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Posted June 19, 2008

Pastoral Aspects on Youth Ministry:
A Response to Dean Hoge

In their responses to the research presented by Davidson and Hoge, Catherine Heinhold of Georgetown’s campus ministry and Sister Carroll Ann Kemp of Gonzaga College High School touched on ways in which some young adult Catholics are shaping their Catholic identity around questions of poverty and injustice. Heinhold spoke of students who say they practice their faith by serving the poor, and Sister Kemp (whose brother is Father Ray Kemp) spoke of how Catholic students are reconnecting to the faith through service activities. She added that while on these service missions, the students spend about an hour each day gathered in a circle, reflecting on questions such as, “Where do we see the presence of God? Who did you meet today who really called to you?”

Picking up on his sister’s comments, Father Kemp – highlighting Woodstock’s mission of encouraging theological reflection – noted that not all service programs pay as much attention to the importance of such reflection. “I think the priority that we give to reflecting on what’s going on, where God is, what the reality is, what’s the social critique as well as the theological critique of what’s happening – to me I think that ought to assume more and more importance,” he commented at the forum, following these remarks.

Catherine Heinhold: I’d like to relate some experiences that I think illustrate the types of students we have on campus and their approach to the Church. I coordinate the Retreat Program here at Georgetown. And our Agape retreat, as we call it, is one of the more popular of these – most of the time. When it competes with basketball games and parents’ weekends, then it’s not so popular. But that retreat is led by a team of six students. And several years ago, I was meeting with the team – students who have been on the retreat before, some of them active in campus ministry, some of them not so active in campus ministry. Somehow we got off topic, and one of the students said: “I don’t know why I should have to get married, especially in the Church. Why do I need a piece of paper from the Church just to have sex?” And that’s how she viewed marriage in the Church, as getting a piece of paper that said she could have sex.

So I just said to myself: OK, great – teachable moment! So we opened it up to the group, and the other team leaders either seemed to agree or they didn’t have much to say to expand on that. I just started to talk with them about marriage and about the communal nature of our faith and our tradition and the way that God is in our lives – that it’s not so much an individualistic thing. I talked about the married couple getting married not just for their own benefit and their own mutual love, but as being part of a larger society, and about how the ceremony itself being public was a communal event with the couple asking for the support of the community, publicly asking for God’s blessing, and committing themselves to contribute to the community. So I really just kept stressing that communal nature.

And one other student, not the one who had asked the question, said: “Wow! That sounds ancient! ” And I said: “Well, it is! ” But to me that conversation just really typified [the sensibilities of many students]. These were students who had some level of activity in the Church. They were showing up most Sundays for Mass, but really feeling kind of distant from some of what they saw as the rules and regulations of Church, having been influenced more by society’s stress on individualism, rather the Church’s stress on community and the life of Christ in the community.

I hear again and again from the team leaders – and I get to know them better than other students – very often that Mass just doesn’t seem meaningful for them. They feel disconnected. So that’s one experience I’ve had. This past Sunday we had a brunch for students, as part of an effort involving Catholic campus ministers and our Center for Social Justice, to make some stronger connections between Catholic social teaching and the service that so many of our students are already doing on this campus.

One student who spoke up at the brunch – and I have her permission to tell you about this – is really a committed, involved student, very active in [direct] service as well as social justice. She’s been a retreat leader. She’s spoken to me about a felt presence of God in her life. She’s articulate. She prays. She’s planning to volunteer her post­graduate [year]. Today she was talking to me about her faith and about how she sees most people practicing their faith. And she said: “For me and for a lot of my friends, practicing my faith is serving the poor.” That’s what it looks like to her, and it’s more important to do that than to go to Mass. It’s more important to stress serving the poor than to worry too much about the moral teachings. She says: “I live my faith by serving others.” At the brunch, she spoke of the tension she feels being energized by her faith, motivated to serve others and work for justice, but really finding herself at odds at times with the official Church teaching, particularly on moral issues, sexual issues, having friends who are gay. So she was angry and conflicted and asking: “How do I do this? How do I reconcile this?”

