Outreach to youth, young adults and college students is a major priority of the Catholic Church in Central and Eastern Kentucky, and makes this local Church especially appealing for Michael Bayer, whom the Catholic Diocese of Lexington recently brought aboard as the new Director of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministry. A native of the Philadelphia suburbs and a graduate of Georgetown University and The Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, Michael Bayer has served in campus and youth ministry contexts at the campus, parish and diocesan level. He comes to Lexington from Chicago, where he most recently served as pastoral associate of a large parish on the city’s north side.
He spoke with Cross Roads about his sense of the challenges facing not only youth ministry, but the entire Church today, as well as his vision for a Church that models authenticity to young people today:
Cross Roads: What drew you to youth ministry as a vocation?
Michael Bayer: I’ve had the blessing of working in all three areas that encompass my new role: youth ministry, young adult ministry, and college campus ministry. While inherently interrelated, each is also a distinct ministry in the Church. During my own high school years, I was part of a dynamic, grassroots, teen-driven youth ministry, and when I went to college, I was profoundly shaped by every aspect of Georgetown’s Catholic, Jesuit identity, including liturgies, retreats, and the personal accompaniment of mentors in the faith. I had thought that my vocation would lead me through a doctoral program and into academia, but while I was serving as Campus Minister at the University of Michigan, the Holy Spirit really touched my heart.
I had always enjoyed reading, writing, and inhabiting the intellectual space of Catholicism, but to be able to help a young person work through—the Biblical account of the Israelites wandering in the desert, or the documents of the Second Vatican Council, or the witness of a saint like Maximilian Kolbe — what does any of this have to do with me, practically, as a 19 or 20 year old? That is where I felt God was calling me.
CR: What are the major challenges facing the Church from the perspective of your work?
MB: What’s the word limit on this article? Can we make it a two-parter?
The biggest challenges facing the Church are within the Church, in my opinion. It’s us. It’s our collective institutional failure to preach the Gospel of Jesus and embody it with our lived witness in a compelling, coherent, and compassionate way. It’s as simple as that.
Many people want to look outside the Church to identify the reason why so many young people are walking away from organized religion—people will blame everything from secularism to AAU sports to the supposed infiltration of “woke” ideologies in schools.
And certainly there might be some truth to at least some of those things. The rise of competitive youth sports, along with music, theater, dance, and a bevy of extracurricular activities, have certainly left young people with less free time than they had 30 years ago. But, in my experience, that’s not why a young person stops showing up to Mass, seeking guidance from the Church, or believing in the existence of God.
Rather, many young people see hypocrisy and dissonance between the teachings of Jesus and the lived witness of contemporary Christians.
They hear the words of the Scriptures commanding us to welcome immigrants, yet see how many Christians in this country turn a blind eye to immigrants in cages at the U.S. border.
They listen to the Psalmist proclaim that God knit each of us in our mother’s womb, that every person is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” in the image of God, but that LGBTQ+ persons are somehow disordered.
They hear during Holy Week how women refused to leave the foot at the cross on Good Friday and how women were the first witnesses to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, and yet they look around and wonder why women’s voices do not appear to be lifted up.
If there is a challenge that is “out there,” it is that young people are immersed in a dominant culture marked by consumerism, egocentrism, and a political tribalism of “us” vs. “them.” A culture increasingly defined by technology and smartphones, with realities like cyber-bullying and the pressure to send photos of themselves — this is certainly a new challenge, but it is also an opportunity.
How do we help young people cultivate healthy relationships in an era of texting, TikTok, and Tinder? How do we support them in carving out time for prayer and Sabbath amid the ceaseless commotion and commitments of their busy lives? How do we accompany them in discerning the difference between the superficial satisfaction of gaining hundreds of “likes” on an Instagram post vs. the deeper joy of discovering their vocation in life?
CR: What are some lessons you’ve picked up along the way about how the Church does and doesn’t do well in sharing our faith?
MB: In my experience, individuals and communities in the Church are most effective in sharing their faith when they embody authenticity, humility, compassion, and relevance.
There is simply no substitute for authenticity. Teens, college students, and young adults bring an exquisitely tuned B.S. meter. (Am I allowed to say that?) They know whether a given person is being real, which is to say honest, with them.
