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Does the church need a preferential option for the young?

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Msgr. Joseph Kerrigan has been pastor of Sacred Heart Church, New Brunswick, N.J., in the Diocese of Metuchen, since 2004. Amanda Gallear, a parishioner, joined the parish-based Catholic Charities neighborhood revitalization program upon graduating from Rutgers University in the summer of 2012. Their current collaborative focus is coordinating a three-parish consolidation process out of Sacred Heart.

[Sounding Boards are one person's take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.]

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Labor Day weekend 2012, Central New Jersey: scores of young people from 16-31 years old streamed to our urban parish campus at all hours of day and night. The parish was alive with activity, as participants attended continuous workshops in our parish hall and meetings in the parish center. Food and fellowship abounded, and there was also a special Mass for the occasion. Neighborhood organizations and parish groups set up tables offering further opportunities. Most of those hosting and serving the youth were young themselves.

Was this a snapshot of a very vibrant and youthful parish in action? Not quite yet, but it at least was a showcase of what we’re striving toward as a community.

Our pastoral team decided to mobilize to best serve the 16-31 age group who would benefit from President Obama’s June 15, 2012 executive order establishing the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program.

Those we wished to serve were young men and women coming out of the shadows and exposing themselves as “undocumented.” It was a one-time event, but a vision of how things could be as church: young and not-so-young working together on issues that affect the lives of young people--a church attuned to both the needs of the young and the skills that they bring to the table.

The lack of any such intergenerational collaboration and youth leadership may be most apparent to those of us involved daily in church life, in terms of staff, volunteers, and programming. Without a Latino infusion, most parishes in our area would be shrinking into oblivion, with the aging out of parishioners and the lack of churchgoers under age 40 to replace them. At a recent Mass here, a survey was cited with reasons why people ages 16 to 29 are not going to church. And, fittingly, there was no one in that age group to hear! Older folks are often heard lamenting the lack of youth at Sunday Mass. Yet, in separate conversations, younger folks snicker to each other about how dull or backwards church is with so many old people.

In the wider world, statistics show that baby boomers and millennials should be sharing conversations, decisions, and many other aspects of daily life. According to the U.S. Census, it is estimated that there about 81 million boomers and 84 million millennials; that’s approaching a 1:1 ratio.

Over the last decade we have begun to find that rough balance in our parish staffing. We’ve gone from one extreme to another. In 2004, our pastor was the second youngest member of an older parish staff, and the youngest was only four years his junior. By 2013, he has “aged” drastically; he’s now the third oldest, with the next youngest generationally younger. In fact, 60% of our full-time parish staff is now under the age of 24.

We began making changes to our staff around the same time that we realized we needed to restart our religious education program from scratch. In 2004 our program had dwindled to 48 students; by decade’s end we were at 300. This had come under the guidance of two parish leaders, not even 26 years old. We needed to make religious education more about energy and flexibility, and who better to advise that process than those who had recently completed it?

The emphasis on our youth group has produced some of the strongest leaders in our parish. When new staffing positions open up, we don’t have to look far for the perfect candidate. Investing in our youth is an investment in the well-being and future of our parish. At our confirmation liturgies, we remind our youth that if they take this sacrament to heart, the celebration and impact for the parish can really be labeled, “under new management.”

The church as a whole seems to clamor for more youth involvement. But when we really tried to make changes in our parish, like pointedly asking young people to come aboard and help re-invent parish life, there wasn’t exactly cheering in the pews.

At first there was a fair amount of uncertainty, polite resistance, and resentment. Who are these kids? What do they know? For a time, the established staff seemed to pretend the younger newcomers did not exist; younger staff members felt condescension and were subjected to various patronizing comments (which we dare not publish here). We had a lot of meetings to clarify and soothe feelings, and, eventually, came to see the other as assets.

