Building a Catholic Youth Group (part 1)

The subject of Catholic Youth Groups is a very sticky issue. Having spent many years in youth ministry, I have a bit of experience here. In most Novus Ordo parishes, the youth program is simply a disaster. The Youth Group is usually run by a lay person, most likely a woman between the ages of 45-65. In most cases, the Youth Director is probably a formal dissenter; I witnessed this myself the one time I attended NCYC when all the Youth Directors I was rooming with all held heterodox opinions on questions such as biblical inerrancy, liturgy, and the Church's moral teaching; I actually overheard one Youth Director telling her kids that the Bible was simply a collection of "stories", nothing more. And to think some parents had entrusted their young ones to this individual in the hopes that their souls would be properly formed!

Even if the Youth Director is not a formal dissenter, they are most likely woefully ignorant of the Church's teaching and the great traditions of Catholic culture. Not one in twenty has ever studied Aquinas or Augustine; few care about sacred doctrine or the ascesis necessary to the development of the interior life. Furthermore, since their job as a Youth Director is predicated upon "bringing kids in" to the life of the Church, the modern abuse of the concept of "active participation" is often at its worst among Youth Directors and Youth Groups, and "Youth Masses" are some of the worst abominations in the Novus Ordo universe.

Then there are the moral problems. Homosexual activity at a Youth Group "retreat." Rape at another. Smoking marijuana at another. Boys and girls laying down next to each other and caressing each other at another. A pornography ring discovered at another. These are not exaggerations; these are things that happened at Youth Groups that I personally knew about - in one case, I personally witnessed.

The lack of any real formation coupled with the hazardous moral climate in most Catholic Youth Groups means that they are actually destructive to faith. Youth Group is actually the place where many Catholic young people in the final throes of a crisis of faith finally abandon belief in God altogether. I see them on their Facebook pages, six months after graduating and going off to college - after spending four years in a Catholic Youth Group - their religious affiliation on their status update changed to "Buddhist" or "pagan."

And even if this does not happen, the Youth Groups are often shot through with the spirit of Activism, which Bl. Pius IX and Leo XIII describe as the tendency to esteem the active virtues over the contemplative; thus a the multitude of service projects, service hours, projects, programs and volunteer efforts which collectively serve to make everybody feel good and camouflage the fact that there is no authentic faith or spirituality which underlies these activities.

So there are problems. This we know. The question we Catholics who love our tradition should ask ourselves is can the Youth Group concept be salvaged? Is there a way to "do this right", or is the concept itself inherently flawed and nonredeemable?

I have written before on how the modern concept of the Youth Group that prevails in most parishes is a Protestant idea; some have also noted that Youth Groups by their essence remove faith formation from the sphere of the family and entrust it to Youth Directors; other critiques center on the diocesan direction of Catholic youth programs and gender integration. These are all arguments that the model we have been operating under for the past fifty years is unsound and must be done away with root and branch.

There are thus two ways we can approach this problem: First, how can we work within the currently prevalent model to build, inasmuch as is possible, a solid Catholic Youth Group; and second, if we were to ditch the current model entirely, what would an ideal Catholic Youth Apostolate look like? In this article, we will look at the question of working within the current model.

The Vision

What will your vision be for how the Youth Group will operate and what it will achieve? We have to be sensitive here to the criticism that Youth Groups promote the abdication of the spiritual formation of children from the parents to the parish. This is a real danger, and you do not want to facilitate it.

I recommend two things. First, get it into your mind that what you are doing with the kids is going to be of a supplementary nature. Your job is to complement and supplement the work the parents and parish priest are already doing; that is, Youth Directors should not be doing all the heavy lifting when it comes to formation. Youth Group should not become the focal point of a teenager's spiritual life, and you should make sure this does not happen. Inasmuch as is possible, Youth Group is not a focus in itself; it must direct outside itself, leading kids to a richer appreciation of the Mass, sacraments, tradition, etc.

