Building a New Church: Mentor the Young


Let’s begin with a story. Not about the Christmas Eve band pictured above (though they are a fine band–that comes later).

In 1988 I went to Sunday Mass in a rural parish in which I served on weekends for several months in ’83-’84. A mother and son approached me after liturgy, introduced themselves, and thanked me.

When I was at this parish, a suggestion was floated to have a children’s choir for Christmas Eve Mass. I never had directed a kid’s group before, but okay, I thought, let’s try this. It could be interesting. I had eight ot nine kids, I think. A college woman came home from break and played the flute and directed one piece I accompanied on guitar. I remember pulling out the Lutheran hymn “Vom Himmel Hoch,” and arranging it in a dialogue between an adult singer (the angel verses) and the children.

I remember being a bit embarassed about a young person, “Erin,” I thought, who was small and quiet. I learned on Christmas that Aaron was the only boy in the chorus of girls. I remember him for being at every practice, for singing with intent, for following directions, and that I had almost erred a few times in calling him out as a girl.

It turned out that my little choir wasn’t so long-forgotten. Four years later, Aaron explained that he sang in the middle school chorus and played the trombone. What did I do? Not much, I thought. I just encouraged him. I mistook him for a girl.

His mom wanted me to know it was the starting experience for his musical life and she picked me out of a crowded church to say so.

Lots of discussion here and elsewhere about the supposed decline of the Catholic Church. Thanks for that, though I do wish those who disagree with me felt more welcome to chime in and tell me where I might be–or actually am–wrong.

It’s relatively easy to complain about how bad things are. It’s another thing to actually do something about it.

Being on a parish staff for the past twenty-plus years, it’s been mostly my mission to do something. I’d like to begin an extended series of posts on what’s worked for me or ideas I’ve longed to try, or what I hear from my colleagues.

First a word about anecdotes: they illustrate what worked in one instance in one place and with a particular person or group of people. They do not constitute “proof” that I’m right.

The commonality in these anecdotes is that I’ve tried to bring my “intentional” expression of faith and leadership into pastoral ministry. Communities are successful not as much for their perceived orthodoxy or liberal qualities as they are for their intentionality and commitment to the Gospel. The Holy Spirit loves to work with that: people will come from all over to get a piec eof that kind of action.

To many music directors, having a high school student bring an alto sax to choir practice is a headache. If you know your wind instruments, you’ll know you can’t give the kid the instrument book, not even the B-flat parts, and say, “Go play.” 

Every so often an E-flat transposing instrument comes my way. I believe it is my job to welcome that person, run my instrument computer files through a transposer, and go over music carefully. It’s a bit more than what many, or even most of my colleagues would bother with.

The young man in the image above, third from the left, plays alto sax for me regularly. I’m lucky that he can read untransposed scores. He’s probably one of the best two or three high school musicians I’ve ever worked with: he plays with nuance; he reads well; he takes direction; he can improvise; he’s willing to try anything. Best of all: he loves music.

I don’t know if he loves Jesus more than his music. But he’s in a place where he can explore that, be exposed to it, soak it in.

One of the things the pastor is proud of in my new parish is the numbers of priest vocations have been developed as students have come through our doors. In sixty-two years of the Catholic Student Center, it’s been between a dozen and twenty. I can’t get a straight answer out of anybody–depends on whom I ask.

Just as impressive are the many visitors who come back and chat with staff. Their baptismal call is lived out in remarkable ways, from the heroic–mission service overseas, to the ordinary–with new families, just living the lay apostolate in the world.

If the Catholic Church is prepared to welcome young people where they offer themselves, then one big step would be taken. Unfortunately, many parishes see young people as annoying or bothersome. But it isn’t enough to set up a ghetto (youth ministry) and hire a sitter (youth minister).

What can the ordinary parishioner do? Imagine if every parish adult adopted an adolescent: brought them to the KC or women’s group meeting, attended sporting events or concerts, suggested they serve at a soup kitchen together, signed up for adoration together, developed a mutuality in friendship.

