Discipleship Isn't as Exciting as Youth Ministry Makes It Seem

At first glance, ministry to young people in the United States is flourishing. In high school youth ministry, American Catholics attend national programs including the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC), the Steubenville and Lifeteen conferences, and mission trips. Young adult ministry, although underfunded, is active in many American dioceses. Over the course of a year, young adults can attend frequent theologies on tap, go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land or walk the Camino, attend weekly Mass with one’s peers, and go to World Youth Day. To a disinterested observer, the path toward renewing youth and young adult ministry is nothing more radical than investing even more in such programming.

The success of such ministry, at the same time, carries the seeds of its own destruction. Ministry to young people in the United States relies almost entirely on the transformative power of events. The individual is personally moved through an encounter with a colossal number of young people actively practicing faith such as at NCYC; a walk on the Camino, which produces a religious and social solidarity with one’s peers; and, a week in the foothills of Appalachia, building houses and learning to meet the hidden Christ in the poor. Such events may be good, opening the young Catholic to a transformative encounter with Jesus Christ. There is something about attending World Youth Day, recognizing in the sheer presence of Catholics throughout the globe that the Church is not reducible to a chancery office. The Church is a living, breathing body of men and women from throughout the globe.

At the same time, such events play into an insidious phenomenon of American religion. Americans tend to determine the truth-value of a religious claim through whether or not it moves the individual affections. But what happens when the effects of the powerful experience fades away? When adoration of the Eucharist is done in a small chapel, devoid of the emotional register produced at most youth conferences? When one attends weekly Mass at a parish where there are 500 non-young adult Catholics rather than 25,000 of one’s peers? When the mission trip to Guatemala is but a memory, a series of pictures on Instagram?

Such an approach to religious practice, grounded primarily in the experience of a certain register of affections, will eventually lead to many young people leaving the Church. For our lives are simply not that exciting. We adore the living God in quiet parishes, in our living rooms, in our commute on a Tuesday morning, and those daily encounters with the hungry, thirsty homeless men and women on city streets. The renewal of youth and young adult ministry must prepare the young not for transformative experiences of religious faith, of a solidarity with one’s peers that is almost out of body. Instead, the religious formation of young people must propose Catholicism as a complete hypothesis, a way of ordering one’s life that is not dependent on a totalizing experience that produces the strongest of feelings.

A New Provocation: Awakening the Religious Sense

Servant of God and founder of Communion and Liberation, Fr. Luigi Giussani, proposes a method that serves as an antidote to the emphasis on “transformative experience” characteristic of American catechesis to young people. Giussani, of course, is not against the possibility of a transformative experience. He grounds his approach to the education of the young in the integral nature of human experience:

Experience is our understanding something, discovering its meaning. To have an experience means to comprehend the meaning of something. This is done by discovering its link to everything else; thus experience means also to discover the purpose of a given thing and its function in the world.[1]

For Giussani, human experience is not separated from the flow of life. Instead, it is that which allows the person to discern the meaningful and thus mysterious character of all existence. Human beings must be taught to experience reality as gift, as a source of love.

My adaptation of Fr. Giussani’s method of education involves three dimensions: provocation, hypothesis, and verification. This method of catechesis depends on the authority of a teacher who knows his or her students, who is capable of serving as an authentic source of authority and love. It is an approach that is long-term, requiring the building of a relationship over years.

The first dimension of this method is provocation. Provocation is not equivalent to getting someone’s attention. Too often, the large events discussed above, get someone’s attention. They provoke an experience of social solidarity that is unparalleled. But the “event” fails to provoke additional questions—it stands as an experience apart from life.

Giussani’s understanding of provocation is different. The human being has been made to ask ultimate questions. What is the meaning of life? What is love? What is authentic friendship? For Giussani, each human being has this religious sense, this orientation to the ultimate that sin has not destroyed.

But, the human person also has been taught to not ask such questions. We embrace ideologies that make it impossible to wonder, to ask questions that matter. We do not ask about the meaning of life, about the nature of love, or what constitutes real friendship. Instead, we simply live our day-to-day lives, a kind of practical atheism whereby only the visible and tangible matter.

The goal of provocation is to reawaken the young person to asking questions. A good teacher provokes not through emotional manipulation but daring to ask the ultimate questions to the student. Students want to talk about the nature of love. They want to discuss friendship. They want to be provoked.

