coming of age in a pandemic

The next generation of Catholics is enduring a year of distance learning and social isolation, growing up amid a shortage of hugs. The dedicated leaders of the Archdiocese of New York’s Office of Youth Ministry (OYM) are determined to help them through the pandemic with values, faith and social skills intact. We asked director Cynthia Psencik and a few OYM leaders how it’s gone so far.

lessons

Nicole Rios  |  Youth Minister, St. Anthony, Yonkers  Personally, I learned a great deal from Covid-19. My husband, children and I were all infected with the virus. Thankfully, the kids and I recovered quickly. My husband fell seriously ill. While he was in the hospital, I prayed more than I slept for days on end. I started to see things more clearly at this time because everything was on pause. I am thankful for the time spent at home, even the stressful time, because I have strengthened my relationship with God and we have grown closer as a family.

In the ministry, I learned that our youth are resilient and can adapt to new situations, often better than adults can. I learned that isolation from others worked for some of the teens in the group, but was a struggle for others.

Pat Byrne  |  Coordinator of Youth Ministry, St. Aedan’s, Pearl River  This virus can only be defeated when it’s defeated everywhere. It shows how dependent we are on God and family, not only our immediate family but everyone. Our definition of family needs to be expanded to include our first responders, nurses and doctors, the mail carrier, the grocery delivery person, the garbage collector. Pretty soon it becomes all of our neighbors and then expands beyond our borders. While we knew much of this in the past, the pandemic reemphasized its importance for many of us.

Actions

Nicole Rios  We were so afraid we would lose our teens without seeing them or giving them a space in which to pray during this crisis. OYM showed us how to use Zoom and helped us meet with our teens. OYM sponsored weekly meetings for leaders and offered hands-on tutorials and ideas to make online meetings engaging and fun for our youth.

While it was not always easy to get the teens to express themselves over Zoom, the virtual setting allowed them to vent, see those from other schools and be reminded that they were not alone, not the only ones challenged during this time.

Christopher Rivera  |  Southern Regional Coordinator  To keep our youth engaged, we created sample youth ministry nights using Zoom and provided access to large events using platforms such as YouTube and organizations such as Project YM and Life Teen. As our young people quickly adapted to this new reality, within weeks we witnessed them also getting screen fatigue – so our youth ministers started providing ministry outdoors where their youth could engage and encounter Jesus in person through community and communion with the Church. Today many parishes have provided hybrid models of ministry utilizing both in-person and online platforms, and hundreds of youth are being served.

Brandon Fernandez  |  Coordinator of Youth Ministry, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Bronx  Our efforts a have been to meet our youth where they are at, which is why we transitioned to the virtual world. As a young adult I’ve been very proud of our Church and how we have responded. My parish phoned every parishioner in the month of April, just to check in and see how they were doing. I’ve never been more encouraged to be a part of such a community.

THE ROAD ahead

Daniel Genn  |  Associate Director, OYMNY  In the coming months, youth ministry will continue dealing with restrictions on gathering sizes and the constant shifting of what is permitted. Planning for ministry can be challenging because you don’t know when your limitation will drop from 50 down to 10, for example. You don’t want to just “drop” 40 teens because you can’t gather them in person.

So we will have two major areas of focus. First, equipping our youth ministry teams with the tools and strategies to meet with all the teens, even if it is through a sort of hybrid online/in-person meeting. This is something we have already been working on with many of our ministries, and we are seeing a lot of success. Second, we want to train our parishes in small group ministries, where you establish groups of five to 10 young people with two adults to meet regularly. These small groups and the regular meetings foster community and strengthen our youth on the journey.

Philip Waldrop  |  Coordinator of Youth Ministry, St. Francis Xavier Parish, NYC  The greatest challenge over the next year is to stay connected to the youth, to keep the flame of community alive. Youth leaders in our parish suggested attending Sunday Mass together (masked and socially distanced, of course), so that we could at least see one another and share refreshments (safely!) and discussion afterward. I hope we do not need to go back to deep lockdown, so that this successful activity can continue.

Fr. Michael Connolly  |  Parochial Vicar, St. Columba, Hopewell Junction  Our young men and women crave personal interaction and prayer. At St. Columba, they told me that they simply can’t bear another Zoom call. They had been trapped at their computers all day, every day, in a remote-learning school system.

What a beautiful opportunity this affords the parish to return to a grassroots, apostolic model of ministry! Just about every other facet of our lives has been rethought and formatted to embrace a technological approach. It’s exciting to think that the most technologically advanced of our flocks, our teens, are encouraging us to get back to basics. The challenge will be to bear in mind all of the necessary precautions to keep everyone happy and healthy.

At St. Columba we have offered opportunities for prayer, fellowship and service to our young people that all allow for the necessary protocols to be followed. For example, we have gone apple picking and used the apples to bake pies for distribution by a local charitable organization. Our youth’s prayerfulness, enthusiasm, faith, and love for and support of each other has been absolutely edifying to me.

HEALING divisions

Brandon Fernandez  Youth ministry has played a tremendous role during this time in responding to racism and racial injustice with truth. Our young people were looking for guidance on how to respond and an outlet for their impressions on the situation. Allowing them to process this situation in a safe and truthful environment is very healthy.

Cynthia Psencik  |  Director, OYMNY  Youth Ministry has a very special role in helping to heal the intense divisions that continue to permeate our society. Young people have the energy for change and are no longer just asking for it, but demanding it.

Inspired by a program from the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, we organized an evening to engage in dialogue with our youth ministers and learn how teens were responding to racism. What the teens wanted, we learned, was a space to speak and be heard, and to listen.

It has been both enlightening and inspiring to witness the depth of commitment in our teens and young adults to make a change. The current generation of young people is very ethnically and racially diverse, and they can help us lean into encounters that foster true dialogue and healing. Their insights are very important. As adult leaders, we can channel their energy and zeal for change in the light of faith and our Catholic social teaching.