By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published August 7, 2008
Although Catholic youth are used to doing service work, they need to find a way to connect their volunteering with their faith, according to speakers at a social action conference in Atlanta.
Service activities have become commonplace in Catholic high schools and for those preparing for sacraments like confirmation, but the volunteer work almost has become a “requirement to fulfill,” said Jill Rauh, youth and young adult coordinator for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development.
Rauh, one of the speakers July 25, the final day of the Social Action Summer Institute at Oglethorpe University, said there needs to be more of a connection among social issues, action and the teachings of the church.
Rauh led the session called “The Prophetic Role of Young Catholics” with Grace Cassetta, diocesan director of youth ministry and adolescent catechesis in the Diocese of Las Cruces, N.M.
The session was one of many during the July 20-25 institute focusing on Catholic social action. Speakers, including Jesuit Father Thomas Massaro, professor of moral theology at Boston College, and Dominican Sister Barbara Reid of the Catholic Theological Union, led seminars throughout the week on topics such as biblical justice and the foundations of Catholic social teachings.
“Youth really have a special role in our church,” Rauh told a classroom of people from Texas, Louisiana and Georgia, as she spoke about the roles of young people in Scripture and young saints honored by the Catholic Church. “We need to be aware of this as we go into parish ministry.”
“It is essential to have the participation of the young people. There is so much we can do to involve them,” she said in a later interview.
In the seminar, the attendees were asked for some words or phrases describing the youth of this generation. The long list they came up with included “action-oriented,” “tech-savvy” and “passionate.”
The list was then put into perspective as Rauh and Cassetta led the participants through a series of statistics compiled from different sources. The women touched on important facets of the youth community, including their political ideals, social action experience and personalities.
“The goal in terms of social mission is to help teens recognize they are part of a larger community,” said Rauh.
The speakers said they were specifically speaking of the segment of the population known as Generation Y, or the Millennial Generation, those born between the years of 1979 and 1997. This generation consists of 80 million people, who will be nearly 32 percent of the country’s population by 2010, according to a 2005 study by California State University at Chico.
They cited a 2007 Rutgers University study that showed 30 percent of this generation have done some form of volunteer work in the last year, 30 percent have boycotted something and 30 percent have supported a cause with the purchase of a product.
According to a survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University only 18 percent of this age group attends Mass weekly; 36percent attends Mass monthly. However, of those who do attend Mass monthly or more, 85 percent believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, a higher percentage than Vatican II and post-Vatican II generation Catholics.
Cassetta believes that “faith-sharing” is an extremely important aspect to helping to deepen the awareness of young Catholics.
“There is a difference between handing them a doctrine and saying this is what we believe and actually living it and explaining why we believe it,” she said.
Cassetta also believes that the moral foundation of the Millennial Generation is still created by their parents. While peers can have an influence, the belief that children do not listen to their parents is not true, according to Cassetta.
“They still look for guidance and want guidance,” she said. “The difficulty … is helping to make those right decisions.”
After the statistics settled in with the participants, they were given another chance to weigh in. Split into small groups, the crowd used the information to discuss different strategies to involve youth and bring meaning to the projects in which they participate.
Whitney Wolf, a parishioner and volunteer at Sacred Heart Church, Atlanta, said he has found that approaching a teen one-on-one helps them get involved.
It is also important to give them a leadership role, he said. Sometimes young people are not sure if they can handle the responsibility, but Wolf has been surprised how often teens step up to the challenge.
“Young people are open to this,” said Rauh after the seminar. She agrees that giving young people leadership roles in their church communities is an effective way to prepare them to become leaders and help them understand the teachings of the church.
Catarina Torres from the Diocese of Dallas, Texas, felt it is “important to integrate secular and church life.” She said that service projects are good for young people, but without any sort of relevance to the teachings of the church, they can become monotonous and lose meaning.
Other suggestions included using social networking Web sites, such as Facebook, to arrange activities for youth and give them a chance to spread the message to their friends.
Rauh believes that service-oriented projects are a “starting point” for teens, which can lead to “permanent change” if leaders help bring more meaning to the activities.
“There is a deeper level to service that we want these teens to experience,” said Rauh.