Mike Aquilina

Youth When the Church Was Young

Wednesday June 07th 2006, 11:28 pm

The Church Fathers had a distinctive approach to youth ministry.

Now, don’t jump to conclusions. I haven’t uncovered any evidence that St. Ambrose led teens on ski trips in the nearby Alps. Nor is there anything to suggest that St. Basil sponsored junior-high dances in Pontus. (There’s not even a hint of a pizza party.) In fact, if you check all the documentary evidence from all the ancient patriarchates of the East and the West, you won’t find a single bulletin announcement for a single parish youth group.

Yet the Fathers had enormous success in youth and young-adult ministry. Many of the early martyrs were teens, as were many of the Christians who took to the desert for the solitary life. There’s ample evidence that a disproportionate number of conversions, too, came from the young and youngish age groups.

How did the Fathers do it?

They made wild promises.

They promised young people great things, like persecution, lower social status, public ridicule, severely limited employment opportunities, frequent fasting, a high risk of jail and torture, and maybe, just maybe, an early, violent death at the hands of their pagan rulers.

The Fathers looked young people in the eye and called them to live purely in the midst of a pornographic culture. They looked at some young men and women and boldly told them they had a calling to virginity. And it worked. Even the pagans noticed how well it worked.

The brightest young man in the empire’s brightest city — a teenager named Origen of Alexandria — promised himself entirely to God in virginity. And, as he watched his father taken away to be killed, Origen would have gone along himself, turned himself in, if his mother hadn’t hidden all his clothes …

Search all the volumes on the ancient liturgies, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a scrap of a Mass we’d call “relevant” today. We know of no special Youth Masses. Yet there was an overwhelming eucharistic faith among the young people of the Church.

Tarcisius was a boy of third-century Rome. His virtue and devotion were so strong that the clergy trusted him to bring the Blessed Sacrament to the sick. Once, while carrying a pyx, he was recognized and set upon by a pagan mob. They flung themselves upon him, trying to pry the pyx from his hands. They wanted more than anything to profane the Sacrament. Tarcisius’ biographer, the fourth-century Pope Damasus, compared them to a pack of rabid dogs. Tarcisius “preferred to give up his life rather than yield up the Body of Christ.”

Even at such an early age, Tarcisius was aware of the stakes. Jesus had died for love of Tarcisius. Tarcisius did not hesitate to die for love of Jesus.

What made the Church attractive in the third century can make it just as attractive in the twenty-first. In the ancient world and in ours, young people want a challenge. They want to love with their whole being. They’re willing to do things the hard way — if people they respect look them in the eye and make the big demands. These are distinguishing marks of youth. You don’t find too many middle-aged men petitioning the Marines for a long stay at Parris Island. It’s young men who beg for that kind of rigor.

No young man or woman really wants to give his life away cheaply. Tarcisius knew better. So do the kids in our parishes.

If you’re interested in tracing the footsteps of St. Tarcisius and visiting the tomb of Damasus, consider joining me and my colleagues from the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology as we lead a pilgrimage to Rome in May of 2007. I’ll be there with Scott and Kimberly Hahn and others. We’ll have guided tours, classes and talks, daily Mass, and lots of slack-jawed, awestruck moments in the city of the martyrs and popes — a city of eternal youth. If you’re interested in joining us, drop me a note with your contact information, and I’ll inform you as soon as our plans firm up.