New Diocesan directors seek to bring people to God through youth activities, catechesis
Two of the offices of the Diocese of Burlington that receive funding from the annual Bishop's Fund are the apostolates of Youth and Young Adult Ministry and of Evangelization and Catechesis.
As this year's appeal got underway, Vermont Catholic Staff Writer Cori Fugere Urban asked the directors of these two offices about their ministry. They are William E. Gavin, director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry; and Philip J. Lawson, director of Evangelization and Catechesis.
Excerpts from their interviews follow.
VERMONT CATHOLIC: Please give an overview of your position.
"BILL" GAVIN: My role is to strengthen outreach to the youth and young adults within the Diocese of Burlington. This will be done at the parish, deanery and diocesan levels. This office oversees conferences, retreats, rallies and other opportunities for our youth to come together to share faith and Christian living. The hope, too, is to train more people in the diocese to share in this outreach to young people.
"PHIL" LAWSON: I direct the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis. This office includes all evangelization efforts, adult formation, lay ministry, Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, children's faith formation, marriage and family life. Our goal is to equip and inspire our parishes to be agents of the New Evangelization, joyfully bearing witness to Jesus in every aspect of our ministries. There is tremendous potential and much work to be done! As I have told the priests and the directors of religious education: I'm at your disposal. I love working with and being present in the parishes. Ultimately, I hope to help our parishes bring the joy of the Gospel to their communities with renewed "ardor, methods and expression" as St. John Paul II called for in the New Evangelization.
VC: In what ways are you reaching out to your targeted constituencies?
GAVIN: Our primary conduit is through the directors of religious education and clergy. We have set up an online presence and are reaching out through the activities mentioned above.
LAWSON: To date I have visited 36 of our parishes and the majority of our priest deanery meetings since I began working for the Diocese of Burlington on Dec. 7, 2015. I have been doing a lot of listening, inquiring as to how I can assist them in the good work they are doing. I also just established a Diocesan Faith Formation Advisory Committee made up of a representative sample of directors of religious education from around the state to work with me on areas concerning faith formation. I'll be establishing a similar diocesan advisory committee on the New Evangelization this summer or early fall. We all have a part to play in this work of evangelization and catechesis and it is a privilege to partner with people around the diocese in this effort.
VC: What is your hope for the programs your office offers?
GAVIN: The hope is that the youth of Vermont will have deep encounters with the risen Christ and will become true, lifelong disciples and missionaries within their communities. We hope to empower youth to see their God-given abilities and to use these for the building up of the kingdom of God. We hope that they will see the Church as their spiritual home.
LAWSON: Like Pope Francis, I want to see a spark lit in every parish. "How I long to find the right words to stir up enthusiasm for a new chapter of evangelization full of fervor, joy, generosity, courage, boundless love and attraction!" (Pope Francis in the "Joy of the Gospel") The "Joy of the Gospel" is timeless and can flourish in any generation as Christ is "the same yesterday, today and forever." We need to do a better job of both living and communicating that message.
VC: In your opinion, what is the most effective way to evangelize?
GAVIN: The most effective way of evangelizing is through individual relationships and through personal witness. The lives we lead are the best way to draw people to the beauty of the faith. Though people are often drawn to the truths of Catholicism, they are usually just as drawn to the joy that Christians have experienced through a life of discipleship in Jesus Christ.
LAWSON: Personal witness. Pope Paul VI famously said, "Modern man listens to witnesses more than teachers. And if they listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses." Why has the world responded so warmly to Pope Francis? Because he lives the joy, love and charity he preaches. We must do the same. Pope Francis has said "the Church grows by attraction." When we are joyfully living our faith in Christ, people take notice. In our hearts we are all seeking that joy and love–and that is something Christ alone can give.
VC: Many youth participate in religious education or youth ministry because they "have to." How are you reaching out to make them "want to" and to keep them involved after confirmation?
GAVIN: I believe in the power of the Gospel to change lives today. I have seen it with my own eyes and the joy it brings to young people. Giving them a taste of these experiences will keep them wanting more. I am convinced of this. Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. The societal influences are strong, and we have to be honest about them and address them, but God's grace and power and truth is stronger and, quite frankly, much more attractive. "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free" and "I came that they might have life and have it in abundance" are two Scripture quotations that come to mind.
LAWSON: Faith must be a way of life and the result of an encounter with Christ and his Church. It cannot be a list of rules, because the moment no one is there to enforce the rules, people leave. On the other hand, when there is a relationship with Christ present, like in marriage, you want to do what you can to preserve and strengthen that relationship because you love that person. There's an equation: "rules–relationship = rebellion." This is what we've seen with so many of our young people. The relationship piece, based on love of Jesus, is absolutely critical. And that's not to say the rules aren't important. They are, as they give stability and structure to that relationship. Pope Francis uses a quote from Pope Benedict focusing on that encounter and relationship with Christ: "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or lofty idea, but the encounter with a person which gives life a new horizon and a new direction." When we do this, we have created life-long disciples.
