Landry: Youth ministers are like the triage nurses of the Church

28 January 2020

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Last week after an unfortunate encounter with a tin can, I went to my local hospital’s emergency room for a couple of stitches.  It was a pretty busy night in the ER and, like everyone else who came through, I began my time there with a visit to the triage nurse.  A triage nurse notes your complaints, takes your vital signs, and gets you into the queue to see the doctor – the more serious your symptoms, the higher up in the queue you go in order to see the doctor.

From what I’ve seen in various emergency rooms over the course of many visits for myself and for my kids, these nurses have to be prepared to deal with just about anything from minor complaints to life-and-death scenarios. Many patients are polite and understanding, but I often see them dealing with others who are not.

What all of this means is that, as front-line workers serving the wide variety of people and needs who enter an emergency room, triage nurses (like most health care providers) need to have rich understanding of the human body and many of its ailments, to be able to provide an appropriate response in a critical situation, and to be able to do their work with professionalism and compassion – something I’m glad to be able to say I’ve encountered again and again in the emergency rooms I’ve had to visit.

It might seem like a strange comparison, but I think we might look at the role of those who serve in Catholic youth ministry through a similar lens. A few years ago, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops published a document titled You Give Them Something to Eat updating a vision of what Catholic youth ministry can look like. This document, written by youth ministers, took its title from Luke 9:12-17, the feeding of the five thousand.

As you’ll likely recall, Jesus had been teaching a great crowd and towards the end of the day, the apostles told Jesus that the crowd needed to be dismissed to find food for themselves.  Jesus responded that the apostles ought to “give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13).  From a meagre collection – five loaves and two fish, Jesus fed the crowd with plenty left over.  In asking them to provide for the needs of the crowd, Jesus invited the apostles “to become his partners in ministry, feeding and attending to the needs of the many people who had gathered” (YGSE, v).  One might say that not all pastoral ministry in the Church is our answering of this invitation to minister to the needs of “the many” and whatever their needs might be.

When it comes to youth ministry, this call asks us to serve young people of many different ages. Some parishes begin youth ministry with a children’s program for some of their youngest members. Most have a focus on youth in their pre-teen and teenage years.  Quite often as young people get older, the ministry grows to include young adults up to age 35 (who can be single or married, with or without kids).

Beyond the differences that age brings, their spiritual formation can vary from being extremely strong to being practically non-existent. Some show up only because it provides a safe space to seek a healthy community. Others bring with them existential questions about life, God, the Church, and their place in this world.  Still others come bearing tremendous burdens and wounds they’ve received from a variety of places. On the whole it would be safe to say that our young people are spiritually hungry – and some are starving.

As front-line workers serving such a broad demographic of the people of God, it’s reasonable to expect youth ministers to have a rich understanding of both youth culture and the teaching of the Church, to be able to provide an appropriate response to critical situations, and to do all of this with both professionalism and compassion for those they are called to serve.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have had good mentors and good training from a variety of sources. My parish priests have been my strongest advocates, supporters, and mentors in ministry. Thanks to them, I was given the opportunity to study theology at both Newman Theological College and Franciscan University.  I was able to receive a certificate in youth ministry through a program offered by LIFE TEEN, who also provided me with ongoing training throughout the 10 years I worked in a parish. More recently, I’ve found community through the Western Canadian Association of Catholic Youth Ministers (WCACYM) who have sought to provide training, support, and advocacy for the work youth ministers do in our communities.

In a utopian Church, we wouldn’t need youth ministry. As parents, we would be able to perfectly fulfil our role as primary educators in the faith (CCC 2223) and young people, in turn, would fully embrace their call of God to be committed and active members of the Christian community in whatever state of life and/or vocation that might be.

But as triage nurses understand all too well … life can be a bit messy.  This is why we have emergency rooms: to meet the real, urgent needs people present to the triage nurse.  And in much the same way as a triage nurse can question, assess, and get us to a doctor, we are blessed to have many people who’ve dedicated a period of their lives – either as a paid employee or a volunteer – to meet the needs of our beloved young people and to bring them to Christ and the Church.

Not all of them have readily found the same opportunities I did for mentorship, training, and formation.  So I’d ask you to please pray that those who minister to youth in your community would find the support they need to do good ministry, and that those whom they serve would have a profound encounter with the Divine Physician and enter wholeheartedly into the life of the Church.

“The aspiration that humanity nurtures, amid countless injustices and sufferings, is the hope of a new civilization marked by freedom and peace. But for such an undertaking, a new generation of builders is needed. Moved not by fear or violence but by the urgency of genuine love, they must learn to build, brick by brick, the city of God within the city of man.  Allow me, dear young people, to consign this hope of mine to you: you must be those builders!”
– St. John Paul II at World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto

— Mike Landry is chaplain to Evergreen Catholic Schools west of Edmonton, and serves as an occasional guest speaker and music minister in communities across Western Canada. Mike and his wife Jennifer live in Stony Plain, Alta. with their five children.