Lessons I learned about sharing the faith from St. John Paul II and Bishop Robert Barron
“Today, many priests try to be like the kids. We were trying to be like him.”
– Stanislaw Rybiki, recalling St. John Paul II as a young Catholic priest and youth leader
Recently, I found myself in a discussion with the impressive daughter of some family friends. A bright high school student and standout athlete, she is always willing to talk with me about what she is reading, the status of her college applications and the evolution of her career aspirations. So as we ranged over various and sundry topics, we found ourselves landing on her busy schedule packed with volunteer work, a weekend job, sports and her Catholic youth group.
“Do you enjoy going to the youth group?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah. It’s great. The people who go are very engaged. They have fun, but take their faith seriously. That’s why I go to XXXXXXX parish.”
“You go to XXXXXXX for youth group?,” I asked, “But why don’t you go to your home parish?”
“It just seems like most of the kids aren’t that into it. They feel like they are forced into being there, not that they want to be there.”
Then, we went on to discuss the differences she perceived between the youth offerings at her home parish and her chosen parish. Was this more of an issue of a disinterested cohort of kids or was it a flagging strategy at evangelizing by youth ministers? When it came down to her decision, it seemed that her home parish was more about games and entertainment whereas her chosen parish for youth group, while recognizing the need to engage the teenagers socially, sought to deepen their holiness through Mass, service and deeper intellectual/spiritual reading and discussion.
I smiled with a bit of a furrowed brow.
It reminded me of something my good friend told me years ago about his own kids’ confirmation and youth group experiences at his own parish. “It’s basically balloons and puppet theater. That’s not what they need. The leaders seem so intent on entertaining the kids — on ensuring that they are having a good time — that they have lost the missionary sense of cultivating their faith.”
But perhaps teenagers aren’t ready for that gravity of faith? Perhaps we should just focus on the fellowship and save the deeper message for another day?
Bishop Robert Barron demolished this reasoning in his recent Erasmus Lecture when he observed,
A few years ago, the daughter of one of my Word on Fire colleagues came to our office. Her mother said, “Tell Fr. Barron how much you know about Star Wars.” With that, an eight-year-old girl launched into a detailed account of the Star Wars narrative, involving subplots, extremely minor characters, thematic trajectories, and so on. As she was unfolding her tale, I thought of the many educators whom I have heard over the years assuring me that young people cannot possibly take in the complexities, convoluted plot twists, and strange names found in the Scriptures. I don’t know, but I don’t think Methuselah and Habakkuk are really any more puzzling than Obi-Wan Kenobi and Lando Calrissian.
Then, I got to thinking.
Karol Wojtyla, before becoming Pope (and ultimately Saint) John Paul II, saw the damage inherent to the “balloons and puppet theater” strategy. Now, this doesn’t mean that he believed in a draconian delivery of faith in a semi-lit room with unforgiving, hard-backed chairs. No. It means that as a young priest, Fr. Wojtyla recognized that the lives of the youth were so beautifully dignified, but already so brilliantly complex. As these teenagers found themselves on the precipice of becoming young men and women, they struggled with raw issues of life. What is life all about? What, really, is God’s role in my life? What am I called to do for a living? How do I know when I am in love? Why and how should I remain chaste? How do I recover from failure or endure the betrayal of false friends? These young men and women were so hungry for Truth that they deserved winsome, yet serious guidance worthy of the God who made them. Wojtyla innately grasped that these bright young minds could sniff out patronizing, trivializing and banal spiritual guidance from a mile away. And consequently, they would walk away – perhaps not simply from the priest (or youth minister), but from God as well.
Karol Wojtyla’s approach was known as “accompaniment.” As George Weigel would write in his papal biography on St. John Paul II, Witness to Hope,
“Accompaniment” was a way of “walking with” young adults, of helping them unveil their humanity by living through their problems with them…In Wojtyla’s view, this was a way a priest lived out his vocation to be an alter Christus, “another Christ” … God himself had accompanied human beings into the most extreme situation resulting from bad human choices — death — through his own divine choice to be redeemer as well as creator. That is what happened on the cross of Christ. The cross was the final justification for a pastoral strategy of accompaniment.
And so Fr. Wojtyla would hike and kayak and camp and eat with the youth. At fitting moments, he would share long passages of literature and poetry that crystallized a larger spiritual point. He encouraged honesty and respect, charity and kindness. He tackled topics of controversy and nuances of doctrine. He listened thoughtfully and explained patiently. But he was anything but woolly-headed; he was lovingly demanding. He encouraged these young Catholics to challenge themselves to think better, to do better, to be better. Those to whom much has been given, much will be expected. As the oppressive Communist political system demanded an all-consuming ideological worldview, Fr. Woytla pointed to a better way. Don’t have Christ on your list of priorities; let him BE your priority. Don’t look for Jesus in the world; let Jesus be the lens through which you look at the world.
And while Fr. Wojtyla was warm and approachable, Weigel writes,
There was a reserve about him that his friends honored. He was not a “buddy,” although he was a close friend, and neither he nor they pretended to a false familiarity … [One of the youth], Stanislaw Rybiki summed up this dimension of their relationship, and Wojtyla’s style, by observing, “Today, many priests try to be like the kids. We were trying to be like him.”
And what did the young Catholics say about Fr. Wojtyla? As Weigel would describe,
“He had mastered the art of listening.”
“He was always interested.”
“He didn’t impose, but he did demand.”
“He is a good man.”
This is what young people want. This is what they need. A model who teaches and challenges, who supports and corrects, who recognizes the dignity of young men and young women and their infinite capacity for God. It sounds like something my friends’ daughter found at one parish, but not at another.
That’s what the Catholic youth need …
Not balloons and puppet theater.