A Reflection on Youth, College & Young Adult Ministries, Part II

Animating the Xennial, Millennial, and Post-Millennial Generations with the Spirit of Christ

In the first part of this two-part article, I had discussed the levels of youth, college, and young adult ministries. My emphasis was on why it is so important, and what is appropriate for each level and age of young people we serve. Now, I would like to give an overview of our present culture, and how it has continued to affect everyone, but specifically our young people. Only by understanding the culture these young people have been experiencing, can we help them find balance and peace in their personal lives, and draw them closer to Christ and His Church.

Who Are the Millennials/Post-Millennials We Are Serving?
There is a great need for mercy. Take a good look at any young female. Most look like they are probably from an average family. They probably go to a good school, they get good grades, have friends, etc… Most young women seem somewhat peaceful. They don’t necessarily look like they who would be the target of bullying in school, correct? They don’t necessarily have to appear like the kind of young woman that would have a hard time getting a boyfriend, yes? They don’t necessarily have to look like a victim of drugs. They don’t have to look like a person who would be ostracized by their peers. But looks can be very deceiving, and our young people know how to wear masks.

According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network), 44% of rapes are perpetrated against those under the age of 18! And, 80% of rapes are perpetrated against those under the age of 30. Our young people are hurting. And, we need to throw-out stereotypes. Males constitute the victims of 5% to 10% of all rapes, and this number is as low as it is because men rarely report sexual abuse as it undermines a man’s sense of himself.

Many of our young people come from middle-American households, which now commonly means a divorced household. While many children of the divorced have learned how to still get excellent grades, get accepted to excellent universities, this does not mean that society’s adaptation to the commonality of divorce makes this reality any less difficult. Of all the millennials, 24% of them are from divorced families. Another 11% of them have grown-up in a single parent home, never knowing their other parent! This reality hurts. In an age when more than 50% of all marriages end in divorce, stability in family life and relationships, are not the cultural norm for our young people, which directly affects how they approach their own relationships.

The Importance of Inclusivity and Ministering to Young People from Broken Families, Insecurity of Self-Worth, and the LGBTQA
Yes, Millennials are diverse and our young people benefit from that diversity. Racism, Sexism, Ethnics—these have no place in a generation characterized by inclusivism. But, they are hurting. These young people are really hurting. Most of them have not known what previous generations took for granted: the stability of family, faith in God, and a purpose-driven life that is understood to have meaning and dignity because of one’s experience of God and family. How can a young person understand the concept of a loving Father, God, or loving Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, if their own mothers or fathers were abusive to them or absent from their lives growing up?

YOU Can Help Them Understand! You, as youth ministers have received from the Holy Spirit a special charism for helping youth, YOU are on the frontline! And, if you have taken the opportunity for renewal of your life by experiencing the mercy of Christ coming from His Sacred Heart, than you know, first hand, how to share that mercy and healing with our youth! Your own experience of mercy will help young people form an authentic relationship as a child of God.

Our youth today are all about inclusivity. They grew-up in a mentality where everybody was accepted for who they are. Inclusivism is the highest standard by which everything else is measured and attitudes, behaviors, philosophies, etc., which are not inclusive, are not accepted by this generation. To not be inclusive is viewed as being hateful, not even an informed or refined bias is an acceptable attitude.

When it comes to explaining that all salvation is uniquely mediated by Jesus in an inclusive manner to all people—even those of other religions, or no religion at all—as Catholics, we win. When we say that marriage is between one man and one woman—those who have gay family members or friends, or who are themselves gay, view this lack of inclusivity as mean-spirited. No ministry to young people is without the challenge of addressing same-sex attraction these days, as among millennials, and post-millennials, more than 10% are LGBTQA (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender, Questioning or A-Sexual).

