By Daniel S. Mulhall
“God Is Young: A Conversation with Thomas Leoncini” by Pope Francis. Random House (New York, 2018). 128 pp., $26.
“The Art of Forming Young Disciples: Why Youth Ministries Aren’t Working and What to Do About It” by Everett Fritz. Sophia Institute Press (Manchester, New Hampshire, 2018). 115 pp. $14.95.
The statistics are staggering: Roughly one-third of young Catholics in the United States leave the church before their 18th birthday.
Understandably, those who work with them are very concerned by the numbers and are engaged in conversations about what can be done to stem the tide of those departing, and to bring back those who have left. These two books are a welcome contribution to that conversation.
Prior to the 2018 Vatican synod on young adults, Pope Francis sat down with Thomas Leoncini to reflect on some of the issues facing young adults today, and what the church can do to help the young with these issues.
The book is composed of questions from Leoncini followed by the pope’s responses. Although not a systematic presentation, as will be found in the papal exhortation that will be published from the synod, this work presents an informative look into Pope Francis’ thinking on the topic — and an enjoyable read.
The pope provides insights to a broad spectrum of people concerned with young adults.
To parents, he suggests that they be tender, listen carefully, take their children seriously and be willing to guide them as they make decisions. For youth ministers and educators, he says we are to inspire young people, helping them accomplish their dreams. Educators are to “spare no effort” so that young adults can discover their potential. To do this, youth ministry and education “cannot use a teaching model that is merely scholastic.” As a church we must help them be “ambitious, courageous, anti-conformist, and revolutionary young people who show tenderness.”
The drawback to this book is that some of Leoncini’s questions tend to be long and complicated. Pope Francis usually finds a way of getting to the heart of the question. His responses are always on target.
Everett Fritz’s “The Art of Forming Young Disciples” offers suggestions for creating youth ministry programs that will make disciples. He correctly notes that we expect young people “to learn to participate in the world of adults, but our culture has largely removed adults from mentoring roles with teenagers.” For this reason, young people have difficulty with the “responsibilities and expectations that come with being adults.”
Fritz’s solution is to create small disciple-forming groups. His approach to doing this is very creative and replicable in other places. They echo much of what Pope Francis suggests.
When speaking of his own work in youth ministry, Fritz is on solid ground. But when he veers off to attack Catholic higher education and other youth ministry efforts at forming disciples, he displays a lack of knowledge and understanding of the field.
It is one thing to point out the problems with some youth groups and the challenges faced by college campus ministers, but that does not mean that there are not many excellent ministers and formation programs in parishes, dioceses, and yes, Catholic higher education across the United States. They may not meet Fritz’s ideal, but they are there and doing wonderful work. Fritz acknowledges in the last few pages that there are many ways to do youth ministry. Recognizing this sooner would have addressed many of the concerns raised here.
Both of these books offer valuable insights for anyone concerned about ministry to youth and young adults and are worth reading.
Mulhall is a catechist living in Louisville, Kentucky.