Do you remember Fonzie? From Happy Days? He was my hero as a child. He had awesome hair and a strong personality that showed he was calm, yet always in charge.
I’ll always remember the way he carried himself, from his shiny leather jacket, to the way he turned on the juke box by pounding it just right with his fist. Fonzie was the poster child for what seemed to be a perfect life. Any fears or insecurities he had were safely masked beneath the hard surface of his gelled hair and his Harley.
It’s quite easy for youth ministers to get caught up in the lie that we need to be perfect — a “spiritual Fonzie,” perhaps. This is something I struggle with every day.
Frank Mercadante, author of Engaging a New Generation, writes of his personal experience with this real struggle:
“When gathering as a community, we connected on what we should be, not on what we were. One had to possess evangelistic credibility in order to bring people into this life-changing-experience. That meant protecting an image of ‘having it all together’ in order to attract those who didn’t. Evangelization was about pretending you were complete in order to attract others to a ‘community’ that pretended the same” (Italics mine).
Through this lens, being holy means “having it all together”—or at least always projecting it. It’s the idea that holiness is defined by a spiritual togetherness that can separate you from others—in the negative way.
I remember my first few months as a youth minister. I was overwhelmed by programs and transition. It made me incredibly anxious. These months were some of the most difficult especially because I tried to mask all these feelings and struggles from my teens.
Needless to say, they saw right through me. They knew I was faking it. They swarmed me with, “Are you okay?” or even worse, “Jurell, you look sad.” But they weren’t mad nor they rude; rather, they were genuinely concerned for my well-being. I was just too ashamed to be honest with them and looking back, it wasn’t the best approach.
What’s interesting is that we are seeing an undeniable culture shift in our day. Mercadante writes that the Millenial generation (more or less born between 1982-2002) is leaning away from overconfidence and certainty and turning more towards humility and mystery. Moreover, religious superiority creates more negative reactions than ever and church practices that conceal the slightest trace of religious arrogance—even when done with kindness and good intentions—are “dismissed as toxic.”
So how must we carry ourselves when ministering to our millennial teens? We need to be honest.
I can’t help but think of Pope Francis’ famous interview with America Magazine. It was a lengthy one. However, the beginning might have been the most powerful statement to come out of a pope’s mouth. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, began by asking “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Pope Francis stared and reflected in silence and responded gently with,
“I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
“Yes, perhaps I can say that I am a bit astute, that I can adapt to circumstances, but it is also true that I am a bit naïve. Yes, but the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”
That’s powerful. No matter what generation you fall into. The Pope responded with a divine honesty that was rooted in humility and mystery and with that simple answer he brought us back to the foundation of holiness. It’s not about having it all together; rather, it’s about being honest with ourselves, recognizing that we are all broken and in need of God’s saving love and grace.
So this week, I pray that we all make an extra effort to be mindful of where we are and where God is calling us to be. I pray that we realize that we are loved sinners whom God yearns for, and most of all, I pray that we be can be the humble witness that Pope Francis is challenging us to be.
If we want to be effective youth ministers, we must let go of the spiritual Fonzie within us and move towards the humility of Francis. Such honesty and humility is sure to teach our teens about authentic holiness in the 21st century.
Mercadante, Frank. Engaging a New Generation: A Vision for Reaching Catholic Teens.
Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2012.
Spadaro, Antonio, S.J., “A Big Heart Open to God.” America Magazine. September 30, 2013.