Ah, Youth: When the Church Was Young

Source: Catholic Education Resource Center

Scouring the Patrologia Latina and Patrologia Graeca, I found nothing to suggest that Ambrose had ever led teens on ski trips to the nearby Alps. Digging through the Eastern Fathers, I came up even drier — no junior-high dances — not even a pizza party in either Antioch or Alexandria. In fact, in all the documentary evidence from all the ancient patriarchates of the East and the West, there’s not 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 had not hidden all his clothes. . . .

I searched volumes on the ancient liturgy, and I was unable to find a scrap of a Mass we’d call “relevant” today. There were 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, wanting 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 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.

The spiritual writer Father John Hugo told a cautionary tale, not from the ancient Church, but from the German Church of the early twentieth century. Youth leaders faced a country depressed and dejected from its defeat in World War I. Teens seemed aimless, with little hope for professional opportunity and no clear sense of patriotism or other ideals.

The German clergy made a conscious effort, then, to accentuate the positive. They decided to accommodate the country’s weakness, avoid mentioning sacrifice, and downplay the cross and other “negative” elements of Christianity. They were big on nature hikes.

At the same time, there arose a man who called upon those same youth to give up everything for the sake of their country. “He put them in uniforms, housed them in barracks — in short, he demanded that they live a hard and laborious life.” This man, Adolf Hitler, won the hearts of the youth. Because no young man or woman really wants to give his life away cheaply.

Tarcisius knew better. So do the kids in your parish.

3 Responses to Ah, Youth: When the Church Was Young

  1. Don Bosco and Domnic Savio says:

    Who is St John Bosco?

    St John Bosco is remembered as a man who dedicated his life to the service of abandoned young people. Over 150 years ago he challenged the way young people were treated in the desperate poverty that existed at that time in the city of Turin, Italy. He was driven by first-hand experience of the effects of dreadful poverty and hunger on the young people he came across, he was determined to change their condition. Others were inspired to follow him in responding to the needs of the young. John Bosco created an order in the Catholic Church, called the Salesians. They were founded in the poverty of a city we consider to be one of the most prosperous in the world today.

    Today the Salesians of Don Bosco continue this great work operating on the principles Don Bosco left us. The principles of Reason, Religion and Kindness.

    Who is St Domnic Savio?

    Dominic Savio (Italian: Domenico Savio; April 2, 1842 – March 9, 1857) was an Italian adolescent student of Saint John Bosco. He was studying to be a priest when he became ill and died at the age of 14, possibly from pleurisy.

    John Bosco records that on the day of his First Communion, Dominic made some promises which he wrote in a “little book”, and re-read them many times. John Bosco once looked through Dominic’s book, and he quotes from it the promises that he made:

    Resolutions made by me, Dominic Savio, in the year 1849, on the day of my First Communion, at the age of seven.
    1. I will go to Confession often, and as frequently to Holy Communion as my confessor allows.
    2. I wish to sanctify the Sundays and festivals in a special manner.
    3. My friends shall be Jesus and Mary.
    4. Death rather than sin.

    Therefore with Domnic Savio as a role model and the work of the Salesians young people had a good foundation in their Catholic faith. All Catholic schools and universities helped to develop Catholic youth. The family is the mini-church and parents too played an important part in preparing their children to be Catholics adults.

    Sadly some have been ensnared by the satan who roams the earth. But through the intercession of the saints (ordinary Catholics) many will repent and enter the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

    My own role model as a child was St. Maria Goretti.

    Barbara

  2. jeanne breunig says:

    Thank you. I went to Catholic Schools. The grade school library had many books on the Lives of the Saints. I don’t remember the high school library. May the blessings of those 12 years of education from mostly nuns in habits bear fruit for their good example and God-based teaching and many prayers. God help the young of today!

  3. Matthew Heffron says:

    The cautionary tale from Germany is exceedingly instructive. I remember as a high school student deliberately seeking out the youth activities where I felt like I could do “real things,” as I thought of it at the time, things that seemed like they mattered. I firmly believe there is a large corps of youth who would rise to the challenge if they saw an ideal or cause, and felt responsible for putting it into practice. We need to ensure it is the Church proposing the ideals and the method for that energy, or someone else will.

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