The gift of presence: Taking the opportunity to invest in young people who are present
The phone call the other day was from one of our parish leaders, lamenting the small number of young people in that parish and religious education program.
After acknowledging the problem, which nearly all of our parishes are facing, I suggested this was also an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to invest in these young people who are present, personally. We have the privilege to get to know each of our young people by name, taking the time to learn their interests, hear their hopes and dreams and walk with them in this life.
Incidentally, that’s also what Pope Francis is calling for the whole Church to do with all people in the world.
A case in point: During one of my parish weekend visits throughout the Diocese, I encountered a young man after Mass. When I asked him why he attended this parish, his answer was simple: “Father remembered me.”
The pastor had taken the time to greet the young man, learn his name and acknowledge him. That simple gesture and then remembering him the following weekend made all the difference.
At the heart of social justice and works of mercy is seeing and acting on the God-given dignity of every person. And this should be the lived experience in each of our parishes.
Someone recently passed a new book on to me focused on the role of the Church in family and society. One particular poll from 2018, cited in their research jumped out at me:
“More people than ever before confess feelings of chronic loneliness: Nearly half of all Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (47 percent) or left out (46 percent).” This was reported in “Endgame: The Church’s Strategic Move to Save Faith and Family in America” (page 41).
One can only imagine the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened these figures in the three years since the poll was taken. At the same time, shouldn’t our parishes be at the forefront of addressing this problem? Ensuring that each and every person who we encounter is seen and affirmed as a beloved son or daughter of God? And from that, let the word spread, that here in this parish, that is the normative experience? And instead of feeling alone or left out, people in this parish experience a sense of belonging and inclusion as part of the Body of Christ here on Earth?
One of our parish youth groups in Vermont recently asked me for the contact information for last summer’s Totus Tuus missionaries who had visited their church. The young people wanted to send care packages to them. This is a yearly project that the young people engage in, reaching out to their parish college students away from home. They wanted to include the Totus Tuus missionaries in the effort this year. The recipients were, not surprisingly, incredibly touched to be remembered in this way.
Intentionally seeing and affirming the God-given dignity of everyone we encounter in our lives and especially in our parishes is what we are called to do. And who knows, when we ask new folks why they joined this parish, perhaps they’ll answer, “they remembered me.”
—Deacon Phil Lawson is the executive director of pastoral ministries for the Diocese of Burlington. He can be reached at email@example.com.
—Originally published in the Winter 2021 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.