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Youth When the Church Was Young

The Church Fathers had a distinctive approach to youth ministry.

Now, don’t jump to conclusions. I haven’t uncovered any evidence that St. Ambrose led teens on ski trips in the nearby Alps. Nor is there anything to suggest that St. Basil sponsored junior-high dances in Pontus. (There’s not even a hint of a pizza party.) In fact, if you check all the documentary evidence from all the ancient patriarchates of the East and the West, you won’t find a single bulletin announcement for a single parish youth group.

Yet the Fathers had enormous success in youth and young-adult ministry. Many of the early martyrs were teens, as were many of the Christians who took to the desert for the solitary life. There’s ample evidence that a disproportionate number of conversions, too, came from the young and youngish age groups.

How did the Fathers do it?

They made wild promises.

They promised young people great things, like persecution, lower social status, public ridicule, severely limited employment opportunities, frequent fasting, a high risk of jail and torture, and maybe, just maybe, an early, violent death at the hands of their pagan rulers.

The Fathers looked young people in the eye and called them to live purely in the midst of a pornographic culture. They looked at some young men and women and boldly told them they had a calling to virginity. And it worked. Even the pagans noticed how well it worked.

The brightest young man in the empire’s brightest city — a teenager named Origen of Alexandria — promised himself entirely to God in virginity. And, as he watched his father taken away to be killed, Origen would have gone along himself, turned himself in, if his mother hadn’t hidden all his clothes …

Search all the volumes on the ancient liturgies, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a scrap of a Mass we’d call “relevant” today. We know of no special Youth Masses. Yet there was an overwhelming eucharistic faith among the young people of the Church.

Tarcisius was a boy of third-century Rome. His virtue and devotion were so strong that the clergy trusted him to bring the Blessed Sacrament to the sick. Once, while carrying a pyx, he was recognized and set upon by a pagan mob. They flung themselves upon him, trying to pry the pyx from his hands. They wanted more than anything to profane the Sacrament. Tarcisius’ biographer, the fourth-century Pope Damasus, compared them to a pack of rabid dogs. Tarcisius “preferred to give up his life rather than yield up the Body of Christ.”

Even at such an early age, Tarcisius was aware of the stakes. Jesus had died for love of Tarcisius. Tarcisius did not hesitate to die for love of Jesus.

What made the Church attractive in the third century can make it just as attractive in the twenty-first. In the ancient world and in ours, young people want a challenge. They want to love with their whole being. They’re willing to do things the hard way — if people they respect look them in the eye and make the big demands. These are distinguishing marks of youth. You don’t find too many middle-aged men petitioning the Marines for a long stay at Parris Island. It’s young men who beg for that kind of rigor.

No young man or woman really wants to give his life away cheaply. Tarcisius knew better. So do the kids in our parishes.

If you’re interested in tracing the footsteps of St. Tarcisius and visiting the tomb of Damasus, consider joining me and my colleagues from the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology as we lead a pilgrimage to Rome in May of 2007. I’ll be there with Scott and Kimberly Hahn and others. We’ll have guided tours, classes and talks, daily Mass, and lots of slack-jawed, awestruck moments in the city of the martyrs and popes — a city of eternal youth. If you’re interested in joining us, drop me a note with your contact information, and I’ll inform you as soon as our plans firm up.

33 thoughts on “Youth When the Church Was Young

  1. […] Youth When the Church Was Young. […]

  2. Having grown up in the felt banner “Jesus is a groovy guy” era of catechetics I can testify to the erosion of faith by young people due to the shallow manner in which the material was presented. Had we been fed the fullness of the truth, the hard stuff too, things would have been different.

  3. In my youth we were taught about the martyrs. Most of us knew about St. Tarcisius, St. Agnes, and others. Pity this generation that does not know about the heroes of the faith and therefore have no role models to imitate!

  4. I require all my new altar servers to know about St. Tarsisius. I hope he leaves an impression on them.

  5. I grew up in the Spirit of Vatican II&trade church in America, and am only now, in my thirties, rectifying the poor catechesis of my youth. It’s amazing how little was taught, or how weakly it was taught, and you can tell by the state of the Church in America. We are once again in a decadent, amoral society of pluriform false gods, so now is the time to preach the entirety of the Gospel, the Good News, and the Hard News.

