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Are we losing the young church? Youth ministry …

30 July, 2012


Gerard Gallagher has worked with young people for over twenty years and since 1994 with Catholic Youth Care in Dublin archdiocese. Here he puts together, for the first time ever, a history of youth ministry in Ireland. He sees it as a history of fragments, with no strategic plan, but full of vibrancy and fun. The key question is: does the Church really want the youth or not?


This is a “must read” for anyone interested in the future of the Church in Ireland. Gerard Gallagher writes this history of youth ministry in Ireland out of concern that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated in the future. It comes from the testimonies and memories of those who were involved at various stages and serves also as tribute to those who pioneered the ministry to youth in Ireland.

The first section documents the development of youth ministry in Ireland and internationally. The second deals with the “national awakening” that came from the Papal Mass in Galway in 1979 and a “flowering” time in the eighties with a wide number of new initiatives. This section also has an interesting chapter on Northern Ireland as an example of regional development with its own co-ordinated ministry to young people. The final section looks at new trends as well as the difficulties that arose in the 1990s. The conclusion presents nine practical suggestions for the future of Irish youth ministry. A stalwart achievement by the author and a real service to the Church.


Section One
Chapter 1 The Irish Church and Young People
Chapter 2. Setting The Scene in Ireland
Chapter 3.The Seeds of Youth Ministry in the period up to 1979
Chapter 4. Emerging Diocesan Youth Ministry
Section Two
Chapter 5. The National Awakening
Chapter 6. Youth Ministry around Ireland
Chapter 7. The Development of Youth Ministry in Northern Ireland
Section Three
Chapter 8. Changes in Youth Ministry between 1990 and the Present
Chapter 9.New Trends in Youth Ministry
Chapter 10.The Future of Irish Youth Ministry

225 pp, Columba Press, 2005. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie .


The story of youth ministry in Ireland is not all a fairy-tale with a series of happy endings. It is a tapestry of many threads, creating, as of yet, an unknown design. The diversity of approaches in youth ministry has been significant. Since it began, it never had one clear leader. At present youth ministry needs to take into account its origins and its history. The vision created by many youth ministers in the past may hold the key for its future and continued development.

Youth ministry emerged from the energy and commitment of a large number of people. It grew from youth work and from specific youth ministry initiatives. It may be too soon to tell the story of this development. However, as one eminent church historian has stated:

The historian may claim that it is not for him to assess contemporary developments, for they are not yet history, but he cannot ignore the questions these developments pose to his interpretation of what is indubitably history. (1)

Questions will arise on whether youth ministry has achieved its goals or whether it is still in the period of experimentation.

What is youth ministry?
There is no single definition of youth ministry. Different commentators have offered various suggestions as to what it might be and what the role of young people in the church is. Other countries and their bishops have expressed how they would like to see young people engage with the church and their faith. Below are some of the main statements, which while not a definitive list, give some insight into the statements and models existing which serve to inspire and lead people into creating a space for youth ministry. It will hopefully set a standard by which to contrast how the Irish church developed the different branches of youth ministry.

The church and young people
The church has begun a new dialogue with young people. It was a response to the ‘signs of the times’ alluded to by Pope John XIII, a theme taken up by the Vatican Council.

It is the task of the whole people of God… to listen and to distinguish the many voices in our times and to interpret them in the light of the divine Word, in order that the revealed truth may be more deeply penetrated and be better understood. (2)

Young people, it could be argued, are one of the significant voices within the church. Their future, in some ways, depends on how the church evolves in their time and how well they take up the task of living the gospel. Each new generation and culture requires the imagination of all members of the church to develop and present the message of the gospel. The church suggested that:

The young should become the first apostles of the young, in direct contact with them, exercising the apostolate by themselves, taking into account their social environment. (3)

This theme of young people becoming apostles to their contemporaries is a theme that Pope John Paul II has continually emphasised in his dialogue with young people, especially during World Youth Days, which will be examined later.

Pope Paul VI spoke of changes that had occurred in the world. He accepted that times had changed and young people now had assumed a new level of importance in carrying the message of faith to younger generations who were becoming more distant from the world of the church. He spoke of ways that the church should engage with the modern world:

It must constantly seek the proper means and language for presenting, or representing, to them God’s revelation and faith in Jesus Christ. (4)

Young people are the best evangelisers of their own culture and contemporaries. It is up to them, with the support of the church, to bring the message of the gospel and the tradition of the church to their peers. One of the goals of ministry to young people is the deepening and fostering of young people’s faith.

Young people who are well trained in faith and prayer must become more and more the apostles of youth… we ourselves have often manifested our full confidence in them. (5)

The church, by making these statements and including direct references to young people, had made a significant move in identifying young people and their role within the church. The Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II created a forum in which young people were included in a specialised ministry in the church. This reflected a concern among some people in the church over the impact that popular culture was having on young people.