While we, as Catholics, cannot ever compromise our faith, we must make sure that we do not forget these young people. They are suffering, and in need of mercy, and healing, as well. They need a healing but this will not come if we compromise our faith, or fail to confront the challenge that our faith and morality presents them. Many of our young people suffer from resentment, self-hating, and a tension between their faith, and a relationship with God. The tension of their feelings are based in what they have been taught—which is sinful; and for what they feel regarding sexual attraction. This is one reason why so many young people today identify as “spiritual” but not religious. They choose a subjective relationship with God versus an authentic, objective, relationship with who God really is—as He has revealed Himself in Scripture and Tradition. It is necessary, then, to show them the authentic face of Christ, to lead with the God of love and mercy, but not in a fashion that falsely approves. Here is where a Christian anthropology and exploration into the Theology of the Body is very helpful. How our young people view themselves is central to addressing issues of sexual morality.

In the millennial generation, our youth have even accepted being sexually objectified. Many young people seek being the object of sexual desire, and dress or comport themselves in a fashion to receive this recognition. The rise in “sexting,” and internet pornography, is a prime example of why young people are so insecure in their sexual identity, and overall sense of self-value. They engage in these behaviors to receive recognition from their peers, because it provides them a temporary sense of self-worth. It is not enough to merely say that each person is dignified, and of ineffable value. Our young people need to become aware that their self-worth is so much more than being called “hot!” or “sexy.” Yet, that type of recognition, although temporary, is how they want to affirm their sense of self. It’s why they wait with bated breath for “likes” to their social media posts. It’s the need for constant and instant affirmation to prove and affirm self-worth. The self-objectifying of one’s own sexuality serves this end.

Modesty, not only in dress, but in comportment/behavior, counteracts this need for instant and constant affirmation. It says that they can be modest in attire and valued, in a far more profound and personal way, by those with whom they hope to enter into a romantic relationship. Not just that they need to offer sex to be liked, but that being respected, and having a person take a real interest in all that they are, is how our self-worth is truly honored in a relationship. We need to create an environment and culture among our young people where they realize that dignity is not transient, and needless constant affirmation is unnecessary. Furthermore, their outer appearance is not the source of their value. While our sexual, self-expression is a part of who we are, it is not all of who we are. The witness of a priest or religious who lives chaste-celibacy, or a youth minister who waits for marriage before engaging in sexual activity, can be a strong witness to our young people. It quietly states that we are not defined by sex, sexual orientation, sexual activity, or sexuality. We need to witness that our personhood is a much greater reality which deserves to be honored, shared, respected, and loved by others. Events and activities that highlight the dynamic reality of all that we are will help young people come to this realization: they are individually far more, and have far more to offer, than merely their sexuality.

Youth, college campus, or young adult ministry can be destroyed if the chaplain/youth minister is not seen as welcoming, loving, and inclusive. The attitude of inclusivism is so incredibly strong that an excluding attitude toward the LGBTQA youth(s) will be seen by their peers as something that they do not necessarily want to associate with. “Bye, Bye” to youth, college campus, or young adult ministry programs, therefore.

While we do not have to accept same-sex marriage, the homosexual act, or any sexual activity—hetero or homosexual, outside of marriage, etc.—we do need to accept the person who has fallen into these types of behaviors. We need to provide them opportunities to encounter the love of God for them. Then, we can have hope that such an encounter with God—in love and mercy—will have a positive influence on their choosing to live an authentic Christian life of discipleship and friendship with Jesus. I have seen young people with these issues make a choice for purity and for Christ. I see them live fulfilling lives of love because they allow themselves to be drawn into that interior, enthusiastic life of the Trinity. The goal of our outreach must be to keep that person identifying the primacy and necessity of a relationship with God in their life.

Yet, none of that can happen until we help that person recognize that they are the beloved son or daughter of God. Our witness to young people must make sure that all young people identify the Church as teaching that all people are dignified, valuable, precious, and of ineffable worth, and that sin does not destroy that dignity. We must teach that each of us is the product of the active thought of God. The Pro-Life anthropology of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, are incredibly inclusive: from womb to the tomb; male and female; no matter race, ethnicity, social class, creed, or sexual orientation—we are all the beloved children of a God who made us in His image and likeness. Doctrinal orthodoxy does not negate kindness and love, rather it compels it. And, true love and kindness urges us to teach the faith authentically.