Big events can be aids to provocation. They may allow the student to enter into the kind of liminal space where they do ask the big questions. But, it is not the “event” that is the telos of such formation. It is the moment of provocation, the moment in which the student asks, “What is the meaning of life?”

Christian provocation has two key dimensions. First, provocation is always grounded in the scriptures. It is Jesus Christ who is the answer to the human heart’s deepest longings. It is the God-man, fully human and fully divine, who provokes in us the ultimate question: What does it mean to be human, now that God has dwelt among us? A “big event” approach to ministry cannot attend to the one-on-one conversations that are necessary for good provocation.

Second, provocation emphasizes beauty, silence, and contemplation. Provocation is an inward awakening, for every person has to ask the ultimate questions on his or her own. Too often, big events in ministry overwhelm the young Christian, functioning almost as a saturated phenomenon, taking away all capacity for wonder. We need to allow space for the young person to work on his or her inner life, to encounter the ultimate questions that are always present in the human heart, if only we listened. Who am I? What is my destiny? Learning to attend to these questions is not simply a task of the young adult but an essential task of Christian maturity.

A New Hypothesis: Proposing Ultimate Meaning

Catholicism, of course, is not an experience of a generic religious sense. Fr. Giussani knew this. Yes, every human being has a longing for God. But, Christianity has also proposed an ultimate hypothesis about this God as enfleshed in the Scriptures, the Creed, the sacramental life of the Church, formation of life in Christ, and the spiritual life. In other words, we have answers to the deepest questions of the human heart.

Youth and young adult ministry must propose the full hypothesis of Christianity. Too often, in such religious formation, the sole emphasis is on social solidarity. Of course, at a developmental level, young people are looking to belong. They’re looking for authentic friendship. This is a good insofar as it provokes the young person to seek in Christianity the ultimate hypothesis for life.

But, the catechist must also be capable of showing the fittingness of the hypothesis offered by Catholicism. Take the Eucharist, for example. Often, young people find it difficult to attend a Sunday Mass with boring preaching and bad music. Is it really necessary to go every week? Can’t I pray alone?

In Catholicism, the Mass offers a hypothesis that such young people need to hear. The Mass is not a private experience whereby we feed our spiritual life apart from the Church. Instead, it is within the liturgy that the absolute, total, self-giving love of the Word made flesh becomes available to us within the Church. We encounter this love in the Scriptures, in the assembly, in the singing, and most fully in the transformation of bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood. The sacrifice of the Mass is God’s exitus, the bending down of God into radical, intimate relationship with the human person. This love is available at each Mass, no matter the quality of the homily or singing (although both should probably be better!). And it is this gift of divine love, the sacrifice of the Word made flesh that brings the Church into existence as Christ’s Body.

Further, it is this indwelling of this sacrificial love in the Church that affects the salvation of the whole human family. The Mass is the sacrifice of praise offered by the whole Church. The sacrificial love of God has drawn together men and women into a communion of love, into the Church. The Church is not a gathering of like-minded individuals, who just happen to worship God together. Instead, the Mass makes the Church possible. We receive infinite love, and thus we are to become infinite love.

Every dimension of the Church’s teaching may be understood as a hypothesis, proposing to the young person a way of life that he or she could not construct on his or her own. For this reason, the catechist of young people cannot just be hip, depending on Birkenstock wearing traveling evangelists, who have not yet appropriated the depths of the Tradition. Such catechists need to not just know the rudiments of the Tradition but have a capacity to unfold its meaning for the young adult, to show the vitality of what the Church proposes.

This is not merely an intellectual task! The catechist possesses an authority grounded in his or her person. They live what they proclaim. They live what they proclaim in the community of the Church. This is what Pope Francis ultimately means by accompaniment. Accompaniment is not walking with someone, even if they walk off a cliff. Rather, we must walk with those looking for meaning, proposing the ultimate hypothesis—God is love—as manifest in our very being.

A New Verification: Become What You Receive

The main problem with the transformative event approach to youth and young adult ministry is it produces a radical gap between mundane life and religious life. Religious life is a constant epiphany. Daily life is not.

In proposing the ultimate hypothesis of the Church to the young person, it is not enough to elicit a reaction. The young person must verify the hypothesis in his or her own being. He or she must “become” what they receive.

