Youth Ministers: Challenges, Opportunities and Difficulties

Cleophas Braganza sdb

Don Bosco’s pastoral zeal was mainly directed toward migrant youth, who were easy targets of exploitation and abuse in the big cities during Italy's industrial revolution. In most developing countries, migration from villages to metropolises still continues. The new-found prosperity in the economy and industry lures many young men and women to the cities, where they seek a better future. They plunge into an ambience of frantic haste, pressure to perform and exacting standards which promises quick gains, recognition and a rise in social status.

However economic prosperity brings with it a host of problems for young people. As they grow up, they sometimes lack the presence, care and affection of their parents who are busy trying to provide for them. Frustration in a parent's career has negative repercussions for the other members of the family. Some of these youngsters end up as failures themselves—school drop-outs who easily become antisocial elements, addicts, get involved in illegal activities or run away from home to earn their living. On the other hand, even those who succeed academically, find themselves at great risk, because they have to remain away from home for extended periods for study or for work. Since they have easy access to money and other resources, they tend to experiment (without responsibility or commitments) with substances, relationships and their own lives. They might achieve financial stability, but end up morally disoriented, searching for meaning in life. All these are young people in need of a caring heart, a listening ear and a guiding hand.

The Salesian, like Don Bosco, draws inspiration from Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who leaves the 99 sheep in the fold to seek the stray one (cf. Jn 10). He seeks, through his pastoral ministry, to lead the young person to a personal experience of God’s love, which alone can be the foundation of a holistically mature personality. This is possible when he appropriates the attitudes of Jesus towards those in need: a compassionate non-judgemental attitude, listening to and trying to understand the experiences of the young in need, together with constant availability and willingness to accompany them even at the cost of personal sacrifice.

In today’s world, parents and educators find it difficult to make demands on those in their care, because they feel that they might become unpopular or that their relationship might be strained. The story of the young man who comes to Jesus asking what he should do to gain eternal life (cf. Mt 19:16-22) sheds light on what an educator ought to do. Jesus, on hearing that the young man is already observing the Law, makes a further demand: ‘Go, sell your possessions and then come, follow me!’ The young man is sadly unwilling to do so, but Jesus does not water down the criteria for attaining perfection. Educators need to realize that throwing challenges to the young is essential to help them achieve all-round maturity. Some particular areas in which the young need to be challenged in order to facilitate their growth are:

—The building and maintaining of healthy interpersonal relationships
—Learning to appreciate the diversity and richness of God's gifts to them, and becoming generous enough to share them with others
—Being courageous enough to risk making commitments of increasing duration and seriousness in life.

The desire to succeed at all costs, to create a reputation for oneself is one that could tempt not just the youth, but even those who engage in youth ministry. There is a danger of ‘hijacking’ the pastoral agenda by replacing it with our own, of proclaiming not Christ, but ourselves! Jesus sent out disciples ahead of him and gave them instructions on how they were to proceed (cf. Lk 10:1-16). The apostle is ‘the one sent’ on a mission, not his own, but that of ‘the one who sends’ him. This awareness serves a double purpose: in good times, recalling that it is the Lord who uses him as an instrument to carry out his mission effectively; and in moments of difficulty, not giving in to discouragement or despair, knowing that the Lord supports and accompanies him.

Another element that can diminish the effectiveness of youth ministry is the apparent lack of common purpose among those who should work together. Already in the early Church, Paul reminded the Corinthians that they shouldn’t be attached exclusively either to Apollos or to himself, since both are servants of the same Master (cf. 1Cor 3:4-11,21-23). This admonition can very well be applied to the Church, to the congregation or to the local community. Many are the instances when painstaking individual efforts go in vain due to lack of proper planning or collaboration or continuity; and the youth are the worse off for it. On the other hand, the ministry produces results surpassing our expectations when a common programme of goals, methods and strategies is drawn up, and when there is collaboration in its execution.

There is need of working in synergy, both within the ecclesial framework as well as with others who share the same ideals and goals. While the congregation defines the general outlines and the framework for youth ministry, it is the prerogative of the province and the local communities to define the concrete areas of work and the plans for particular initiatives. If the communities and the individuals responsible for youth ministry are not taken into confidence during this process, or they themselves choose to ignore what has been decided together, then as a consequence there is a colossal waste of time, energy, personnel and resources. This occurs due to either a competitive duplication of initiatives, or a dispersion of efforts by different individuals or groups working at cross purposes.

‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few’ (Lk 10:2). Those of us who engage in youth ministry need to become increasingly aware of the wide range of needs that the youth present today, while not forgetting that we are servants sent by the Master to tend to His harvest. In order to lead the youth in our care to greater maturity we need to offer them challenges to which they can respond with generosity and creativity. Since ‘the labourers are few’, we need to optimize the use of our time and other resources through careful planning and through working in synergy for the greater glory of God and the salvation of youth.

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