When I think about what I am trying to accomplish in my work as a Catholic youth worker, the word that comes to mind most often is countercultural.
It’s a common buzzword in the Church these days, designed to remind us that what we are trying to push is, at least in part, fairly starkly at odds with the overarching values of the modern world.
Consider, if you will, the view of the world that a 21st Century teenager is raised with. The overriding values of the world are of personal happiness and autonomy combined with a version of liberalism and tolerance which are actually anything but.
Add to that a vague idea that religion is the outdated, somewhat bigoted, antithesis to science and reason and you start to build a picture of a somewhat difficult terrain.
Into this mix come people like myself trying to suggest to young people that maybe there is another way of looking at things.
Maybe, we suggest, true happiness doesn’t lie in the advancement of self; maybe faith and science actually aren’t in opposition; maybe belief that the universe and creation have a purpose to them is something that can be reasoned and believed by smart people; maybe real tolerance and social justice doesn’t mean sticking up for those who have the most powerful lobby, but for those who have no voice at all?
This can be done, and it often is, but modern Western societies don’t make it easy. Indeed, even the culture inside the Church doesn’t always make it that easy.
In the past, you could rely on families being supportive and you could count on authentic teaching in parishes and schools. These days though, let’s just say both are somewhat patchy!
Professional Catholic youth workers are a relatively new thing. It’s only recently that the Catholic Church started to let lay people take on serious paid ministries (lay volunteer catechists in parishes have been around for decades) and even more recently that they really started to realise that those ministries can really work.
In the US, you’ll find a paid youth worker in most parishes. In this country, paid roles are nowhere near as widespread, but you will find them.
Every diocese has at least one paid worker, and over half have permanent teams. Some even have dedicated centres.
You’ll also see full-time Lay Chaplains (technically a contradiction in terms, but we get away with it!) in most secondary schools, and a handful of paid workers in deaneries and parishes here and there.
The work involves catechesis, evangelisation, prayer, liturgy, counselling and pastoral work and a whole load of other things too.
All done in harness with the clergy and the wider community, and all – at least in theory – in support of the parents, who the Church designates as the primary educators of their children.
I suppose, for me, the crucial aim is to invite young people to believe that the Catholic faith is true and that it can answer the deeper questions that they have about life and meaning. This is never indoctrination, but reasoned persuasion.
Once that goes in – which is hit and miss, even with the best approaches – it’s a question of helping young people to see that their new found faith isn’t just another idea among many, and neither is it something they can just keep on a shelf somewhere and bring out when needed.
It has to be a core part of life if its true power is to come across and, crucially in a pick-and-mix world, it has to be taken without compromise.
All in all, it’s a wonderful job, and something I would thoroughly recommend to any young Catholics looking for a fantastic faith-based career. It won’t make you rich, and there is no guarantee of being respected or understood, even by those you work around.
Neither is there a guarantee of success or job stability. So, why do I keep at it? And why do I recommend it to others? Simply, I suppose, because I get to put across something I am passionate about, and also because when it does work, it feels great!