Pope John Paul II consistently referred to young people and their importance to the church whenever he had opportunities to meet with them. On his travels, he included a youth encounter in whatever country he visited. He also established World Youth Days in 1985 and subsequently invited young people to meet with him as he travelled throughout the world. Millions of young people have participated in these World Youth Days. He attempted to challenge them not just to be more active in the church, but to take the call of the gospel more seriously in their lives. Almost single-handedly he created a new model for gathering young people, thereby giving them a positive experience of the church. He became probably the best known youth minister. In each of his messages to young people for each of the World Youth Days, he challenged young people to know Christ and subsequently to make him known to others. (6)

The essential point is that the church showed a preparedness to engage with young people and leave a space for them within the boundaries of church. It was the challenge of the church versus the variety and increasing number of choices that face young people in the modern world.

Episcopal statements on youth
In 1975, the American Catholic Bishops published A Vision of Youth Ministry. It became a landmark document for youth ministers in North America. It took up the challenge of Vatican II to engage with young people and their role within the church. The document was one of the first to use the term ‘youth ministry’ directly, thereby creating a new language for people engaged in pastoral ministry in the church. As well as proposing a definition of youth ministry, it provided some goals and objectives for those involved in this work (7)

Youth ministry must be understood in terms of the mission and ministry of the whole church, the community of persons who believe in Jesus Christ and continue his saving action through the action of the Holy Spirit. (8)

It summarised the mission of the church as three-fold:

  1. Evangelical – to proclaim the message of salvation.
  2. Developmental – establishing and creating Christian communities based on faith, hope and love.
  3. Service – to bring God’s justice and love to others through service in its individual, social and political dimensions.

The gospel serves as a challenge to youth ministers and young people alike. They also spoke of a radical commitment in the service of the gospel. Whatever method was used to engage with young people, needed to be inspired and rooted in the gospel.

To illustrate this point, they take up the theme of the story of the Road to Emmaus from St Luke’s gospel and then apply it to the dynamics of youth ministry. (9)

Regardless of the specific gospel story used, what is most important is that the vision of youth ministry be understood and carried out in a manner that is grounded in scripture and gospel values and orientated to persons as fundamentally as Jesus’ ministry was. (l0)

The challenge of this type of ministry is comprehensive in its approach. By focusing on the young person, the challenge for those who work with them is to:

Foster the total personal and spiritual growth of each young person. It seeks to draw young people to responsible participation in the life, mission and work of the faith community. (l1)

This landmark document re-evaluated the traditional approach of the church to young people. It spoke of collaboration among those involved in the area rather than fragmentation or competition. It served as a template document for people reflecting and writing on youth ministry. It inspired people to engage with young people in new ways. It also assisted in the development of a new language which included young people in pastoral planning. It also was the first such statement by any local episcopal conference. Others were to follow. The US bishops issued a new statement on youth, Reframing the Vision: A Framework For Catholic Youth Ministry, in 1997. It differed from the earlier version by emphasising that:

Youth needs to be incorporated into the full life of the church … the whole parish community needs to be responsive to the needs and concerns of youth.(12)

At the Third General Conference of Latin American Bishops in Puebla, Mexico in 1979, the bishops aligned themselves in a special way with the needs of the poor. However, as Michael Warren pointed out:

Puebla’s preferential option for the poor has become so well known that it now guides pastoral priorities worldwide. Far less well known, is that Puebla set for the church in Latin America not one but two pastoral preferential options. The second one was the option for youth. (13)

Puebla spoke of the potential of young people. They also spoke of young people demanding’ authenticity and simplicity’ as they rejected a society invaded with hypocrisy. Young people, they noted, can be disappointed in the church:

Those young people who seek fulfilment in the church can be disillusioned when there is no pastoral planning to respond to. (14)

They also highlighted the importance of the integration of all groups of young people within the diocese. Channelling all the different approaches to young people suggested that the bishops were proposing a wider vision of the integration of young people within the local church. It was a similar approach to the American model. They offered a blueprint for people who were engaged with young people in the church.