It is also not an impossibility to help a person with a same-sex attraction live an authentic Christian life. The activities of a good youth, college campus, or young adult ministry are its charitable and apostolic works. Prayer, liturgies, faith formation, retreats/pilgrimages/trips, social events can be activities integral to helping a person with same-sex attraction find fulfillment, purpose and meaning in life—especially since we are calling them to not act out in a homosexual relationship. Thus, it is even more important for such people to find a strong sense of community. And, all people who struggle with any element of faith and morals integral to the teachings of the Catholic Church, need a supportive community to strengthen them.

Purity thrives where there is a strong sense of community. If I know that I am loved, and belong to a strong community of faith, so much stronger is my own sense of self-worth, appreciation, and dignity because of the affirmation I receive from my peers. This is what is needed for our young people who experience any form of temptation against purity. Furthermore, if one is strong in purity, then they will learn the value of purity which is how to authentically express love.

If all you can think about, or act on, is based on sexuality, can you really say that you love that person? That you really love all of who that person is? No. As my good friend and Catholic hipster, Sr. Brittany Harrison, FMA, taught me:

Purity teaches us how to love someone authentically because it integrates the sexual in a way that is not divorced from authentic love. Thus, the sexual energy is properly channeled.

It puts sexuality in its proper place, and demands that we love first all who the person is: their interests, hobbies, personality, etc. Then, purity invites sexuality into the relationship as the crowning of a profound relationship of love, that already exists between two people—people who are also totally betrothed, committed, and offering of self-giving sacrifice of themselves to each other. The sexual aspect of a relationship also occurs in view of the creative principle of love which seeks to bring forth new life as a gift to the world coming from the love exchanged between two people. Hence, sexuality finds its natural home only in marriage. So, if we help our young people learn purity now, we prepare them for real love, not lust, to be the reward of a future relationship in their life.

False Notions of Millennials & The Importance of Youth, College and Young Adult Ministries
Some perceptions of Millennials that need to be addressed are that they tend to be:
Lazy, Entitled, Unemployed, Overeducated, Non-Contributing.

It is true that many millennials have not moved out of their family home yet, gotten married, and had children, or have reached the years of employment and earnings that their parents and grand-parents have. Yet, there are many factors that have contributed to this reality. Furthermore, there is a necessary distinction that must be made between “early” millennials—or recently re-named “xennials”—and “later” millennials.

An “early” millennial, or xennial, was born between 1977 and 1983. These young people remember walking-up to a television in order to change the channel; a house without a computer in it; telephones with cords; and tend to associate more with the prior generations as they had much the same cartoons and television shows, etc., as their parents, aunts and uncles. After all, it wasn’t until the “Little Mermaid” in 1989, that Disney came out with a new feature animated film, which prior to that was the “Aristocats” in 1970, and no one ever saw it! These xennials remember growing-up in an economically “strong” and stable America of new technological advancements every year, and an invincible sense of American exceptionalism. “Hey, we have Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Jean Claude van Dam, and Bruce Willis to defend us!” The xennials also saw in their college years the stability they grew up crumble in the tragic event and aftermath of 9/11. These were the young men and women who then stepped up to fight against the aftermath of 9/11 terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Millennials, and now post-Millennials, have come of age in the post-9/11 world, which means that concepts like “safety,” “peace,” “stability” were never a part of the psychological, social, and cultural experience in which they came of age. Terrorism, sadly, is a regular reality now, affecting our lives, and how the Millennials/post-Millenniasl perceive the world in which they live.

A xennial graduated college in the last years of the 1900s, or first few years of the new millennium. They got that first job, and between two and four years in, just when it was time for that first significant promotion, the economy tanked, and they were laid-off for a new hire that would be cheaper, or the job was outsourced to another country, where labor laws are far more relaxed. Thus, there was a loss of earnings potential, and many are behind the “eight-ball” because they are saddled with the highest college-tuition loans in our country’s history.