VC: In this Year of Mercy, how do you model mercy for the people with whom you work?
GAVIN: Patience. It is vital to be patient with young people and those who work with young people. Mercy understands that life is a journey and that you have to meet people where they are and not where you want them to be. Moreover, every challenge and difficulty is a place where God's love and mercy is ever present and ever ready to be seen and grasped.
LAWSON: People respond to love. St. John of the Cross has this beautiful quote: "Where there is no love, put love, and there will be love." That is our task. Be love. We were recently asked how to accomplish our ministry with limited resources. I responded that a smile costs nothing. The early apostles had nothing but the joy of the Gospel and the grace of God. We do well if we do likewise, joyfully sharing that which we have received and been privileged to experience!
VC: Is there more to reaching youth and young adults than social media? What?
GAVIN: A heart for young people is what they are searching for in adults. Theresa McAvinney in Troy is doing excellent work with a small group of teens there. The ingredients for her success are fairly simple. Though she is giving them the truths of the faith, she is also giving them a heart of love and turns all their focus towards Jesus. She wants them to know how much God loves them and the great plans God has for their lives. She is trying to get them to look up instead of looking down. God has great plans for the youth of Vermont–they just need to open their minds and hearts and be surrounded by adults who will lead them to the joy of the Gospel.
LAWSON: Nothing will ever replace the efficacy of personal witness and relationships. When I've asked young adults "why they are Catholic"–I've always received variations of two answers: 1. It's true–it makes sense, it's been around for 2000 years. And 2. Some individual influenced their life and pointed the way to Christ and the Church out to them. They always point to a person. Social media is a wonderful tool, but will never replace the value and beauty of those relationships.
VC: How can social media be most effectively used to evangelize and catechize?
GAVIN: I believe in meeting people where they are–and many youth are on social media. It is essential that we show them positive ways of using social media and, even better, showing them how to use social media to spread the Gospel. The pope is on Twitter and Instagram now as well. Having forthright and honest discussions with teens about this issue and allowing them to share about how anything can be used either negatively or positively is an important first step.
LAWSON: "The Joy of the Gospel" wonderfully translates to the world of social media. Each week I post a "Weekly Encounter Video" sharing a tidbit of faith as well as some news of what we're up to in the areas of evangelization and catechesis. Bishop (of Burlington Christopher J.) Coyne is brilliant in his use of social media. The opportunity to reach wide segments of people is a tremendous opportunity to visibly share what we're doing but more so the joy and reason we're doing what we do.
VC: How do you measure "success" in your areas of ministry?
GAVIN: I often measure success by numbers–but this admittedly is a big mistake. My wife reminds me that small numbers are wonderful opportunities to focus on the teens right in front of you. I know from experience, having dealt with big numbers in the past, that you can often miss certain kids because of the large numbers. Success in ministry is ultimately not really measurable in the same way that things in this world are–we just have to be faithful and trust in God through all the trials and tribulations. I can get frustrated looking at certain teens from my past that I thought were rock solid, but then learn that they have fallen away from the faith, etc. But then I have so many stories of teens whose lives were radically changed. Again, it is important to simply be faithful to the calling and trust that God is in charge. I think of [Blessed] Mother Teresa's oft quoted line: "We can do no great things, only small things with great love."
LAWSON: Faithfully doing what the Lord asks to the best of my ability. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta had said "God asks us to be faithful, not necessarily successful." My task is to do that which I have been called to do, to the best of my ability. The rest is up to God. There is a quote I use at the end of each of my presentations: "It is for you to radiate the Gospel. When they see you, let them discover Jesus Christ!" (Radiating Christ by Raoul Plus, S.J.) My hope and goal is to do/be just that.
VC: What are you envisioning for next year in regards to evangelization/catechesis/adult/youth ministry?
GAVIN: A key next step is training in youth ministry and establishing a comprehensive vision for youth ministry. I hope, also, to have parishes consider how to focus in new ways on the youth who are both in their parishes and surrounding their parishes.
LAWSON: This August/September we'll be conducting 20 regional workshops on the New Evangelization around the diocese. These will be open to everyone. In September, we'll be hosting regional catechist in-services on Saturdays. Also this fall, we'll be offering RCIA leader trainings. Beginning in November, we'll be launching a 7-month "Institute for Missionary Discipleship" that will meet once a month and equip lay parishioners to be what Pope Francis has termed "missionary disciples." Our goal is to help light the spark of faith and evangelization anew in every parish in our diocese.