United by passion for young people

If there was one theme that permeated the National Catholic Conference for Youth and Young Adult Ministers (13-16 November) it was unity. It was expressed in the Gospel about sharing talents, in Bishop Peter Cullinane’s message that discipleship is possible only if we are united by Christ, and in keynotes addressing Christian unity and the essential ingredients of youth and young adult ministry. Appropriately, it was best summed up by the conference name – ‘Head, Heart, Hands’ – and the accompanying scripture quote “I am the vine you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit”.

However, while there were many shared values, goals and experiences uniting conference participants, their diversity was also highlighted and their thoughts, work methods and beliefs challenged by the thought-provoking and wide range of speakers and workshops.

In his opening address Bishop Peter Cullinane of Palmerston North said ministry to and with young people involves giving and receiving.  He compared this to “receptive ecumenism”.  “In the past, Churches brought to each other an explanation of the things that were important to them.  They ‘put out their best china’. In receptive ecumenism they show instead their dirty hands – they ask each other for help with problems they have not successfully resolved.  They receive from one another,” he said.

“It’s like that with youth ministry: We don’t even have to pretend that we need their help – we simply do. We need their help to speak to people whose thinking and values have been formed mainly from sources outside the Gospel”.

Bishop Cullinane also emphasised the importance of praying with the Gospels in hand, and not just looking at Jesus but also at the people around him. “The way Jesus affected them is the way he still affects us – he hasn’t changed,” he said.

Bishop Cullinane also discussed the bishops’ aims for young Catholics, drew on the teachings of Pope John Paul II, and suggested that while programmes are important, what people need mainly from those ministering to them is the witness of their own faith.

Following this address, Rebekah Siave of Wellington led an interactive session which explored ‘Tu Kahikatea Standing Tall’ and other foundational youth ministry documents. Various exercises and questions challenged participants to consider their understanding and use of the documents and the reality that young people are important not only for the future but also the present Church.

The first keynote speaker, Samuel Clear, from Harvest Inroads Australia, told of his 15,600km walk around the world for the unity of Christians, and of the many obstacles he encountered and gifts he received during the journey. In between stopping to pray at churches of all denominations, Mr Clear was held at gun point, came face to face with wild animals, suffered dehydration and endured extreme temperatures. He believed that it was his trust in God that protected him even though, he said, “it hurts to trust God”.

Amongst his challenges was a Catholic priest telling him that his mission “should be about unity and love not unity and truth,” and “not about agreeing with everyone but loving everyone”. After reflecting on the priest’s words, Mr Clear realised that “truth is the skeleton and love is the flesh that brings it to life”.

Adult educator Chris Duthie-Jung delivered the second keynote address, drawing on findings from his current doctoral research on the Catholic identity of Gen Y New Zealanders. He suggested that defining Catholic identity largely in terms of Sunday Mass attendance has become unhelpful.

“If we as youth and young adult ministers are to be able to respond adequately to the needs of young Catholics then we need to get to grips with a changing sense of what it means to be Catholic,” he said. “Catholic youth and young adult ministry is simply not dealing with the same situation it was 50 years ago…, 25 years ago…, even 10 years ago. I would venture that every year we’re seeing a greater struggle to find connection between our young people and our Church”.

“It is my sense that finding ways forward as Catholic pastoral ministers in New Zealand has probably never been more challenging than it is today. We need to acknowledge that our ministry can no longer be based on the conviction that all we need to do is get ‘this’ or ‘that’ right and our churches will be bursting at the seams with young people. We need to find fresh ways of presenting the gospel and innovative and contemporary ways of engaging new generations”.

In the third keynote address, founder of youth and social work agency Challenge 2000, Kitty McKinley, discussed her ‘R’ ingredients for a youth ministry cake. The first she suggested is “reaching in”. “It is only when we have found God inside ourselves that we can minister to youth and make a difference,” she said. “The second is reaching out, and not becoming preoccupied with talking about things instead of doing things”. The final two ‘Rs,’ she said, are ‘real’ and ‘relevant’. “We must ask ourselves how real and relevant our ministry is in our Aotearoa New Zealand context,” she said and what role the Treaty of Waitangi has in what we do.

She also emphasised the importance of relationships, warning against creating silos within the Church community, and suggested that we must read and consume a wide range of material in order to educate and renew ourselves. She ended her presentation by reminding conference participants that with youth and young adult ministry and saying “yes, I believe” come great responsibility.

On the final day participants had the opportunity to evaluate and share their thoughts on the conference, which concluded with a Commissioning Mass celebrated by Bishop Cullinane. At the Mass, participants received a mirror containing the words ‘Head, Heart, Hands’, to encourage them to reflect on how they are using all of these in their ministry to and with youth and young adults.

Angela Pyke
Communications Adviser
New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference

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