Reaching a new generation of young Catholics


Youth ministry leaders, catechists and teachers gather to reflect on ministry to Generation Z

By Natalie Romano

SAN BERNARDINO—Ever see a kid in church more interested in his cell phone than the Mass? Did you shake your head in disgust? You wouldn’t be alone, but is there a better way to react?

 Yes, says the Center for Ministry Development. That’s why it created a workshop to help youth ministry leaders, educators, along with the rest of us to better understand and embrace young people. It’s all in a nationwide effort to make sure kids stay Catholic. 

 “Ministry with Gen Z and their Families” was presented at the Diocesan Pastoral Center on April 17. The event, offered in both English and Spanish, was co-coordinated by the Diocesan Office of Young Catholics and Office of Catechetical Ministry. More than 100 people attended each of the daytime and evening sessions, which utilized video conferencing technology to connect participants in Apple Valley and Palm Desert. 

 The number one lesson of the day; compassion.

 “No one ever grew in faith because someone wagged a finger at them,” chuckles Tom East, Center of Ministry Development Director. “It’s about heart; it’s about empathizing with this generation.”

 Who exactly is Gen Z? They’re people born between 1995 and 2010, mostly raised by Gen X parents. East describes Gen Z’ers as self-assured, realistic, and tolerant. They’re the most ethnically diverse generation this country has ever seen. While highly-educated, Gen Z’ers have short attention spans and can be burdened with too many commitments and expectations. Like the Millennials before them, technology is an integral part of their lives. East told attendees to use the latter to their advantage and gave them a hefty packet full of resources.

 “We need to evangelize with this technology. It’s a great way to reach youth and help us move forward as a Church.”

 Youth ministry leaders at the conference say they’re already on board.

 “We use YouTube videos and memes,” says Carla Zermeno, youth ministry leader at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, San Bernardino. “We do a Jeopardy-like game with questions based on the Mass or a bible scripture. We incorporate technology as much as we can.” 

 East says despite Gen Z’ers love of electronics they have a real hunger for quiet and faith. Upon hearing that, Father Tom Burns, M.S.C., says he wants the Church to nourish the kids and in turn, the kids reinvigorate the Church.

 “Their world is bombarding them with information and visuals. Hopefully they’ll turn to religion to find silence, peace, awe,” he says. “Then they can bring that awe back into the faith.”

 East went on to say Gen Z’ers are more religious than their predecessors but won’t be impressed by a cookie cutter approach. They want faith to be personal and real. Angie Williams came to the workshop and says she’s witnessed that trend during her 37 years in education.

 “We have to be vulnerable and share our faith experiences or they never will,” explains Williams, Principal of Sacred Heart Academy, Redlands. “The Gen Z’ers are looking for authentic adults, authentic experiences.” 

 While the crowd in San Bernardino appeared to be on board with the program, that’s not always the case. East says that as he travels across the country he occasionally meets resistance. His response; the old ways haven’t worked for a long time.

 “I think the messages of the Catholic faith in particular resonate with this generation. Yet sometimes the way we share those messages doesn’t have the warmth, creativity, energy.”

 East says now is the time to reimagine ministry if we don’t want to lose this generation. To drive that point home, he told the crowd that more than 21 percent of the high school graduating class of 2019 in the United States considers themselves agnostic. Staff from the soon-to-open St. Jeanne De Lestonnac High School in Temecula says challenge accepted.

 “We’re so interested in journeying with our youth. We want to get it right from the foundation as we start our high school,” enthuses Principal Annette Zaleski.

 Zaleski says now she’s inspired to start parallel parent and student retreats, giving both a place to grow in faith. And they might need it.  East says these two generations can be like oil and water at times, but should connect through conversation. Unlike previous generations, today’s youth are more open with adults. East says even if you don’t have young children, you can still impact the future of our Church by praying for young people and praising them when they participate as lectors or altar servers.

 “If they (Gen Z’ers) experience the Church as being the place that they’re affirmed, that will reap lots and lots of benefits.”

 Zermeno looks down the road and envisions the teens in her youth group as active parishioners and leaders.

 “We hope they become us. We hope they become better than us.”

Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.