So, why aren’t they getting married as early in life as prior generations, having children and buying a home? Who could afford all that while facing $60,000, $80,000, or $100,000+ in unpaid student loans? What prior-generation was saddled with such expensive college debt? Xennials and millennials aren’t necessarily lazy, they are discouraged. Xennials and millennials are those who would be served well by Young Adult ministries. These ministries can do a lot to encourage, network, and support this generation. Furthermore, the presence of friends and possibilities for love, and support for young couples, for the newly married, and those beginning families will also help your parish create a culture where young adults will marry, and settle down happily to raise their family near the local Catholic church community.

The mission of youth, college campus, and young adult ministry has not changed! Don Bosco, over two hundred years ago, had to provide mercy and healing to the young Italian youth of his day! We must continue this good outreach work today for our young adults. Today’s youth do not necessarily come from stable households where God is honored. If they did, then they would know where they could go for consolation and support. Instead, they wander about aimlessly, without direction, starving for healing, thirsting for refreshment. Show them the merciful, healing and refreshing Sacred Heart of Jesus. Be not afraid to relate to them, to offer your own story as witness to the power of Christ to heal and refresh. Be true missionaries of mercy to our youth.

Is there a challenge? Sure…but the victory is already won by Christ, and we have the power of His Sacred Heart, the fount of that earth-tilting mercy, to heal and renew the world! Don’t be discouraged, be enthused by an opportunity to become great saints and great missionaries of Christ to our youth and young adults. You can do this, you are doing this, keep doing all the good you have been accomplishing. May Everyone Remember Christ’s Youth!

The Central Role of the Eucharist
The Eucharist is where all healing occurs. Put a young person in front of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and Jesus will go to work on their minds, their hearts, and their souls. The problem is getting them there, and providing them with the understanding to know that they will be touched by God when in His presence.

When I got to William Paterson University, I was incredibly enthusiastic about Eucharistic Adoration—I had it for one hour before Sunday Evening Mass, and I had it for an hour every Wednesday. I found myself sitting alone for an hour praying that other people would come! I inquired, where is everyone? Why don’t people come to Eucharistic Adoration? The students responded: “What’s Eucharistic Adoration?” My head split in half! These young adults had no idea. So, I spoke with a priest-friend and he said, “Well, we don’t really do that much. So, the students probably don’t know about it.” I also came to realize that most of these young adults are pragmatists: “If I am going to go to Church, I need to get something to make it worth my while.” The offering of Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, and Confession in some form together, or following each other, provides a powerful opportunity for young people to encounter Jesus in light and truth, confess their sins, and then experience the life and love of Christ in union with Him. This is important because, the union contracted by us through the Sacraments, most especially the Eucharist, is not our unitive apex with God. Rather, this sacramental union is fulfilled when one’s life becomes a sacrament itself. Here is where conversion will occur in the life of your young people. In encountering the sacramental life, young people will go forth bearing sacramental witness.

Not only are students now aware of the importance of Eucharistic Adoration, and its role in their prayer life, but I have found a direct correlation to the increase in number of confessions. Eucharistic Adoration is the font of healing. Once young people realize the power of Jesus in the Eucharist, and are given the opportunity to praise, worship, and then experience the silence in order to encounter Christ in adoration, they will seek healing from the Sacraments, and go forth to live a “new life” in Christ.

At Mary Help of Christians Academy in North Haledon, N.J., there has been an amazing response to the students regularly receiving the Sacrament of Confession, and attending Eucharistic Adoration. The campus ministry has borrowed ideas from Life Teen and, with their own adaptations, created an incredibly successful Eucharistic Adoration experience—XLT, which is a name derived from the word “eXaLT”, and consists in a combination of Eucharistic Adoration, Praise and Worship, with meditations focused on teen issues, and available times for Confession. The students come in droves! Confessions tend to go on longer than the Adoration. Typically, the priest(s) suspend confessions to do Benediction, and then return to the confessional. Healing is occurring here! So much so, that young women there have now requested daily Eucharistic Adoration.

We must employ a creative way of presenting the Eucharist to the young people that combines many different interests and needs for the young people. We can’t just do what we always have done, we need to be creative, energetic, and willing to bring what we have always done to the young with a fresh presentation that “makes it worth their while”. Curiously, Latin connects young people to a spirituality and faith tradition that makes being Catholic a greater reality than their own “here and now” myopic world views, and sense of the world they presently live in.