That’s a question that I find quite frequently and I’m surprised at how often when I hear it, it’s as if the students are afraid to vocalize it. They’re afraid to say it out loud because maybe no one agrees with them. Or maybe they’ll be put down or told what they should believe.

The third issue that I wanted to touch on is something that Dean brought up a little bit – the generational divide. We have a number of students here – they are the minority but they are a very active minority – that has what some people might term a more traditional piety or traditional spirituality. They love going to adoration. They have a monthly Mass in Latin. They say the rosary. They really feel moved by some of the more traditional aspects of the Church that have kind of fall en away since the Council. They’re the Culture One young adults as Jim was describing. On the other hand, our staff is made up of people who are mostly of the boomer generation and a few people, like me, who are post­Vatican II Catholics. And there’s a lack of understanding between the two generations. The younger ones are dismayed that the older ones are so bothered by their traditional piety. They feel sometimes like they don’t have a home here. They might be ridiculed for the things they’re interested in. And the older folks, the folks on staff, are worried because they’re afraid the younger ones are trying to turn back the clock, and they don’t understand why the younger ones are so attached to some of these devotions that some of the people who actually lived through Vatican II feel was a good thing to give up.

And so, I agree with Dean – these folks are a minority but they should get attention. They have real needs and real hungers. We need to think about some communication on both ends. [There’s a need] for the younger generation to make an effort to understand that their elders have been through a different experience and have very good reasons for being concerned and for wondering about some of the things that they’re doing. And [there’s a need] for the older generation to look at the real experience of our young people who were brought up in a very different Church and have some very real desires to grow in their faith and their spirituality.

One thing I have definitely noticed here is that our young adults are very diverse in their practice and in their belief. They respond well to outreach. They really enjoy discussing the issues. They’d talk all night with each other about Church things, and God things and the meaning­of­life things. They get really excited if things are presented well to them – and they’re really, really hungry for God, whether they can articulate it that way or not. For me, it’s a privilege to welcome them. Sister Carroll Ann Kemp: Gonzaga High School has a tremendously sound program in academic and theological training, and a tremendous program in Christian service and in retreats, thanks to the administration and leadership of the school for a number of years. That would be financial support, encouragement for the students to go out there and take advantage of these programs where they are face to face with migrant workers in Florida, living with families in Guatemala, living with families in the Dominican Republic, doing the work of building roads and digging latrines, and all that kind of glorious work of God’s reign. They’re doing it. And how that enriches the school experience is beyond measure. The retreat program also is very rich, especially the long retreats for the juniors and seniors call ed Kairos. It’s a four­day, three­night program. It’s very heavy duty, and like the Christian service program, it’s not obligatory. Everybody wants to do both the retreat and the service. And in keeping with the whole methodology of the school, the faith and service are just caught. And it makes the school community really vibrant. Now obviously we have a good number of Christians who are not Roman Catholics in the school. Everybody participates and we all participate, at one level or other, in faith sharing. The Christian Service Program includes a faith­sharing theological reflection hour every day that we’re away either in Guatemala or Dominican Republic or the Red Cloud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, or in Emmitsburg, Maryland, working with people you cannot beli eve exist about 500 feet away from Rt. 15 in houses that have been substantiated with pizza boxes and real poverty that I couldn’t believe exist in the mountains behind Mt. St. Mary’s University. We also go to Camden, New Jersey, and the Bronx, New York, for a week of work in each place. Plus we’re lucky enough to have the shelter and the soup kitchen right next door. So it’s really an ideal place to be working with young men.

