“The parish is the presence of the Church in any given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship, and celebration.” —Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium, 28)
Parish life is the lifeblood of the Catholic Church. Local communities allow faith to be ignited, passed on to children, and developed throughout one’s life. However, pastors, chaplains, or any member of the faithful rarely discuss how one moves to a new parish and continues their deepening relationship with Jesus Christ. For example, I just graduated from college with my undergraduate degree and moved away from my incredibly Catholic college. While I was an undergrad, I was heavily involved in our campus ministry as a lay ecclesial minister who helped students transition from high school to college. This changed considerably with graduation, as I went from being incredibly involved and busy in “Church” activities to having no structure. Although I joined a new parish immediately, it took some time to feel connected to God and the community.
Going through the summer, I attended Mass regularly and made efforts to meet people. However, I still felt a disconnect. Knowing no one and trying to readapt my prayer life for life after college was incredibly difficult. Eventually, I settled into a new personal prayer life, reestablishing my connection with the Lord. Despite this, there was still no connection with the greater parish community. This changed when my fiancé and I attended our parish’s yearly “Fiesta” celebration. Celebrating the parish's diverse ethnicities and artistic pursuits, I was not only able to meet more people around my age and stage of faith, but I was also able to connect with ministries that connected with me. Specifically, I joined my parish’s Knights of Columbus Council and became a seventh-grade Confirmation catechist.
Becoming a catechist was what helped me immerse myself in the parish community. Not only was I able to meet fellow parishioners who wanted to become more holy, but also, as a group, we wanted to help the parish youth foster their personal relationship with God. For example, starting Confirmation preparation classes with the seventh graders was incredibly eye-opening. Not only could I show them that young people care about faith, but the class also allowed me to share my passion for Jesus with others, just like I did as a lay ecclesial minister during my time as an undergraduate. Although when working with the seventh graders, it can be incredibly difficult to get them engaged, particular moments of curiosity or engagement help me see that they are desirous of a deeper relationship with God, or at the very least, they want to learn more about God. My new ministry as a catechist has helped me realize how much our personal prayer lives are integrated with the greater parish. The parish—its community of people and its connection to God in the sacraments—allows us to meet God in our everyday life, and it is through the parish that God calls us to new challenges to grow in relationship with Him.
If you are new to a parish, I hope you will talk to people and get involved, because it is through service to the community that you begin to put down your roots and realize God’s presence in the parishioners around you.
Pope Francis eloquently writes in his post-synodal exhortation Christus Vivit, “After this brief look at the word of God, we cannot just say that young people are the future of our world. They are its present.” In the last decade, and especially since Christus Vivit was promulgated in 2019, the Church has sought to help the Church’s youth become protagonists in their own right. This is seen in many parish, diocesan, and archdiocesan initiatives to form young Church leaders. Some examples of this include creating new diocesan offices for youth and young adult ministries and the growth of many high school and collegiate campus ministry offices. Nevertheless, young people crave young role models for the Faith. Pope Francis recognized this and listed many examples, including Mary, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Joan of Arc. In this blog, I wish to discuss three saints in particular--Bl. Carlo Acutis, St. Jose Sanchez del Rio, and St. Therese of Lisieux—and how their witnesses are a model for young people (especially youth leaders) who wish to dive deeper into a relationship with Christ and his Church.
Young people everywhere crave to see an aspect of themselves in the people they look up to, and Bl. Carlo Acutis is a soon-to-be saint who allows young people to see commonalities between themselves and the saints. Carlo was a typical Italian teenager who played soccer and video games. Nevertheless, he also made great strides for God in his work, uploading Eucharistic miracles to a website to spread devotion to the Body and Blood of Christ. He was called “an influencer for God” by his mother in an America Magazine article. Bl. Carlo stands as a soon-to-be saint accessible to the Church’s youth because of his young age and his connectedness to 21st-century culture. Bl. Carlo Acutis models for youth leaders how evangelization must occur within the culture and modern media, not from an ivory tower of formal theology and scholarship. The Gospel must be spread in a way that all generations can appreciate, and Bl. Carlo accomplished that with the creation of his website.
Another young person who bore witness to the Faith in the context of his own time was St. José Sánchez del Rio. Saint José was a young man growing up in Mexico during the Cristero Wars. The Cristero Wars were a series of conflicts between the Mexican President Plutarco Calles's secularist government and Cristero fighters (formally known as the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty). The Calles government imposed the 1917 Mexican Constitution, which contained anticlerical policies and sought state atheism. Catholics across the country opposed this and began resisting through liturgical services and military resistance against the Mexican army. Saint José was a young man during the war and wanted to fight to defend his Faith. His mother, however, refused to let him formally join the Cristero Movement. This made St. José contribute to the movement indirectly and attend Mass whenever possible. Nevertheless, when a Cristero General lost his horse in battle, young José offered his, and this led to his imprisonment by the Mexican army. After being tortured to renounce his Faith, José refused and was martyred. St. José Sánchez del Rio’s witness to the Faith is one of the best examples of what a Catholic is called to do by Christ: witness the Faith within your own culture and times while not renouncing our Lord. Despite his young age, St. José believed in Christ’s love and graces, and that gave him the strength to be countercultural and stand with Jesus instead of with the popular culture and the government that stood against Him.
Finally, St. Thérèse of Lisieux remains one of the most commanding forces in the Church’s lexicon for youth witnesses. Becoming a Carmelite at age fifteen, Thérèse began to pray incessantly and pioneered her famous “Little Way” for the spiritual life. St. Thérèse’s “Little Way” seeks to help people encounter Christ in their day-to-day activities and pray to Jesus with childlike dependency. St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s powerful devotion to the Eucharist, prayer, and a joyful attitude allow many to realize that one can be close to Christ no matter what they are doing. St. Thérèse stands as a strong role model for young Catholics since her relationship to Christ reached such profound depths at her young age.
Young people crave role models in the Church, and older generations can find powerful witnesses and wisdom from young Catholics as well. The Church has been and must remain dedicated to telling and promoting the stories of young saints to inspire every generation to become protagonists in the Church and saints for Christ’s kingdom. Young people can be inspired by these saints since they can “…offer the Church the beauty of youth by renewing her ability to ‘rejoice with new beginnings, to give unreservedly of herself, to be renewed and to set out for ever greater accomplishments’” (Pope Francis, Christus Vivit).