“The Word of God Living In You” 1 John 2:14
The Church is concerned about the disappearance of young married couples, children and youth from the pews and from Church activities. During a recent visit to my childhood home and parish in Armagh, Ireland, I attended a procession with the rosary led over the loudspeakers followed by Mass. Everyone received a blessing with the Holy Oils. The lack of children and youth taking part was very evident. The young people who were present seemed to be accompanying their grandparents.
Having lived and worked in the Philippines for most of my missionary life, I can attest to the fact that if an event like this took place in any parish in the Philippines, at least 60% of the congregations would be made up of children and youth. Recently at an event in the Philippines, the youth leaders from all over the country were brought together in a youth rally to “Reload with Jesus.” The theme of the rally was “The Word of God Living in You.”
At the end of the rally, the youth leaders returned to their homes and parishes. However, their work was just beginning. What they learned at the rally was talked about at diocesan youth meetings across the country for the youth leaders of each parish. Those youth leaders then took their new knowledge to their villages and Basic Christian Communities. In turn, these leaders took the message back to the youth members of their village churches and Basic Christian Communities. And then they all got to work bringing “The Word of Jesus” to their community activities.
At a parish I serve, there are over 2,000 Catholic families, and they have their liturgical activities centered in the community churches and our twelve primary and two secondary schools. Approximately 600 of these families are within 40 minutes walking time of the village where I live and have the Sunday Masses. The Mass at 6:30 a.m. is attended mostly by parents and the elderly while the second Mass at 9:30 a.m. is always a youth Mass. The other 1,400 plus families attend a Sunday religious service in their village church where a lot of the work is done by the youth. They clean the church and prepare floral arrangements for the altar.
They attend to the flowers and shrubs on the grounds where there may also be a vegetable garden and swings for the younger children. They may prepare children to do the Sunday readings and prayers of the faithful. The members are usually all youth, and they also have regular choir practice. Since we are allowed to teach religion every week in the fourteen schools, we have over one hundred volunteer catechists, most of whom are “out of school youth” (i.e., those who have had to drop out of school for one reason or another). The volunteer catechists come to the parish community center once a month to report about how they fared during the month and to prepare lesson plans for the following month. They usually sleep there overnight, and their meals, travel expenses and a small monthly allowance are provided.
The catechists are also taught herbal medicine and sustainable agriculture that they can bring back and teach to their village communities. On big religious occasions like Ash Wednesday, the catechists attend a ceremony in each school to collect the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, burn them and bring the ashes to the parish church to be blessed on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.
At each school during morning assembly on Ash Wednesday, there is a liturgical service where catechists put ashes on the foreheads of everyone present. The community Eucharistic minister who usually leads the Sunday service and distributes Holy Communion to the congregation and brings Communion to the elderly, now takes the ashes to all in the community, especially the elderly.
Meanwhile back in the parish center, the young people are getting on with their youth Mass. We have a fifteen member children’s band with some participants as young as as four in addition to a youth choir. Every Sunday the parish minibus brings in the children who will be the altar servers that day from one of the nearby schools.
In addition, the youth and children dramatize liturgical occasions like the parish fiesta. Each school puts on a Christmas themed drama at the end of the 4 a.m. Masses before Christmas.
How the youth celebrate the Feast of the Three Kings and the Feast of the Santo Niño (Infant of Prague) on the third Sunday of January! How they celebrate Lent and Holy Week, especially the 4 a.m. Easter Sunday celebration of the Risen Christ, and how they bring the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit to life on Pentecost Sunday!
They celebrate Our Lady’s month of May with daily novenas in over forty locations and at the end of May choose princesses and queens of May and participate in special Masses for Mother Mary to be crowned the Queen of May. And always there are the hundreds of children and youth altar servers. Anyone who wants to see youth enthusiastically engaged in Church activities needs to look no further than the parish I serve in the Philippines. The youth of today will be the Church leaders tomorrow.
Fr. Damien McKenna lives and works in the Philippines.
This article first appeared in the August / September issue of Columban Mission.