This means that youth and young adult ministry emphasizes the need for verification. If we propose the Eucharist as offering a hypothesis of ultimate love, we have to let the young person discover the truth now on his or her own. They have to choose to go to Mass without being forced to!

Here, the task of verification once again requires accompaniment. It requires a community of young adults who can walk with one another, who can assist in the process of personal verification. At the same time, it often requires spiritual direction, a mentor who can help with the process of verification.

The work of verification, of living faith in daily life, requires turning our approach to youth and young adult ministry upside down. It is not enough to have a transformative encounter. We need to invite young people to live Christian faith in their daily lives, to discover the various ways that the hypothesis we offer in the Church does not just answer the ultimate questions. But, the hypothesis actually allows us to dwell in a world of meaning, of friendship, and of love that produces a whole new culture.

Verification, in Giussani, is integrally linked to the problem of culture. Too many evangelization movements, particularly those addressed to the young, are exclusively concerned with the salvation of individual Christians. Language such as “winning souls for Christ” exhibits this sclerotic focus on individual salvation, a misreading of the “personal” nature of the encounter with Christ as an individual encounter. But, the Gospel is not meant just for the appropriation of individual Christians, who are saved as isolated monads apart from the rest of humanity. Evangelization is always about the creation of a culture, a world in which the ultimate hypothesis offered by Christianity becomes flesh in education, art, music, and even sport. As Giussani writes at the conclusion of his The Risk of Education:

The cultural phenomenon . . . becomes a journey of recognition, a path of affection, and a process of appropriating and using reality for one’s own purposes. In so doing, one becomes an adult and in turn generates newness in history. Depending on the type of image projected and the type of encounter made, one will in turn awaken the same reaction in others.[2]

This verification is, of course, a moment of risk, not simply because it opens up the possibility that the ultimate hypothesis of love unto the end may be rejected. It is a risk because it means that Christian culture will and must develop. This culture is not a monolithic reality, meant to be used as a source of security erected against the barbarians on the hill. It is the task of each generation to propose anew this hypothesis to our age and to develop those cultural resources that mediate such an encounter.


Ministry and teaching to young people requires a renewal, ironically one that makes such ministry less focused on the stages of adolescence or emerging adulthood unto itself. Such ministry has placed a good deal of attention on the role of social solidarity, attempting to spur young Catholics to an affective experience that leads to conversion. But this approach, reaping some early benefits in the lives of the young, is insufficient. It results in a faith that is easily left behind once such affections disappear.

Fr. Giussani’s approach to educating the young may serve as a way out of a pedagogy focused primarily on the affections. As a Church, we have too often separated the problems of youth from the adult world, a separation that at times is unfolding at the Synod in Rome. In reality, young people want exactly what adults want—a proposal of an ultimate meaning, a sense of the ordering of life, which can make sense of friendship, life, death, disappointment, love, and their destiny in the world. They want a culture that can support them in this form of life, a day-to-day program for ordering existence to the sacrifice of love revealed in the Word made flesh. It is not the fault of the young that they have not encountered this culture. It is ours. As Fr. Julian Carron, Fr. Giussani’s successor as head of Communion and Liberation, writes in Disarming Beauty, “Education is not the kids’ problem; it is the adults’ problem, our problem. Only if we adults have this engagement with the real in its totality can we communicate a meaning.”[3]

The renewal of ministry to the young in the Church will not be the result of rare liminal events in the life of a young person. It will be immersion into a culture, an encounter with the mystery of love at the heart of existence. Large events will have a role in this project. But, they will be but a moment of provocation, spurring the young to enter more deeply into the experience of Christian life—an integral, quotidian but transformative way of ordering our lives as disciples.

If we want a New Evangelization, in the end, we need a new culture for new models of lifelong discipleship.

[1] Luigi Giussani, The Risk of Education: Discovering Our Ultimate Destiny, trans. Rosanna M. Giammanco Frongia (New York: Crossroad, 2013), 98-99.

[2] Ibid., 120.

[3] Fr. Julian Carron, Disarming Beauty: Essays on Faith, Truth, and Freedom (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 162.

Featured Image: Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Scale, 1664; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Timothy O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, where he also serves as Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He teaches and researches at Notre Dame in the areas of liturgical-sacrmental theology, catechesis, and aesthetics. He is the author of numerous articles and books, most recently, the forthcoming Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA.

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