Getting young people involved in liturgy is both a Catholic challenge and a catholic challenge. Many parishes struggle to engage youth in the life of the church. Many parents struggle to get children excited about Mass. Yet finding successful ways to help kids experience and understand liturgy is essential to the future of the church.
Debbie Combes, who works with middle and high school youths at St. Ferdinand Parish in Cranberry Township, said involving teens in liturgy is an intentional act.
“You have to seek them out and make them feel part of the liturgy,” she said. “They take ownership of it then.”
That ownership is key, Combes explained, because approximately 80 percent of college-age students leave the church around the time they head off to college. Without some kind of connection to Mass or some sense of ownership in the church, Combes fears they will not come back.
Father Jim Young, pastor of St. Gregory Parish in Zelienople, said, “If you get kids involved in liturgy, they see more of a connection between their life and their faith; that’s crucially important.”
During his more than 50 years as a priest, Father Young has served in nine parishes. Each parish has had a school, which he said offers a natural avenue for children to become involved in liturgy. St. Gregory School has a weekly Mass on Friday mornings where children sing in the choir and serve as lectors and altar servers.
“It’s wonderful,” Father Young said. “They sing their hearts out. We have adults who come to that Mass because it is so full of life and energy.”
He said that Carol Keener, a cantor who assists with the school choir, also leads a children’s choir at one Saturday vigil Mass each month. Because the children’s choir sings school Mass music at the vigil Mass, other children throughout the congregation are familiar with the music and can help involve the adults, Father Young said.
While Catholic school liturgies provide inherent opportunities for children to lead and serve during Mass, only about 10 percent of school-age children nationally attend parochial schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Reaching the other 90 percent can be a challenge, but parishes are making the effort. At St. Gregory, CCD students are invited to be part of the monthly children’s choir.
Combes said the high school youth ministry, EDGE (middle school catechesis) and CCD programs encourage students to become involved in liturgy. One successful endeavor, she said, was staging a ministry fair specifically for the youth group during its regular meeting night.
“Different parishioners came and explained their ministry to the teens and invited them to become part of it. That opened the door,” Combes said.
Teens at St. Ferdinand serve as greeters, ushers and cantors. She credits volunteer catechist Tim Hunter with getting many teens involved in those ministries by extending personal invitations and encouraging them to participate.
Members of St. Ferdinand’s youth group distributed ashes alongside the priest at the Ash Wednesday Mass this year, a visible sign for parishioners that young people are a vital part of the liturgy. Volunteer Karen Bardos also created a small musical ensemble earlier this year comprised of candidates for confirmation. About 15 students who play an instrument or sing in their middle school musical groups joined together, rehearsed and played the song “Holy Spirit” as part of their confirmation with Bishop David Zubik.
Participants attended more than 10 rehearsals, including one students took the initiative to set up with Robert Babick, their band director at Seneca Valley Middle School, who met with the students on his own time after school. The students said being part of the ensemble enhanced the confirmation Mass.
“It was fun to share that experience with all my friends, especially for such an important event like confirmation,” said Julie Snyder, ninth-grade flautist.
Kids need not wait for an invitation to become involved, however. St. Ferdinand parishioner Lexi Bardos, 13, regularly serves as a cantor. A member of Seneca Valley Middle School’s choir program, Lexi said she wanted to serve the parish with the gift she has to offer.
“I watched other cantors every week and thought, ‘I could do that,’” she said. Lexi and her mom approached Brian Hart, director of music and liturgy for the parish, to inquire about getting involved. For her first Mass as cantor, Lexi was paired with an experienced cantor. Since then, she has led the congregation’s singing on her own. Lexi’s example has had an impact.
“Lots of adults come up and tell me I did a good job,” she said. “Other kids ask me how they can get involved, too.”
“The priests have been fantastic,” Bardos said. “Father Gallagher, Father Andrew (Fischer), Father Ed (Kunco) — each one has made a point to commend her for doing God’s work and for sharing the gift she has. That has meant more to her than anything else.”
Adam Blotzer, director of music at St. Gregory, said adults’ investment in engaging young people is a way of ensuring the future.
“When other teens see someone in their own age group participating, they are more likely to participate,” he said, “and when teens have a role or responsibility, they are more likely to stay involved.”
Combes stressed that parents are the first and most important teachers for instilling the Catholic faith. She suggested that parents explain to their children why they attend Mass, and said kids will follow the example their parents set for being involved.
Blotzer said parents should not hesitate to be proactive in reaching out to ministry leaders to advocate for getting their children involved. Oftentimes, he said, leaders would love to have young people participate, but do not think to ask them. Serving as cantors, members of the choir, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, greeters, ministering to the sick and altar serving are all avenues for young people and teens to be part of the liturgy, Blotzer said.
For her peers who might be nervous about taking a visible role in the liturgy, Lexi offered wisdom gleaned from her own experience.
“Put yourself out there,” she said. “You’re in God’s house. People won’t be judging you. We’re all a family at church, and if you have the guts to go in front of all these people, you are already awesome.”