The church assumes a preferential option for young people in terms of it evangelising mission on this continent. (15)

The challenge of Puebla was to the whole church. Yet, as Michael Warren cautioned:

The church does not possess the option for youth by merely proclaiming that it does. The option for youth is only real when the church lives it out. Young people know this and they will not be fooled… As a phrase, the option for youth, obviously has a nice ring to it. But as a serious guide for pastoral work with the young it offers some difficult challenges. (16)

The Young Church
During 1985, as part of International Youth Year, the bishops of Ireland issued a pastoral letter directed to young people, The Young Church – God’s Gift in your Care. (17)  Ireland was a nation with an increasing number of young people, almost outnumbering adults in the population. At the same time, secular culture was beginning to challenge the role of the church in Ireland. Young people were part of this change and the church was becoming alarmed at the decline in religious practice, especially among young people. To this end, the National Committee of Diocesan Youth Directors, who were answerable to the bishops, commissioned the writing of The Young Church. It differed somewhat from similar approaches taken by the American bishops or Latin American bishops.

As a document addressed to all concerned with the pastoral care of young people, the bishops took issue with and acknowledged that past methods of contact with young people might not necessarily work in the future.

The impact of the pastoral letter can only be judged in respect of how seriously it was owned by both the church and those working in the youth ministry. Young people can judge it on the basis of how many of the promises were delivered.

The Irish Bishops told young people:

We want to listen to you. We need that time of listening to appreciate your hungers and your hurts, your anger and your hopes, your attitudes in many areas, including your experience of the church in Ireland now. (18)

They continued:

We want to create the kind of atmosphere in the church in which young people can find space to grow in faith. (19)

Finally, they suggested:

What has been written here will be fruitless if it does not lead to action and renewal that involves the young people themselves as the shapers of their own future and of the future of the church. (20)

This pastoral letter, however, made no real impact on the Irish church and was largely ignored. During the years around its publication, many new opportunities were created for young people to become involved in the church. Yet as the years progressed, less young people became involved in the church. The Irish bishops did not enter into the level of critique of young people which engaged the American bishops or the radical commitment proposed by the Latin American bishops.

Defining youth ministry
Many books on youth ministry have been published in various countries around the world. What follows is a brief glimpse at a number of significant contributors to the emerging role of young people in the church. These writers helped to create a new level of thinking in the Irish church, assisting people to plan pastorally for young people.

One of the most influential and consistent authors internationally on youth ministry has been Michael Warren, who has influenced many people working in this area in Ireland. He has defined youth ministry as,

… an umbrella term to describe systematic attention to the  broad range of youth needs. (21)

He suggests that the starting point for youth ministry is fourfold:

  1. The ministry of the Word, catechesis and evangelisation and reflection on the gospel.
  2. The ministry of worship, rituals and community gatherings.
  3. The ministry of guidance and counsel.
  4. The ministry of healing. (22)

Michael Warren focuses much of his writing on the cultural challenges that face young people, yet he highlights some of the problems:

In dealing with young people, one comes to see vividly how difficult it is to propose gospel values such as compassion for the poor, solidarity with the weak, and the non-violent resistance to evil, especially in a culture where images of domination, exploitation and violence are beamed continually at the young. In such a culture. . . how many young people at all would be even looking to search out a credible community to follow? (23)

Finally, he notes that it is easier to create the principles than to put them into practice.

Fr George Boran CSSp is an Irish priest who worked for many years in Brazil. At one stage he was the National Youth Director for the Brazilian bishops. He has written extensively about young people and has said that the church needs to recommit itself to them:

The church is on the verge of losing the most important social group for renewal, young people. The evangelisation of youth is seen today as a question of life or death for the church. (24)

He argues that the church needs to recommit itself to youth and suggests that the failure of youth ministry in some places is due mainly to the inability of leaders to develop a theory and, in turn, a way of developing goals or directions for themselves. He speaks of discovering new ways of connecting with young people and reaching out to them:

A ministry of waiting must now be replaced by a ministry of outreach to young people. (25)

He identifies three constituencies of young people:

  1. Committed youth within the church.
  2. Youth linked to social groups, sociologically or culturally.
  3. Youth indifferent to the church.

Boran believes that for youth ministry to flourish, it needs endorsement by the church in order to be effective and he argues that work with young people needs to be specialised in order for
it to be effective. .

It is clear to most church leaders today that pastoral work with young people demands at least some specialisation. (26)

He suggests that the starting point of youth ministry needs to be the gospel.