The Role of Social Media and the Personal Encounter
If we are not on social media, they don’t know we exist. It’s that easy. Now, this is no substitute for the personal, face-to-face encounter. It is only when, as Bl. John Henry Newmann says: Cor ad Cor Loquitur—“heart speaks to heart,”—that real healing and experiencing of Jesus can be had by our young people through our ministry. Social Media is a means to inform, inspire through exciting and engaging videos and pictures, and invite. But, the real ministry occurs once they enter the door and we engage them interpersonally. We must be prudent, but we must be vulnerable, that is, capable of offering our own heartfelt experiences of God’s grace and healing with those to whom we minister. We must be safe, but we must be open. With prudence and common sense carefully employed, we can share our faith with the young people without fear of negative repercussions, or accusations of inappropriate “sharing” with a minor.

A danger of social media is that in a world of helicopter parenting, and over-protectiveness, “Stranger Danger” on the one hand, and a fear on the part of religious people/youth ministers to be too close to minors on the other hand—social media becomes a replacement for real “cor ad cor” (heart to heart) ministry to young people. We must use social media to get them in the door, and provide them a resource when they can’t see us in person, but we cannot replace the incarnational value of the person-to-person encounter that makes Jesus truly present to them, because they see Christ in us.

We need to provide opportunities—prayer, socializing, charitable/apostolic works, athletics, etc.—where they disconnect from the virtual reality of their technology-driven lives, and actually connect with humanity. Only in real, person-to-person, relationships will they be capable of socializing, which will provide for them a faith-filled community.

Epic Entertainment vs. Conversion
One challenge I come across frequently is the younger generation’s desire for everything to be like a rock concert, or the level of energy and enthusiasm expressed during a home-run. Nobody can be happy with merely the everyday, normal events of life. Everything should be entertainment, and at the highest, most gluttonous, epicurean of levels. If I hear one more time the expression, “dude, that’s epic!” I am going to scream! Seriously, “epic.” It’s a long poem telling the mythic and adventurous tale of a tragic heroine! Yet, today everything should be “EPIC” entertainment.

So, the temptation is to fashion our ministries in this same “epic-play entertainment” format. But religion isn’t a game—it’s life, and it needs to be interiorized, not just experienced as entertainment. Surely, there will come along a far more exciting form of entertainment, and the young people will lose interest and move-on. It can never be the “Fr./Sr. So and So” or “Mr./Miss/Ms./Mrs. So and So” show.

While we must provide the “epic” and “exciting”—after all Jesus is EPIC and Exciting—we must also get our young people to allow “epic” silence, meditation, and prayer to be a part of their lives. With so many hurting young people, the gift of peace and silence, an opportunity to disconnect, and return to the truly normal, is one of the greatest gifts we can give them. And, they will come to greatly appreciate it.

Yes, the energy and enthusiasm of a rock concert needs to be had by us all in our approach and drive for our ministries. This energy will certainly animate the People of God and enflame renewal. Yet, we can’t become so energy-driven that we forget to provide the people we serve with the opportunity to interiorize the faith—a fruit that only comes through silent moments of prayer, and affection offered from the heart.

Uniqueness in Identity: A Gift to the Church
Millennials, and post-millennials, all want to be unique. They think that they are the only persons in the world who have ever had the problems, the feelings, the crises, the challenges that they have…so there response is: “no one understands me, and my individualism, and uniqueness.” The drive to be unique is not all-together a bad thing. As I said earlier, we need to be creative in our approach to bringing young people to the Eucharist. Thus, their desire for uniqueness and individuality can be tapped into in order to develop innovative and creative approaches to ministry.

In youth and young adult ministry, there are, for me, a few disgusting phrases, like: “best practices,” “synergy,” “fast and actionable,” and a slew of other buzz-words and phrases used by people who want to sound like they are on the cutting edge, but really have no clue. In all my experience with young people, these types of “ideas” were utterly rejected for being the empty, unsubstantial, drivel that they truly are. This generation sees through masks because they are so good at wearing them. They know tripe when it is served.