Parents and teachers can’t tell teens about the importance of praying if they, themselves, don’t model an active prayer life. Our Church can’t talk about taking care of the poor, feeding the hungry, protecting the environment, or visiting the imprisoned, if we ourselves aren’t actively undertaking those activities.
We can ask teens to memorize sections of the Catechism or passages from Laudato Si’ on care for creation. Far more impactful would be to invite teens to be part of a commission exploring how the parish and individual families could implement specific strategies.
Humility is also key. Too often, the institutional Church and its leaders come across as purporting to have all the answers and as never being wrong. From Catholics — including priests and bishops — in the United States owning enslaved persons, to decades of collective cover-up of the abuse scandal, it’s clear that we are a Church very much capable of being in error and sin. When we can candidly, humbly acknowledge that our Church has not been without error and is in need of constant, ongoing sanctification and conversion, our message is that much more credible. And when individuals seeking to share the faith do so from a place of genuine humility, recognizing that each of us, too, is a work in progress, it invites young people to see that we are all in this together.
And everything must be done from a place of true compassion, that is, love. We might be “right” about what a particular young person needs to hear, but they will only be receptive to it if they know that it is coming from a place of love. I was both an athlete and a coach, and most athletes can tell the difference between a coach who is giving them feedback that comes from a place of love and is meant to help them become a better athlete vs. a coach who is just harsh.
Finally, our approach must be relevant. Meeting young people where they are at. Are we bringing the faith to topics like relationships, college majors, and job applications? Do we recognize that some young adults might really get into a St. Thomas Aquinas study group, but others might just be looking for to be part of a community of young adults with whom they share values and can talk about life?
CR: As someone new to Kentucky, what is your approach to engaging the people you will find here?
MB: My approach is to listen and learn. I hope to spend as much time as possible visiting parishes around the diocese, attending events, sitting down with people, and finding out young people in this diocese most urgently need from their faith communities. Then working to support local clergy and lay leaders in responding to those needs.
CR: What is especially compelling about this local Church to you?
MB: I am inspired by the Pastoral Plan of this diocese, for one. The Pastoral Plan here is clearly the result of intentional, organic, messy, honest conversations about specific realities in Eastern and Central Kentucky. Not many documents of this sort would name, explicitly, various marginalized and underserved communities, nor would they offer such practical, strategic proposals like cultivating intentional partnerships with schools of theology to train lay ministers to undertake this work.
I am inspired, too, by the people of this diocese who, for years, have modeled a mission-focused way of being Church, which is what Pope Francis is calling everyone to. There is no DVD series, no single annual youth rally that is going to reinvigorate and renew the Church. Material resources help, of course — but only if those funds and resources are directed towards effective formation and foundation of the persons who constitute the living stones of the Church. Jesus started with 12 missionaries who had no special qualifications around evangelization, and they changed the world. In my brief time here, I have encountered that same missionary zeal, and I look forward to joining it.
CR: What does being Catholic mean to you?
MB: Well I would say that I am first and foremost a disciple of Jesus, a Christian. I am a baptized Roman Catholic Christian, which to me means that I am in communion with a global body of believers who trace our faith back to that of Jesus and the apostles. On a theological level, it means to me that, in moments of doubt, frustration, or despair, I echo Peter’s words to Jesus, “Lord, to whom would we go? You alone have the words of everlasting life.” On a spiritual level, it means that I start each morning with Lectio Divina, imbibing the words of Scripture like water hydrating my soul and coursing through my veins throughout the day. On a a practical level, it means that I can walk into a 13th century church in Krakow, Poland, a small mission chapel in Juarez, Mexico, or an African-American parish in Washington, DC, and listen to the same Gospel passage, hear the same Eucharistic prayer, profess the same Creed, and unite my petitions to those of Catholics all over the world.
And on a daily, ethical basis, it means that I will have no excuse when, in my Matthew 25 moment face-to-face with Jesus, I am asked about what I did for him when I saw him as a pregnant refugee and her children at the border, a homeless person on the streets of Lexington, a Black victim of gun violence on the Southside of Chicago, or an LGBTQ+ teenager who shows up to the Catholic Leadership Institute. Being a Catholic, for me, is about how I’m called to live every minute of my life in imitation of the one who looked up from washing the grime off of the disciples’ feet and said: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”