  6. I grew up during the 60’s and was infected with the “spirit of vatican II” virus. Sadly, this has left most of my generation (myself included) with a spiritual paralysis that ranges from a slight inability to kneel all they way to apostasy.

    Pray that the Church soon orders all the children be given a shot of the “Truth on Vatican II” vaccine.

  7. Youth have never responded to a “Christ of compromises”. It is the falsehood of comprmise in many of the separated churches that has driven people from Sunday worship and an active faith life. The Church may well have to shrink and contract and grow again in the spirit of a new evangelization. When the Truth seems easy to accept, chances are there is some error.

  8. What a great piece of writing. Being in my 40s I too grew up with the Beatles/Simon and Garfunkel liturgy. It didn’t really woo my peers as we were all into punk rock. We thought using pop tunes was just a con to try and get us into the Church’s clutches. When I see kids at yOuth 2000 actually wanting to go to Adoration and Benediction and pray the Rosary – I know the 60s70s approach was fundamentally flawed. Youth relevant liturgy is a joke – most youths in the UK want to get drunk and sleep around and smoke dope. You can’t make church relevant to that you have to offer the true challenge of the Gospel.

  9. “They promised young people great things, like persecution, lower social status, public ridicule, severely limited employment opportunities, frequent fasting, a high risk of jail and torture, and maybe, just maybe, an early, violent death at the hands of their pagan rulers.”

    I’ll have to keep this in mind when I am a youth minister! ;-)

  10. I remember reading this in Laywitness, Mike. Great article. I always flip to the back and read you first.

  11. You’re peachy, Christina. Thanks for your kind words. Lay Witness is really a must-subscribe for folks who love the Fathers:

  12. Good stuff. Notice the bishops didn’t seem to say to the “youth” (whatever that was or is) that they are the “future of the church”. They aren’t now or then the “future” of anything, but like adults are just Christians.

  13. […] I chanced across this blog today, written by Mike Aquilina, who is an author of several books that we carry. […]

  14. What! No pizza? Kidding aside, I hope to teach my children the truth and the beauty of our Faith. My goal, and my vocation, is to help them become Saints first and foremost. If they end up going to the best colleges and landing the best jobs and making the most money – fine, as long as they don’t lose their souls in the process. As heartbreaking as it would be, I would rather see them beggars in the streets and holy than millionaires on their way to Hell. It takes challenging them to grow in their faith to attain such a goal, and Teen Mass or whatever the latest fad is, isn’t going to do it.

  15. I’ve been in full-time youth ministry for eleven years and one of my drum beats is that Jesus and the Gospel are not enhancements to one’s life. All those “making things relevant” approaches seem to believe just that, when in reality Jesus promised suffering, crosses, family division, to go along with the peace which the world cannot give.

  16. “…you’ll be hard pressed to find a scrap of a Mass we’d call “relevant” today.”

    I still find the Sacrifice of the Mass very “relevant” today, although many parts are very difficult to recognize and the “Sacrifice” part is certainly downplayed.

    If it’s properly explained to the youth, they will only appreciate it more.

  17. I am no youngster, just turned 70. It’s strange but it is Vatican II, the Cursillo movement, charismatic movement, that made my faith relevant and vibrant. I agree that the 60-70’s generation, (our children), got cheated as to real Catholic identity. Perhaps it was the lack of challenge that kept them from embracing the real faith of the early Christians. I see them coming back now. I can’t blame Vatican II. Blessed John 23rd was inspired by the Spirit to move as he did. Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Take the good and give it the challenge it needs.

  18. Gah! Truth… washing away lies… must absorb as much as possible… soul… being cleansed…

    Whew! That’s very refreshing!

  19. Maybe, someday, the bishops/cardinals will set the example of white martyrdom for the youth.

  20. I am ‘trackback illiterate’… but I’ve linked to this! Fabulous.

  21. Beautiful.

    Saint Tarcisius (after whom our group of altar servers was named) is one of my favorite saints.

  22. Lots of truth but let’s not pretend that demonizing people from previous generations is what the Lord is calling us to do today. I’m sure my catechists in the 70’s and many Church leaders were doing what they believed would effectively bring the gospel to the young people of that day. We know now that things went too far and thanks be to God, a corrective is underway. Our Catholic tradition is most faithful to Christ when we begin with charity and respect for one another. This kind of article wraps a much needed message in a lot of finger pointing. Many comments follow that same approach. How about we serve pizza if that gets teens in the door and preach/teach the truth when we have them. How about we learn from the successes and failures of the past and reread the Vatican II documents again for ourselves. Every time I pray over those teachings I am profoundly challenged. The Holy Spirit that inspired the Council is far more conservative and progressive, traditional and innovative that all of our ideas combined. In humility, I say thank you to all those who struggled to be faithful to the Holy Spirit then and continue to do so now. I know that ultimately that is one goal we all share.

