It is a common misconception that religious education ends with Confirmation class when a student is in eighth or ninth grade. At that point, some figure, teens are either into their faith or they’re not.
There is no doubt about it—teens can be a challenging group to talk to about the beauty of the faith. Jessie Tappel, Clinician and Communications Director at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences explains, “During adolescence, their ability to think abstractly continues to grow, their intellectual interests will expand and become more important and they will begin having an increased interest in moral reasoning. Oftentimes, it is difficult to communicate to teenagers just as you would to adults simply because of developmental reasons.”
But there is hope! Teens are thirsting for the true, the good and the beautiful, just like the rest of us, even if they don’t realize exactly what it is that they are searching for. Lately, I’ve encountered some encouraging stories of teens responding to the invitation to go deeper into their relationship with Christ.
- A former Director of Religious Education recounted the story of a young lady who told her that she wouldn’t still be Catholic without her mentor’s influence. Why was she so effective at evangelizing? She was authentic (not preachy); she respected the young woman’s freedom; and she spoke from experience, not just about abstract principles.
- A parish in Ontario that previously only had 3 teens attend a Steubenville Youth Conference, had 56 teens signed up this year because one youth minister took the time to witness to the Presence of Christ in each of these young people’s lives. Once there, many teens embraced the faith as their own!
- Several classes full of teenagers who, when presented with the Church’s teaching on contraception and God’s plan for married life by a genuinely dedicated teacher, responded with a surprising grasp of and enthusiasm for the Theology of the Body. One student answered, “Contraception says, “I am giving all of me…except this huge part of me,” which is fertility. In order to be chaste, we must accept ALL of the other person.”
So we know its possible to talk to teens about issues pertaining to faith, but where do we begin? Ms. Tappel offers a few practical tips: “Ask open ended questions rather than questions that will end in a one word answer. Give them the time and space for answering questions, make sure to listen for feedback from them, consider their perspectives and concerns. Sharing your own experiences or reflections help, but it is important to see things from their own experience. Oftentimes, it is helpful to converse when doing an activity so the intensity of the conversation lessens.”
Fr. Edward McImail, L.C., over at RCSpirituality, a Catholic site that offers online, do-it-yourself retreats, also recommends having conversations about the faith by asking questions. For instance, “Well, how do you understand what the Church teaches about this issue?” or “Is this something you have been thinking about for a while, or did it come up in a conversation at school?” Get them talking as much as possible about what they are really thinking and feeling, and only then offer some specific answers.”
Teens can be a challenge to communicate with, that’s for sure. But when I think of some of saints who were astoundingly holy as teenagers—from St. Therese to St. John the Beloved to St. Joan of Arc—I’m reassured that these conversations are worth the effort!