COLBERT: Wisdom of Generations - Keeping the teachings of predecessors

October 13, 2020

When you think of youth ministry, what comes to mind? Who are the youth ministry leaders and volunteers?

For many, the image of young adults in their 20s and 30s ministering to and with young people comes to mind. In practice, however, there is a broad range of ministry leaders and volunteers from their 20s to their 60s and beyond. This broad age range is critical to a healthy, comprehensive youth ministry.

Pope Francis said: “When intergenerational relationships exist, a collective memory is present in communities, as each generation takes up the teachings of its predecessors and in turn bequeaths a legacy to its successors. In this way, they provide frames of reference for firmly establishing a new society. As the old saying goes: ‘If the young had knowledge and the old strength, there would be nothing they could not accomplish.’” (Pope Francis, Christus Vivit, 191)

Our society has changed dramatically over the last 50 to 60 years.

One of the most important changes has been, for many, the loss of the interaction of the extended family. Certainly, in my family, that is the case. When I was growing up, all of my extended family lived within 20 minutes of each other. We often saw our aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Today, my wife and I have our brothers and sisters in Maine, Massachusetts, Florida, Arizona and Tennessee. The impact on our children is the loss of those intergenerational family experiences.

In this process, our children have lost, in many respects, the story of our family and the wisdom of the generations.

If this has been your experience as well, COVID-19 has certainly taught us a lesson, we can and should find new ways to stay connected. I stay connected with my 5- and 6-year old grandchildren through FaceTime. We play together, I read them books, we have dinner together, etc.

Technology has been a true blessing for me as a way to be continually involved in their lives.

In many ways, we have the same experience in our parish communities. Although the generations are not separated by distance, so much of our ministry is “specialized” and segregated.

The blog Effective Ministry references recent studies that show the deterioration of intergenerational relationships and the ongoing disaffiliation of young people from our churches.

“The assumption from most of the research material was that now more than ever, generations need one another. Alongside surrendering discipleship and disciple-making to professional ministers, over time, church programs have become so radically age-segregated there’s now often little intergenerational contact, broad disciple-making interaction or intentional cross engagement within our faith communities. I think the main hindrance has been the lack of understanding that intergenerational relationships are crucial to spiritual growth and maturation. If leaders understood how important intergenerational experiences are for growth and development, they would pour enormous amounts of energy into creating these experiences.” (Effective Ministry Blog, 2016)

As I indicated previously, it is important to have a multi-generational team serving alongside our young people.

It is equally important that we have frequent cross-generational experiences in our prayer and worship, in our service outreach, and in our faith formation. The consequences of missing the mark on this kind of engagement is a loss of the wisdom and experience across the generations.

Our young people need to interact with faithful disciples from older generations in order to put into context where we have come from as they explore where they are going. At the same time, older generations benefit from understanding the adolescents’ experience of faith, their questions and their concerns.

“Meaningful, purposeful relationships between young and old result in a dual win: they help youth develop their own sense of self-worth and meaning while enriching the lives of older adults who contribute to the well-being of upcoming generations.” (Stanford Center on Longevity, 2016)

Whether it is in our families or our parish communities, the regular interactions across the generations provide vital experiences of faith, tradition, family values, and mutual respect.

May our mother Mary be our guide as we continue to grow in our experiences of the wisdom of all generations.

Timothy E. Colbert is the director of the Office of Adolescent Catechesis and Evangelization.