are incredible opportunities for bringing faith and hope to the young. It all depends on how seriously we exercise a preferential option for youth in the new evangelization.

Q: What kinds of programs, in your experience, have proven effective in bringing the Gospel to young people?

Brother Lombardo: Over the past decade, some very effective national movements have emerged, such as the Steubenville summer youth conferences, the Life Teen youth ministry program, and Youth 2000 retreats.

Although varied, they have many common elements: passionate preaching that is faithful to Church teaching, lively music, large numbers of youth gathered together and, most strikingly, a focus on the Mass and the sacraments. Each attracts youth from diverse religious backgrounds, including many non-Catholics. All are growing rapidly.

Q: How can youth groups be an effective means of evangelization? What kind of results have they produced in the past?

Brother Lombardo: Youth almost universally require strong social support to integrate their faith into their lives. Simply by providing that support, youth groups strengthen young people in their faith. Then in their everyday lives they naturally draw friends and peers to the faith. Sometimes they will even drag friends to events or meetings.

Youth ministers and pastors have little direct effect on those who are not already coming to church, because they usually don’t encounter them. It is young people themselves who are the best evangelizers of their peers. Almost all of the new faces in a youth group or youth conference are there because of a friend.

In my experience, youth groups are unlikely to thrive in membership unless they are explicitly and distinctively religious. Youth groups certainly should be holistic and include many social and athletic activities, as well as outreach to the needy. But without a clear religious orientation, few youth groups have the resources to compete with the thousands of activities available to youth in American society today.

Q: Why do you think that the proper attitude is crucial in youth evangelization efforts?

Brother Lombardo: The same truths can be communicated in very different ways. It is important to always emphasize the positive, which does not imply naiveté or even perkiness or that we paper over difficult teachings. Youth respond when we present the faith with enthusiasm and a balanced outlook.

Chastity promotion is a prime example of how attitude makes a difference.

Church teaching on sexuality seems burdensome and unattractive when it is presented as a list of sins to avoid. On the other hand, when we present chastity as a choice for self-respect, love, healthy relationships and happiness, and as the embrace not the denial of sexuality and the body, youth respond very positively.

Last year I heard a young man talk about this positive approach to chastity to large crowd of teen-agers and at the end, of their own accord, they stood up and gave him a standing ovation.

Q: It appears that young Catholics want to recover lost devotions, traditions and practices in the Church such as the rosary and eucharistic adoration, and also are more committed to the teachings of the magisterium. What accounts for this trend?

Brother Lombardo: This trend is not about a faddish interest in cultural antiquities but rather the depth, staying power and perennial relevance of these traditions.

Before Vatican II, the practice of «devotions» had assumed a disproportionate and oppressive role in the spiritual lives of some Catholics. Today’s young people have not had those negative experiences.

Sometimes it is not appreciated that young Catholics approach the same traditions with very different attitudes. For instance, eucharistic adoration combined with charismatic praise and worship music has become extremely popular. Even the rosary, while substantially identical, has different connotations for many young people. The Pope’s recent introduction of the luminous mysteries reflects a similar re-appropriation of tradition.

Improved catechesis and evangelization over the past couple decades, itself the fruit of widespread settling down in the Church as we increasingly digest and integrate Vatican II, has borne fruit in a critical mass of young people who know their faith and really love it. The Pope’s attention to youth and his fatherly guidance has been incalculably significant in all this.

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