Have youth festivals had their day?
"...At the heart of our Catholic identity is our sacramental life. Sacraments are celebrated in parish. There seems to be an extraordinarily obvious disconnect then when these festivals are delivered outside of the parish paradigm..."
In December, thousands of young people gathered at Homebush for the launch of the Year of Youth. Facilitated by the Sydney Archdiocese on behalf of the Australian Church, the Australian Catholic Youth Festival and Opening Mass heralded what is hoped to be a turning point in youth evangelisation. The Year of Youth rightly signals the importance of listening to young people and including them in the planning for our future.
I must admit I was challenged that we opened the Year of Youth with another super-Eucharist and festival. We have years of experience with World Youth Days and I think most would admit that these experiences, while incredible events, on the whole do not result in young people being engaged with parish life in any deeper way as a consequence of attendance. Certainly kids return from their participation full of the Spirit. Unfortunately, when their experience of parish does not measure up to their WYD euphoria, they are swift to vote with their feet. In many cases, World Youth Day participants fall away from parish life in less than 12 months.
Of course this failure-rate is understandable because there is no way parishes can compete with the resources of diocesan-wide celebrations. Festivals can promote an understanding of church that is not necessarily helpful for the evangelisation of young people and sustaining their roles in parish. Festivals promote a bolt-on approach, where the needs of youth are separate from the lives of the rest of the community (and in some ways valued over the other needs of others).
I wonder what causes us to continue with the festival model? Is it the opportunity that we can point to thousands of young people gathered for Eucharist, excited that at that moment, we are affecting young people in a real, tangible way? Could it be that festivals provide our leaders an important opportunity to directly evangelise youth? Perhaps it is just the practicality of pooling our resources for an experience worthy of youth evangelisation.
Whatever the reason, I think we need to contemplate the possibility that this model does not provide the results we desire: long-term evangelisation of young people, the success of which is measured by their participation in sacramental communities. At the heart of our Catholic identity is our sacramental life. Sacraments are celebrated in parish. There seems to be an extraordinarily obvious disconnect then when these festivals are delivered outside of the parish paradigm.
Ministering to young people at parish level is difficult because it is often under-resourced. I hear that the Australian Catholic Youth Festival and opening YOY Eucharist in Sydney cost millions. I wonder what parishes could have done with a slice of that budget? Parish innovation could have been a much more effective strategy because parishes are not burdened by a large point-in-time event. Grassroots initiatives could have been developed across the year with that budget. Imagine having capital to pay a part-time parish youth worker! Perhaps the budget could have been used to resource young people in creating their own projects. The point is there are other models to explore.
There is no-doubting that youth festivals are significant, key moments in young people's lives. I believe though that where possible including young people AND the parish in relationship must always be a better alternative because there is a pathway beyond the identity of "youth".
Could it be time to rethink how we evangelise young people by including our parishes? If we keep on doing what we have always done, nothing is going to change. I think the Year of Youth could be a good opportunity to start doing things differently.
Festivals only consider part of the equation for evagelisation of young people. We know from countless studies, the largest determining factor for young people coming to church is their family's involvement in parish life. Considering the needs of young people seems to be only part of the equation. Parishes in the United States are now harnessing this research and are including whole families in Sacramental preparation. Can we learn from this? Could we shift focus from 'youth initiatives' to 'family initiatives'?
We also need to face some harsh realities about our liturgical practice. Young people tell us that 'Mass is boring'. I am not sure we need a 'youth Mass' every weekend. I do think 'boring' can often mean, 'does not make sense' or 'I am disconnected'. This then becomes about holistic reform rather than reform for young people. I would bet that the liturgical issues our young people would raise would be seconded by most, if not all! Let's use the wisdom of our young people to revitalise what we do. We need to better resource music in our parishes. We need great preachers and excellent hospitality. This is not a 'youth' issue, it is an 'us' issue!
Youth festivals gather young people, full of Spirit, deeply engaged in 'Project Church'. For this we are thankful (and relieved). We need to ensure that this engagement is sustainable and I believe this is only achievable by including our parishes in the design and implementation of youth evangelisation.