We both think that our current experiment has something to be said for it at a wider level. We made these changes because our parish demographics have changed: 75% of our parishioners are Latino and under the age of 35. It only made sense for us to change our leadership model to fit our congregation. And if we want to retain these younger parishioners, we need to continue encouraging their deeper involvement in parish life. Although our charism for youth empowerment came out of an experience specific to our parish’s needs, the benefits of encouraging youth involvement would be a welcome change to any parish.

And it’s not like the universal church has not seen the impact from its youthful leaders over the centuries. St. Aloysius Gonzaga, patron saint of youth, St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Kateri Tekakwitha are three who had already established saintly credentials by the time of their deaths in their early twenties.  And, from our 21st-century perspective, at least, if not Middle Eastern actuarial tables of the time, Jesus of Nazareth would probably still count as a young adult.

The intergenerational fruits of millennials and boomers working together are evident. Sometimes it’s as basic as youth have energy, elders have wisdom; the two can really feed off each other.

Thinking a little more specifically, putting these two groups into dialogue can help a parish decide its mission. What kind of parish do we want, and who can help shape it? Are we going to be more of a caretaker, or a change agent?

Greater diversity yields more ideas and opportunities. We’ve made it a point to include various ages, genders, and ethnicities in our parish leadership, and as a result, we’ve created more innovative programs, liturgies, and services. The uniqueness of our parish attracts even more new members.

Older parishioners, even those who may have been skeptical of youth leadership at first, experience an added pride in seeing the young adults who they catechized as children flourishing--in terms of faith and professionalism--a pride they wouldn’t have had if outsiders were hired.

In turn, the younger staff benefits from a feeling of safety, having the support and wisdom of older staff giving them the freedom to experiment and push projects farther.

And much to their discomfort, young staff gets pushed out of our comfort zones: to provide a last-minute public speaking moment, represent the parish at a diocesan gathering, or attend a national conference. And as any recipient of this treatment will tell you, the temporary embarrassment, nervousness, or frustration is worth the lessons learned and prepares young people well for the professional and personal challenges to come later on in their lives.

Once a younger colleague from another parish told a story of how, in his office with mostly older staff, work would completely stop at 12 noon for lunch and resume promptly at 1 pm, no matter what else was going on that day. Younger staff don’t mind being more flexible and working through lunch or staying late if there is a job that needs to get done. Just recoup that time on a simpler, quieter day.

Sometimes young people are so focused on being full steam ahead, they forget to take those breaks. “I worry when our kids are doing church work on Friday and Saturday night,” one daily Mass-goer said. “They’ve got to be 23 sometime, too.” We can learn valuable time management skills from one another.

That is not to say we are completely attuned: we debate whether to use Internet Explorer versus Google Chrome; whether to listen to classical music or The XX in our shared office; whether the younger staff is eating enough vegetables; whether the older staff’s aches and pains are worthy of sympathy. But even there, by poking fun at our age stereotypes, we come to see the silliness of them.

One ridiculous moment reminded us that we still have a ways to go.

“You won’t believe what just happened, Monsignor,” a younger parish staff member grimaced after paying the waiter for a quick meal together at the corner diner a few months ago.

“She asked whether you were my father or my husband!”

We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Had a winter coat not obscured the clergy attire, the ridiculous question probably wouldn’t be asked, but if many people automatically see personal or familial connections in intergenerational combinations, and don’t think of professional ones, there is still some work to do.

More seriously, sometimes there is conflict for younger staff when changes do not come quickly enough. Young members of the parish staff grew up in a generation already well-accustomed to accepting equal roles for men and women at home and at work. In the older staff’s day, those battles were still being fought. In a church structure that can appear to remain behind in areas, it becomes difficult to keep young people energized and drawn to the church when they feel they have to fight battles that were won elsewhere decades ago.

So, do we need a preferential option for the young in our church?  We need at least to rethink a preferential deference to seniority and experience.

While we look forward to what he will say directly to youth in Brazil later this year, we do know that, on his second day as pope, Francis instructed the Cardinals of the church: “Let us give with wisdom to the youth: like good wine that improves with age, let us give the youth the wisdom of our lives.”

In turn, youth is ready to share its own wisdom, and is primed to take an active place in church life.