  23. In the words of J. Alfred Prufrock: That isn’t what I meant … at all. I have profound respect for the work of youth ministers. And many of them are the very people asking the hard questions of today’s kids. Sometimes, however, we do overemphasize the pizza at the expense of the real stuff. And sometimes we say we can’t do youth ministry because we don’t have a budget. Those ancients didn’t have a budget either. For the record: Some of my best friends are youth ministers, and I’ve never met a demonic ym in my life.

  24. Sounds like the Fathers knew how to live out the scripture of St. Peter’s first healing in Acts when he basically said “Dude, look, I’m flat broke, but rise up in the name of Jesus Christ.” Sometimes you can do your best work when you completely run out of resources and have to fall back on the power you have as a child of God who can call down legions of angels.

  25. Will, Look no further than the late great Cardinal O’Connor of New York. What a man. Pray for more like that.

  26. The Patristic-Driven Youth Ministry…

    The Way of the Fathers has a great post on the Patristic-era youth ministry: Now, don’t jump to conclusions. I haven’t uncovered any evidence that St. Ambrose led teens on ski trips in the nearby Alps. Nor is there anything……

  27. Sorry if I missed it, but is this not the approach to youth ministry employed by the Dead Theologians Society? If you are unfamiliar look up (be sure you don’t omit one of the two consecutive ‘s’)

    From all reports, parishes where this is used are also producing fruits like one might expect in th early church – vocations, dedication, commitment, desire for holiness and sanctity.

  28. Youth Ministry in the Young Church…

    Posted from Starbucks in Granite City. Brought to you by T-Mobile Wi-Fi and a grande mocha. God bless Mike Aquilina. Suzanne and I happily give his book Living the Mysteries to new members of the Church that we know each year at Easter Vigil. And this …

  29. […] After Shane Raynor posted on worship, and I posted about his post, considerable discussion followed. I’d like to add Youth When the Church was Young (hat tip Locusts and Honey post on the topic), which talks about youth taking on real Christianity. I would like to challenge the concept that worship must be either entertaining or filled with content. I think worship can be enjoyable, educational, and really be about God, all at the same time. Perhaps I’ll have to write some more on this topic. In the meantime, reading about youth in the early church may challenge some preconceptions! […]

  30. Who had a huge influence on Children’s Liturgies? Annibale Bugnini (Freemason). Michael Davies masterfully showed how Bugnini started to erode the Novus Ordo beginning with the children’s liturgies. One of his first innovations was “guitar Masses.” If we know this truth, then why don’t we expose it and clean up the whole mess.

  31. The Council ended when I was in the 3rd Grade. We had Baltimore Catechism Grades 1-3 in Catholic school. In the 4th Grade we had a new Religion book with “hip” pictures of kids having fun. It was all about how religion made us “feel.” It was a psychological approach. Even at age 9, my class was sensing a different type of catechesis and we were BORED! We doodled in our Religion books and called them “dumb.” By High School (I was in CCD) we were crying out for “substance” in our catechetics. Rather, we were analysing the lyrics to “Bridge Over Troubled Waters and discussing the Vietnam War. Not a mention of Jesus Christ in a whole 4 years of CCD! I finally gave up and joined a Protestant Bible study group at my high school. Today I attend the Traditional Mass. A long quest led me to the “fullness of the truth & faith.” Many, sadly, lost the way or gave up the search.

  32. The orininal posting of this topic has the signiture of Christian pedagogy hidden behind it. The formal Greek term is paideia. Werner Jaeger in his “Early Christianity and Greek Paideia” opens out his life time studies into Greek and Jewish paideia. We are apostilic animals. We teach out children. Or, as St. Paul said: What do you have that you have not recieved? We are all teachers at heart; and the young are the first to learn. But the process continues all our life. Thank God.

  33. First met St.Tarcisius when I was 7yrs old, then, as an adult, he was instrumental in my accepting the awsome privilege of becoming a Eucharistic minister!!

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