Today it is necessary to prepare the ground so that the seeds of the Word of God can grow in young people’s lives. Youth no longer come spontaneously to the church. The gospel needs to be presented as an answer to their needs and aspiration. (27)

Fr Michael Paul Gallagher SJ has written a number of books about young people in the church in Ireland. (28) In his book, Clashing Symbols, he reviews the theory and practice of youth ministry as he sees it and profiles how youth ministry has changed. With regard to its history, he says:

The history of youth ministry in recent decades is one of tension between different perspectives. In particular the period of the seventies saw three approaches in rivalry with one another, seeking to meet the changing cultural needs born in the sixties. One school was ‘experiential’ or existential, stressing the centrality of searching that started from young people themselves; unless evangelisation paid attention to their felt needs and questions it would not prove fruitful. A second approach defended the continuing importance of ‘content’; unless the teacher or preacher clarified the meaning of creed and church practices, the intellectual basis for faith would be absent. A third response highlighted ‘community’; unless young people found opportunities for inter-personal sharing and belonging, they would never survive as believers amid the complex pressures of today. (29)

Commentators agreed that it was vital to engage young people in the life of the church. How this evolved would differ in the many different approaches that were undertaken. Some people were influenced by some of the American models; others chose to create their own.  Irish youth ministry, as we will see, developed within a framework of cultural and social change. Different approaches occurred both in its early days and in recent years.

Irish youth ministry
As mentioned already, a huge openness and a new dialogue developed with young people. In 1985, Bishop Donal Murray published a short pamphlet called, Youth in the church. (30)  It referred to two constituencies that make up youth ministry in Ireland. They are those who read about it and are interested it and those who are youth ministers – the practitioners,

When one reads about the subject of youth ministry… there are two different emphases at work. There are articles which are directed mainly towards clergy and religious and which understand youth ministry as an activity of adults aimed at the evangelisation and catechesis of young people. There is another set of material which sees youth ministry as an activity of young people themselves, evangelising and catechising each other… far from being opposed, these two must go together. (31)

He attempted to create a new dialogue with young people and the various influences that they were faced with. He summarised some of the challenges as follows:

We are being asked to search for new ways of expressing our faith, to find new symbols in which to express it, to build new settings in which to live it. (32)

For Bishop Murray, youth ministry would be the catalyst for renewal for the church in Ireland in the future. He left the responsibility for youth ministry with two groups, namely adults and young adults. In calling for a greater co-existence in community, he concluded with his own particular definition of youth ministry:

Youth ministry is not simply the ministry of adults to young people, nor simply the ministry of young people to each other. It is the never-ending task of enabling the gospel to take flesh in the mentality and characteristics of the new generation. .. Youth ministry is a mission in which we are all involved. (33)

The influences of Vatican II and the vision of the church permeated youth ministry. A more inclusive joint responsibility was being offered. Bishop Murray would later return to this topic in 2000 during a key address on youth ministry as part of a conference in All Hallows College, Dublin. (34)

1. Patrick Corish, The Irish Catholic Experience, A Historical Survey, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1985,       p viii, Introduction.
2. Gaudium et Spes, 44, Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Austin Flannery, ed. Dominican Publications, Dublin, 1998 revised edition.
3. Apostolicam Actuositatem 12, Flannery, op.cit.
4. Evangelii Nuntiandi 56, Catholic Truth Society, London, 1976.
5. Ibid 39.
6. See L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition, April, 1997 in a message to young people of Rome. See also Vatican Publications for his statements on young people, which take up a similar theme.
7. A Vision of Youth Ministry, Department of Education, USA Catholic Conference, 1975. This document was also updated both in the 1980s and 1990s.
8. Ibid, p 3.
9. Luke 24: 13-35.
10. Ibid. p 6.
11. Ibid.
12. Renewing the Vision: A Framework for Catholic Youth Ministry, US Bishops, Origins, Vol 27, No 9, 1997.
13. Michael Warren et al, Readings and Resources in Youth Ministry, New York, Paulist Press, 1978, p 28.
14. John Eagleson and Philip Sharper, et al, Puebla And Beyond: Documentation and Commentary, New York, Orbis Books, 1980, par 1181.
15. See pars 1184-1205, Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. Warren, op. cit, p 33.
18. The Young Church, God’s Gift In Your Care, Irish Episcopal Conference, Veritas, Dublin, 1985. p 5.
19. Ibid p 6.
20. Ibid p 26.
21. Michael Warren, Youth and the Future of the Church, Seabury Press, USA, 1982, p 3.
22. Ibid p 4
23. Michael Warren, Readings and Resources in Youth Ministry, St Mary’s Press, USA, 1987, P 25.
24. George Boran, Youth Ministry That Works, Paulist Press, New York, 1996, p 8.
25. Ibid p 80.
26. George Boran, The Pastoral Challenges of a New Age, Veritas, Dublin 1999.
27. Ibid p 142.
28. See Bibliography for details.
29, Michael Paul Gallagher SJ, Clashing Symbols, Darton Longman and Todd, London, 1997, p 126, ‘Cultural Consciousness in Ministry:
30. Donal Murray, Youth in the Church – A Shared Challenge, Dublin, Veritas,1985.
31. Ibid p 5.
32. Ibid p 8.
33. Ibid p 21.
34. Donal Murray, The Soul of Europe, Dublin, Veritas, 2002.

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