We’re in the second year right now doing the Campus Kitchen Program, a fabulous program in which many universities are working to bring food from business agencies or law firms, from hotels and restaurants – bring that food to a central place and redistribute it to be presented beautifully, tastefully, heated [for] people in the neighboring area who are really poor and would not get a hot meal otherwise. I believe Gonzaga is the first high school to have taken on this Campus Kitchen project and we work with it through D.C. Central Kitchen. The students re­prepare the food and present it in individual serving boxes, and then they actually carry it to at least 65 homes of people who live right in the neighborhood of Gonzaga College Hi gh School, which is just two blocks from the U.S. Capitol building, And so, these programs go all year long and then we have the longer ones for service in the summer. I think one of the reasons these programs keep working is that when we’re doing the service work, we spend a good 45 minutes to an hour every day, really gathering the students, doing a circle, talking the talk about Jesus, Gospel, God. Where do we see the presence of God? Who did you meet today that really called to you? What do you want to remember? Give me a word. Give me a face. Give me an expression. What’s going on inside of you as we’re picking crops with the migrants, building a new school in the Dominican Republic, and whatever we’re doing? So I think that theological reflection is basic. Everyone participates, Catholics along with other students. And our real compelling point then in a retreat setting is the tremendous experience of a very deep sharing, getting to know students at a much deeper level – the students getting to know students experiencing the Body of Christ in a way that is so palpable. It’s really a privilege to be part of it as a teacher. I wanted to say a few words about our teachers. We hire our own graduates. Gonzaga is one of the most tight­knit communities you’ll ever see. I don’t know if that’s true of all Jesuit institutions, but when our students come back after college and with graduate degrees, a lot of them get hired as teachers. And that’s a real plus for the school, of course.

And in speaking to them in preparation for tonight, I heard three themes that I’d like to just put out here. One theme is actually a kind of challenge from one of our young teachers, about the welcoming possibilities of the Roman Catholic Church. And sometimes the Church feels non­welcoming to people. This student – taught him when he was a freshman – went through 16 years of Catholic education. At Gonzaga, he was a real leader in service and in the retreat program, and a major football player – he did the whole thing. He comes back, gives a whole year in an alumni program of service to our school, and now he’s teaching full­time at our school. He’s from a very staunch Catholic family. So I’m saying to him, “What are you finding challenging?” And he said, “I hate to tell you this, Sister. But the most challenging part is – I just got engaged to be married to a woman who is Baptist but worships at the Episcopal Church. So one Sunday I go to her church with her; the next Sunday she goes to my Catholic church with me. I’m so sad. I’m really saddened by the fact that I’m invited to receive communion at her service and she’s told she can’t receive communion at mine.” That’s one story.

I said: “What are you going to do about your kids?” He said: “I don’t know.” Another young man graduated from school, went through college, and then served as a Jesuit volunteer in Nicaragua for two years, staying on for two more years when his initial commitment had expired. He was there living in community with other Jesuit volunteers, and working. Just two days ago, he was reflecting with me, and he reflected that he didn’t go to church for a while. Then he started saying, “But the people, the poor are going to church.” And he has really dedicated himself to the work of justice. He’s one of our special leaders in all of our service programs. He’s going back to the Dominican Republic this year for the fourth time where our students actually live with the families there. They do a lot of work. He is not himself sure if he’ll continue in the Roman Catholic Church because, again, his idea of faith – as a number of people have said already today – is doing the work. It’s doing the work of Christ in trying to bring justice to all people. Sometimes he goes to church and sometimes he doesn’t. But he said: “You know what? I think I’m going to give church another try. Maybe I could find some word in a homil y or Scripture that would give me some energy to keep doing this work with the poor.”

I’ll say just one more thing, about one of our few African American teachers in religion – also a graduate of Gonzaga. His major problem and challenge with the Church is that he feels the Church offers nothing to his age group, people between 18 and 35. If you’re not in school or have young children to bring for Communion preparation or Baptism preparation, the Church is not really there for you. And this is a very dedicated black Catholic who graduated from Gonzaga, and as our headmaster said, “He is really a Catholic” and really respectful of the sacraments and a fantastic teacher. But he’s in the gap between 18 and 35. He has no kids. And if you’re in that age group, the Church is not even hearing what you need.