Second, in order to maintain this focus, recruit a solid group of three or four parents who are on board with you and will help at your events. Ideally, you should recruit seven to ten who will rotate throughout the year, getting maybe two at each event and switching it up week to week, but I think you can make due with four. They should be very solid individuals with mature faith and irreproachable character. Having a few parents fully involved in the program will reduce the likelihood that Youth Group becomes a place where teens can go to "get away" from adult supervision.

Now that this is settled, get it in mind what you want to accomplish: To enrich the intellectual, moral and spiritual life of the youth through meaningful contact with the Church's tradition. If you are not doing this, you ought not to be in Youth Direction. Your job is serious, and you must take it seriously. It will take lots of prayer and much preparation. Treat it with the gravity it deserves and put a lot of time into it. If you are not preparing your event until the night before it is supposed to happen, reconsider whether you should be laboring in the Youth Apostolate. Your job is to help them to heaven, and it deserves to be taken seriously.

The Pastor

If you have this all settled, you must make sure your pastor is on board with your plans and your vision. If he is not supportive, I would suggest just quitting at this point. Seriously. If the pastor won't back you up here, you are going to have a world of trouble down the road. Will the pastor back you up if you choose not to take the Youth Group to the faith-destroying National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) when the Diocesan Youth official calls to recruit you? Will he stand up for you when a parent complains that you are "teaching hate" for accurately explaining the Church's teaching on the immorality of homosexual actions? If not, just quit now. For real. You don't want to deal with that.

When and Where

When I was a Youth Director, I would always plan my year out at least six months in advance and print some sort of YG calendar for people to plan around. This begs the question of when and what events should consist of.

Generally most Youth Groups meet weekly, but I think bi-weekly might be a better model. Some parents are concerned that weekly is too much of a commitment, and a Youth Group event every single week kind of creates a parallel weekly obligation to Sunday Mass, as if one's spiritual duties for the week consisted in Sunday Mass and Youth Group. At any rate, bi-weekly might be better just from the point of view of budgeting and planning. Better to do fewer events and do them well than more of lower quality.

I used to do my Youth Group events on Sunday evenings. I was never entirely happy with this arrangement. Sunday is a family day for most Catholic households, and Youth Group on Sunday tends to interrupt the family-orientation of this day. I maintained a Sunday Youth Group because it had been the tradition in our parish for a long time and because it was most congenial to my personal schedule. Families got used to it eventually, but I wish I would have experimented with other days.

Not that there are that many other days to work from. Friday evenings? Forget about it. What about Monday? Too early in the week. This leaves Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Either one is fine, but remember, these are all "school nights" and you are always going to be drawing a lighter crowed. I personally think that, if you are doing a bi-weekly schedule and have a calendar put out ahead of time that Saturday evening 5:30-8:00 is a good time. But if you are doing weekly, it will be hard to keep families committed every Saturday night.

Also, it is my personal belief that the Youth Group should not have its own personal "space" that is exclusively its own. I can't offer a firm reason for this other than my observation that no Youth Group is ever visited that had its own "space" was a very solid Youth Group; I think maybe it foments cliquishness, or perhaps instead of inviting youth into an adult understanding of the faith ends up promoting the "cult of adolescence". That's just my opinion. I would just make use of existing parish facilities, integrating the young people's experience of the Youth Group within the larger context of parish life as a whole, as it ought to be.

Events: The Beginning

Your Youth Group will consist of weekly or bi-weekly events. What will be the context of those events? How will they help you attain your goal to enrich the intellectual, moral and spiritual life of the youth through meaningful contact with the Church's tradition?

It is tradition in most contemporary youth groups to begin with an "ice breaker", which is usually some sort of game or event that "breaks the ice" and gets the kids into a social mood. My experience is that most kids do not need an event to get them social, that these games are often banal and a waste of time, and that, from a practical standpoint, end up getting the kids riled up at a time when you about to ask them to calm down so you can move on to the meat of the event.

That being said, some socializing isn't a bad idea. I prefer a social dinner rather than an ice breaker, as eating together is a more naturally social event than some artificially contrived games. It is also a good way to get the families engaged (families can take turns signing up to provide a dinner), and, best of all, after dinner, the kids will all be full and less likely to be bouncing off the walls. If my Youth Group event runs from 5:30-8:00, the first half hour is dedicated to dinner. This is a great way to start. Make sure one or two people are designated to reach out to any individuals who are new.