So, sit down with young people, students, and young adults and ask them: “What do you want and what will get your peers to get involved?” They will offer loads of suggestions, faith-filled suggestions. Sure, it is always needed to offer “correctives” or “why or why not” certain things need to be done, or shouldn’t be done, that way, but that also provides them a greater understanding—a teachable moment. Their suggestions will help tailor the ministry to the local community, and that is what will contribute to growth and success. Remember, they want to be unique.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” youth, college campus, or young adult ministry program. It is necessary that each ministry be adapted to the local pastoral context to allow each youth, college campus, and young adult ministry program to express its unique identity and charism. The young people are so excited to express who they are to the world, let them express their unique love for Christ Jesus, and let it be at the heart of who they are, and how they relate to God. Then, the diversity of expressions from all the different youth, college campus, and young adult groups throughout the world will create a beautiful collage of how God encounters us in many and diverse ways. Just as there is a diversity of liturgical rites in the East and West, based on cultural expression and identity, each young person, college campus, and young adult ministry needs to be afforded this same opportunity for self-expression.

Developing a unique identity to your ministry is an integral part to having a successful youth, college campus, or young adult ministry. And, it must be the young people themselves, with their youth minister’s, chaplain’s, or campus minister’s guidance, who develop that identity.

“Ministry = Money”—Fundraising
Ministry takes money. No money, no ministry. Though it always seems to work somehow that even in the poorest of situations, God provides, and the faithful are served. I can speak from first-hand experience that of all the different ministerial circumstances I have served, it was the poor communities where I always found the faith to be most alive and enthusiastic. They might not have had the capacity to rub two dimes together, but the faith was alive, and not co-opted by wealth, and the wealthy person’s agendas and interests.

I probably don’t need to tell you that a commitment to our young people is a commitment to the future. What is true, though, is that this commitment is very easily funded, and if you believe in what you are asking for, money-wise, then begging is easy, and provides us with an opportunity to evangelize. Begging as a form of evangelization basically says:

“Help me help these kids. I believe in them! Look at the product! Help me to continue to help them—to help them learn to fly!”

If our primary focus is on helping people come to know and love Jesus Christ—most especially His Sacred and Merciful Heart—we will need to first need to do an examen (a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day) how well we have been able to learn and apply that reality in our own life. This personal renewal becomes the impetus for our sharing and renewing, through mercy, the communities we serve. The task of ministering to young people—high school and college students, and young adults—sees a need to bring healing, and this healing is most perfectly accomplished through an encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist—the visible heart of Jesus. A spirituality centered on Christ’s priestly heart that brings healing, forgiveness, life, and energy will find us animating the spirit of our young communities, and bringing profound renewal!

God bless you all in your work, and be assured of my prayers for you!

Father Philip-Michael F. Tangorra, STL About Father Philip-Michael F. Tangorra, STL

Fr. Philip-Michael Tangorra is a priest of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey. He was the co-founder and president of “Hands of Mary for Haiti,” an Association of the Christian Faithful aimed at helping, both materially and spiritually, the people of Notre Dame du Perpetuel Secours parish in Fragneau-Ville, Haiti, following the devastating earthquake there in 2010. He served as the parochial vicar for the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Morristown, New Jersey, where he also served on the Board of Directors for the Neighborhood House in Morristown. He recently rebuilt and created an award-winning Catholic Campus Ministry at William Paterson University, serving as its chaplain. He has also served as the Assistant Coordinator for Evangelization for the Diocese of Paterson. He is the author of Holiness and Living the Sacramental Life, a part of the "Living Faith Series" published by Emmaus Road. In “Holiness and Living…” Fr. Philip-Michael lays out the mystical and invisible realities that are present during the celebration of the sacraments, and explains how they can lead us to living ever more in-tune with God. He has a Licentiate in Dogmatic Theology from the Angelicum in Rome, and is currently studying Canon Law at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.