Our diocese publishes a monthly magazine called FAITH; every Catholic household in the diocese receives this magazine in the mail every month for free, whether it is requested or not. FAITH has been hailed as some kind of paragon of Catholic publishing and has won numerous awards; I have personally always found it to be rather shallow, but apparently many people like it. Well, de gustibus non est disputandum and all that; click here and judge for yourself.
This month was the annual "Teen Issue." As a former Youth Director, I groaned as soon as I saw the title, since one thing I have come to believe with great passion is that our teens suffer when we try to pander by them by creating watered down, teen-oriented versions of things, and this applies to literature as well as liturgies.
Well, the purpose of this post is not to rag on FAITH; at least the diocese is trying to reach its people by sending out literature every month. The purpose of this post is to rag on a certain ubiquitous approach to the Catholic youth apostolate that I found (not surprisingly) put forward in the pages of FAITH, namely, the excessive focus on service projects.
What is wrong with service projects? Well, nothing, in an of themselves. My youth group participated in several service projects over the past three and a half years. Getting young people to serve in their parish and community is a very important part of character formation, in my opinion. But notice that I said that it was not service projects that I opposed per se; rather, I oppose an excessive focus on service projects.
The Catholic Church has a crisis of identity. However serious the crisis is in parish life, it is even more severe in Catholic youth groups. A good parish might be one in ten, but a good youth group is one in a hundred. IN working with my kids and looking at how other parishes approached service projects over the years, I have come to notice a very interesting correlation:
The youth groups that do the most service projects usually consist of kids that are very poorly catechized and come from parishes of questionable orthodoxy.
This is a rule of thumb that will not be true in every case, but as a generalization, I think it stands. It can mean one of two things: either orthodox youth groups do not do enough service projects, or perhaps wishy-washy youth groups do too many. I think the latter is undoubtedly the case, for the simple reason that solid, orthodox youth groups that have healthy spirituality and great catechesis will also do service projects from time to time; but wishy-washy youth groups that do a ton of service projects have neither healthy spirituality nor great (or any) catechesis. The orthodox youth groups strike a balance that is lacking in the service-project focused youth group.
Thus, we come to my second maxim about Catholic youth groups-
An excessive focus on service projects bespeaks an imbalance in the youth group; the kids are put to work on service projects because they don't have anything else worthwhile to do.
This was the case in the days of the Apostles, when we find our first pope clumsily suggesting that the apostolic college take up a service project when worship and adoration was called for. Let's look at the account of the Transfiguration from the Gospel of Mark (Douay-Rheims):
And his garments became shining and exceeding white as snow, so as no fuller upon earth can make white. And there appeared to them Elias with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter answering, said to Jesus: Rabbi, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles, one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. For he knew not what he said: for they were struck with fear. And there was a cloud overshadowing them: and a voice came out of the cloud, saying: This is my most beloved son; hear ye him. And immediately looking about, they saw no man any more, but Jesus only with them (Mark 9:2-8).
St. Peter, when confronted with the glory of the Transfigured Lord and the presence of Moses and Elijah, suggests building some tabernacles. But notice why he suggests it: because "he knew not what he said," or as some modern translations put it, "he knew not what he was saying." Peter suggested building tabernacles because he didn't know what else he should be doing. It was motivated by a lack of direction, a feeling that he should be doing something but not knowing what. Fortunately, the Lord tells him what he should be doing: "This is my beloved son; hear ye him!"
I know this is not the primary (or even secondary) meaning of this text, but it does give us something to ponder - it is easy to revert to doing service projects when we don't have direction. At least service projects, which are necessarily active, give one the sense of having accomplished something. It is easier to boast of having accomplished something by painting a room or building a house than by spending an hour in adoration, where the fruits are often spiritual and hidden more deeply in the soul.
This is why I believe many youth groups focus too much on service projects: they don't know what else they ought to be doing. Usually, service project oriented youth groups do one other thing besides service projects: socializing. A ton of socializing. In many instances, socializing becomes the explicit end for which the youth group is constituted; I have actually read this in some diocesan youth manuals.
The big danger here is twofold: one, that the youth come to associate Catholicism solely with service projects, thereby fostering an unhealthy disposition towards activism; second, and related to the first, that by fostering an activist approach to youth work, our kids are deprived of the spiritual and intellectual treasures of the faith that can only be found through periods of silent contemplation, private and communal prayer, and zealous instruction in the truths of the faith. Without these treasures, our Catholic youth have no firmly established Catholic identity; anybody can do a service project. Any good-willed Protestant atheist, Mormon or Muslim can paint houses for the poor or dish out soup at a poorhouse. These works are good and need to be done, but when they are made the centerpiece of a youth's experience of the faith, the faith becomes entirely identifiable with service projects. In fact, a good majority of our Catholic teens are already become non-denomination Protestants in practice. In my opinion, Catholic youth groups share a lot of the blame for this.
Remember, I am not knocking service projects per se. Willingness to serve is a fundamental pillar of our faith and a sign of humility. St. James reminds us that "Religion clean and undefiled before God and the Father, is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their tribulation" (Jas 1:27). True faith cannot separated from pious works. But St. Luke builds on this in Acts by telling us that the Apostles, despite the importance of service, placed catechesis and spiritual formation in a decidedly higher category:
"And in those days, the number of the disciples increasing, there arose a murmuring of the Greeks against the Hebrews, for that their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve calling together the multitude of the disciples, said: It is not fitting that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying was liked by all the multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith, and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch" (Acts 6:1-5).
This was what was so distressing about the article in FAITH magazine - when it came to highlighting the dynamic works going on among the youth throughout the diocese, all the magazine had to focus on was service projects. I am not judging anybody mentioned in the article nor any parish's youth program, but I am issuing a warning to all Catholic youth groups and their leaders: what we need is the foster solid, Catholic identity. This is done throught he teaching of Catholic doctrine, formation in traditional Catholic spirituality and (in the third place) authentic works of service that proceed from the first two. If we do service projects, they need to be done in the spirit of St. James, who tells us that these deeds are manifestations of our faith that ensure that it is not dead. They ought not to be done in the spirit of Peter on Mt. Tabor, who wanted to build tabernacles just because he didn't know what else he should be doing. Thankfully, St. Peter, through the outpuring of the Holy Spirit, eventually learned his lesson. If we will learn the same lesson, the growth that could be unleashed in our Church will be no less phenomenal than that experienced by the early Church.
If you agree, please forward this to anybody you know who is involved in a Catholic youth apostolate.