Events: The Meat

The "meat" of the event comes next. Basically, you can have four sorts of events (a) instructional (b) spiritual-ascetical (c) evangelical (d) social. A good Youth Group should have a balance of all four.

Instructional: A talk or presentation on some aspect of the Faith, or a moral exhortation. Examples from my old Youth Group: Understanding Angels, Apologetics Night: The Existence of God, The Catholic Approach to Suffering, The Social Kingship of Christ, etc. These are also called "Topic Nights."

Spiritual-Ascetical: In lieu of a presentation or talk, the Youth Group participates in some sort of spiritual work. Youth Group Rosary, Youth Group Holy Hour with Benediction, Youth Group Confession (where you have a priest come in, give a brief exhortation on the value of Confession, and then have the entire Youth Group go to Confession one at a time), taking the Youth Group on a trip to hear Mass at a historic Church or shrine, etc.

Evangelical: In an evangelical event, the Youth Group puts its muscle to work helping others. In modern Youth Groups, these activities can tend to dominate to the exclusion of instructional and spiritual activities, so make sure these sorts of activities do not crowd out the others. Examples include volunteering at soup kitchens, collecting donations for the Food Bank, having the kids collectively ring bells for the parish KofC, or as in my parish, have them go door to door within the territorial boundaries of the parish and ask people for prayer requests. This takes them off guard and leaves a very positive impression of the parish.

Social: Organizations do occasionally need social gatherings, but they should not be normative. We generally had a very large one in the Fall and a large one in the Spring. These evenings are for fun, socializing, games, etc. However, they should always be structured. Nobody is allowed to simply sit out or fraternize with whomever they please in some shady corner without supervision. Kids are either playing game A or doing activity B or helping clean up, etc.

How to integrate these? In my youth group, a week cycle might look something like this; note the weeks off as well (remember, my Youth Group met every week; if you are on a bi-weekly cycle, you will have to reevaluate this):

Week 1: Topic Night
Week 2: Topic Night
Week 3: Youth Group Adoration
Week 5: Topic Night
Week 6: Volunteering at Soup Kitchen
Week 7: Topic Night
Week 8: Field Trip: Mass and Confession at Historic Church
Week 10: Guest Speaker (priest or nun talking about vocations, chastity, etc.)
Week 11: Topic Night
Week 12: End of Semester Game-Night Social 

What Content is Appropriate?

Social, spiritual and evangelical events are pretty straightforward. The real question is what sort of content is appropriate for your instructional-topic night events. To assess this, you will really have to gauge where your kids are at: are they completely uncatechized, catechized somewhat, or extremely well formed? The sort of topics you choose to speak on will depend upon this.

Uncatechized: Do not presume this group knows anything about Catholic teaching. They need very basic topics. Suggestions: The Divinity of Jesus, Proofs for God's Existence, Why Did Jesus Found a Church? Introduction to Catholic Morality, etc. The focus is on simply getting them to appropriate the content of Catholic teaching.

Catechized: In a group that already has some catechesis, the goal is not to introduce them to Catholic teaching, but to get them to take what they already know and apply it to more subtle questions or moral issues; in other words, to train them to think with the mind of the Church. At this level, appropriate topics might be Apologetics Contra Protestantism, moral issues such as homosexual so-called marriage, euthanasia, etc., Christian persecution.

Very Well Formed: Very well-formed Catholic youth are most likely homeschooled. They understand the basics of Catholic teaching and they are pretty savvy at applying it. What they need is to take off the rough edges of their knowledge; they know a lot by osmosis from their upbringing, but they lack a certain consistency and precision in their thinking. Subjects that are sufficiently precise will engage them with new concepts and help fill out their intellectual formation. The Nature of the Angels, various historical topics like the Crusades, Inquisition, etc., Sacramental Theology, Catholic Social Teaching, more advanced apologetics, etc. Think precision.

This is enough for now. Next time we will look at some more idealistic ideas for Catholic youth apostolates.