June 1, 2020

Ministering to an anxious generation: Young people seek witnesses to faith who grasp the struggles they bear


By Deacon John Brannen

I wonder if Jesus ever thought, during his ministry, as he watched the disciples stumble and argue their way through their years with him, “This would be easier if I just did it myself.” Did the disciples hold Jesus back in his mission with their fears and anxiety? We could agree that it would have been easier if Jesus had done it himself, but he did not choose that route.

Jesus did the things that only the Jesus could do; he taught them, he prayed for them and, most importantly, he listened to them — understanding their anxieties and preparing them for what would be asked of them later.

Young people today are not so different from the disciples in their fear, stresses and anxieties. The Child Mind Institute, in a supplement to the 2018 Children’s Mental Health Report, stated as little as 1 percent of youths with anxiety seek treatment in the year their symptoms begin, and most anxiety symptoms go untreated for years.

Everyone talks about how “stressed” young people are, but getting them to open up about serious anxiety is not easy. Sometimes just finding the time to talk to them is hard. Diocesan youth retreats are one way that the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry works to create that space for listening, encounter and relation- ship. These retreats are rooted in sacred Scripture with experiences of prayer, Eucharistic Adoration, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, prayer teams and the celebration of Mass.

Roy Petitfils, a Catholic author, speaker and psychotherapist, in his book “Helping Teens with Stress, Anxiety and Depression,” recommends both Scripture and prayer as means to help young people cope with the stress and anxiety while discovering God’s peace.

“In both the Old and New Testaments, our God reminds us that we have nothing to fear,” he writes. “The truth is that God designed us to experience both fear and calm, each in the right amount at the right time.” The challenge is to know the correct balance between the two.

Young people want authentic witnesses — those who vibrantly express their faith and relationship with Jesus. It takes a village; the relationship with the sacred is complicated. Christianity is often seen as something that belonged to the past, its value or relevance to our lives is no longer understood or appreciated. It requires the entire Church to achieve the growth of healthy, competent, caring and faith-filled Catholic young people thriving in faith in an anxious world. The truest path to gently, yet persuasively, guide young people to a deeper trust in the tender mercies of God is in meeting them where they are — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, socially and physically, always with a listening ear and loving heart.

In March, the Church celebrated the one-year anniversary of Christus Vivit (“Christ Lives!”), Pope Francis’ exhortation to young people. He signed this document on the Solemnity of the Annunciation, the feast on which the angel said to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” Christus Vivit is a letter to the world’s youth that addresses both the importance of young people to the Church and the issues they face in their daily lives.

Young people are trying to make sense of a diverse and overly complicated world, dreaming of safety, stability, and fulfillment. They ask to be listened to and be viewed not as just spectators in society but as active participants. They seek to engage and address social issues of our time and work towards building a better world. It is incumbent upon the Church to listen to young people validate and understand their struggles, needs and dreams earning the right to accompany and minister to them.

In Christus Vivit, Pope Francis highlights three great truths that are essential and absolute. First: “God loves you. … At every moment, you are infinitely loved.” Second: “Christ, out of love, sacrificed himself completely in order to save you.” Third: “Christ is alive.” And because Jesus lives, they can also live.

The prospect of helping anxious teens through emotional ups and downs can be overwhelming even for the most seasoned parents, educators, and ministers. However the substance of our worries might be different, we can deal with them from a common experience of God, which ultimately strengthens our potential to make a difference — so “Be Not Afraid.”

Deacon John Brannen is director of youth, young adult and campus ministry for the Catholic Diocese of Lexington.