The problem with Catholicism isn’t that dissenters have taken over the chanceries and major parishes. The problem is that not enough Catholics have “taken over;” we’re just too passive. Maybe I’m overly critical for saying “too passive.” Honestly, I just don’t think enough Catholics think in terms of reaching out as a person of faith.

I was talking with my wife about mentoring somebody earlier today in the car. From the back seat, the young miss asked what a mentor was. One-on-one being with someone, I said, helping them, listening to them, answering their questions, teaching them and learning a bit from them. Something we Catholics need to do more often.

My friends look pretty good, don’t they? They might have been nearly unique as an ensemble anywhere in the world for a Catholic Christmas Eve liturgy: trumpet, violin, alto sax, flute, euphonium, guitar.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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6 Responses to Building a New Church: Mentor the Young

  1. Gavin says:

    I think you’re right on that. A big problem is compartmentalizing the young. I say rather do as you describe: get them involved with the old people, interacting with them directly. That will give them something to live up to, rather than interacting with a 30 year old who acts like a 16 year old.

    As for music, a children’s choir is the way to go, but even there you should try for some interaction with adults. Once in a while, combine groups: maybe men and boys or women and girls, or even a large “massed choir”.

    I’m not one for bringing in pre-high school instrumentalists unless they really do have a lot of talent. However, there are many middle school children with fantastic voices; they must be invited to cantor (particularly if you have the cantor in a loft). That gives the music director a chance to work one-on-one with the student and teach them about musicianship and encourage them personally.

    It’s all about the one-on-one relationship with kids. And not forcing your views on them (“Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if women could be priests!!”) or pretending to be one of them, but rather just listening to them and being an example.

  2. Tony says:

    What can the ordinary parishioner do? Imagine if every parish adult adopted an adolescent: brought them to the KC or women’s group meeting, attended sporting events or concerts, suggested they serve at a soup kitchen together, signed up for adoration together, developed a mutuality in friendship.

    In this liberal witch hunt for child abusers (or is that only priests?) what would happen is that the adult who took a special interest in an adolescent would be looked on wish suspicion that is just not worth is especially to a man.

    So men mentoring young, unrelated men in the parish would remind people of priests “taking a special interest” in that young man who just sued the diocese.

    No thanks.

    We have a couple of high school girls in our adult choir (always in a group setting). That’s as far as I’m willing to go, thanks.

  3. Anne says:

    We had a discussion concerning youth and ministries at a recent parish meeting. Someone asked why young people are not getting involved. I brought up this article below and spoke about the good advice and suggestions. A woman spoke up and said….”Well I’m against it. The kids today are just not reliable!”
    Well, I for one am not giving up…much work to be done!
    Here’s the article from “Pastoral Liturgy”…hope the link works:

  4. Mollie says:

    Oh, for heaven’s sake. In my parish it’s the adults who aren’t reliable! At least with kids it’s easier to impress upon them the necessity of showing up when they’re expected.

  5. Matthew Meloche says:

    My assistant and I always stop our children’s choir rehearsal 10 minutes early. Some of the kids would prefer to sing the extra 10 minutes, but we keep it open so that if anyone wants to play or sing a song they’ve learned they’re more than welcomed to share it with the group. Sometimes it’s a piano piece, or other instrumental piece or a round they learned to sing in their music class. Then we end with a prayer that includes a litany for their intentions at the end. I think they really appreciate both the time to show off their artistic ventures (though sometimes we get some very “experimental” pieces…) and a place to pray for their own intentions.

  6. Matthew Meloche says:

    Like Todd, I’d never allow myself to be alone with a child. My assistant is always with me at rehearsals, and if a child comes up to me after Mass or rehearsal I always make sure others are around. No children under 18 are allowed to come to my office. If they come during my office hours, I meet them in the waiting room and talk with them there.

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