Year of Faith: Catholic identity among youth

October 16, 2012

Over the years there have been t-shirts showing the language “Catholic to the Core.” What does this mean? It doesn’t mean that we should waste energy trying to determine who is more Catholic than another. Being Catholic means that our faith is at the heart of who we are; the values, practices and norms of the Catholic faith have intertwined with our sense of self-identity. This identity becomes a compass for our life, helping us to make choices and put our faith into action. In light of this, our beliefs and practices as faithful Catholics are not things we put on or take off. They are part of us.

Adolescents are constantly forming their sense of identity. They are still determining what they will hold core in their life. For many youth, and some adults, this has become something that is put on and taken off. It has been described by some that the primary task of adolescence is about creating an integrated sense of self-identity. Without this integration, a teen’s self image is like the varied images shown in mirrors that distort our true selves. A teen behaves one way with his or her friends, another way at school and a different way at home with family. Faith is an important part of the identity that youth are forming. In fact, who we are as a faithful people goes beyond the many functional identities we wile with because it’s our relationship with God our creator. 

John Shea described it this way. Catholic identity “points to the ultimate identity of a people, formed in the living relationship with our transcendent-immanent God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ and who continues to be present in the Church.” (Catholic Identity and Its Carriers)

“Ministry with adolescents fosters positive adolescent development and growth in both Christian discipleship and Catholic identity” (Renewing the Vision). It is clear that forming Catholic identity is an integral part of youth ministry. We form our faith into action through practices that we share in relationship to other people of faith. These relationships of trust are an important part of the process: young people’s faith identity is formed when we help them to be in relationship to faithful people living faithful lives.

Faith is caught as well as taught. To help youth develop Catholic identity, we must help them come to know the people who are living their faith in a vibrant, life-giving way. If you want youth to learn a prayer form like praying the rosary, have them spend time with people who have a powerful devotion to praying the rosary. Create a time for youth to hear the stories of people whose lives have been shaped by these prayers. If you want youth to be people of service, have them accompany someone who has made service an integral part of his or her life, far beyond a service project. If you want youth to revere the Eucharist, share with them the power that Jesus Christ in the Eucharist has in your own life.
Having Catholic identity includes knowing things by heart. This doesn’t mean that faith learning is all about memorization, but we should know the faith that might share it. It’s similar to learning how to play an instrument. One needs to understand the notes, keys, timing and rhythm. You don’t need to know everything before you play your first note. You learn while playing and then you grow as a musician. Similarly, to live the faith, we need to know it. The prayers, values, beliefs and doctrine of the faith are a treasure and inspire the way we live. Learning the faith is not just an exercise. Knowing our faith is a practical help, day in and day out, as we make choices, overcome hardships, maintain relationships and strive to be good stewards of our lives.

The core of Catholicism is Jesus Christ. It is that simple and it is that hard. As Catholics, we have a treasure of faith practices and carriers of faith to share with a new generation. All of these allow us to experience and understand the risen Christ in our midst. Forming Catholic identity is helping youth to develop the habit of living these beliefs and participating actively in worship and prayer. We do this by encouraging them to know, value, participate and share in the practices and lived beliefs of the community of faith.

Brian K. Johnson is the Director of the Archdiocesan Office of Adolescent Catechesis and Evangelization.