Give young people opportunities to serve their parishes
By Heidi Comes
When Jesus commissioned the Apostles to go out and begin their ministry in Matthew, Chapter 10, he gave them many instructions. These instructions boil down to some pretty simple points: freely you have received, freely give.
That message wasn’t meant for the Twelve only. As followers of Christ, we also are to give freely.
More than money
All too often the word “give” has a monetary value placed upon it. We hear the commissioning to give, and we immediately think about how much it will cost us financially. But just as in Jesus’ initial instructions to the Apostles, giving because we have received has very little to do with how much money we have.
Every single person has been given invaluable gifts from their creator: characteristics, talents and treasures that are as unique to the individual as our fingerprints are from one another. How we use these gifts is truly our gift back to him. Our acceptance and use of these gifts show our gratitude.
It can be daunting to begin the process of serving others in an intentional way, yet at the same time, we often overcomplicate the process of giving.
Found in family life
One of the best things we can do as parents and leaders in the Church is to model service for our young people and provide them with opportunities to serve. The family is the perfect place to learn the art of service and giving to others. Through home life, toddlers and young children learn to put others first in their relationships with siblings. Any observance of toddlers will remind us that it isn’t a natural human instinct to share. We hold tightly to what we perceive as ours, both in our earliest years and throughout our whole lives. Teaching our children that everything we have and everything we are is a gift from God goes a long way in helping them develop a lifelong understanding of an attitude of gratitude.
Most parents do this type of modeling without ever knowing they’re doing it. As spouses, we serve one another and put the needs of our families first. How we live has far more impact than what we say to our children, even if this may not always seem to be noticed by our children. Seeing us lovingly and willingly meet the needs of those within our homes becomes the building blocks of all other giving experiences in life. The family is the primary shaper of the human person, as was God’s plan.
Beyond the collection plate
Within our church ministries, we can also provide excellent opportunities for young people to become lifelong givers. The offering plates passed during the collection of gifts at Mass are one of many opportunities for giving. While financial support to our parish is a big part of being a faithful Catholic, it is not the only place we are called to give. In fact, tossing money into a collection often allows us to let ourselves “off the hook,” so to speak. Giving goes way beyond our pocketbooks.
True giving and service require us to go outside our comfort zone and step into that often uncomfortable, but always rewarding space of authentic generosity.
Incorporating service opportunities as part of religious education is a great way for young people to experience the rewards of giving. Making these opportunities voluntary may seem like it would discourage involvement, but, in my experience, this allows the fundamental drive to serve, established by God, to flourish within the youth.
In my time as a youth leader, I have been amazed by the number of students who make the service nights a priority. The projects aren’t ridding the world of hunger, pollution and war, but we are doing what we can to brighten the small space we call home, one activity at a time. From helping clean highway ditches to making homemade cards for individuals in local communal living facilities, the youth are learning to put others first and our hope is that they develop a lifelong desire to give.
Our culture expects and demands very little from teenagers. Our Church should do the opposite. Youth ministry should incorporate service, not to check a box for a Confirmation requirement or because it is needed to meet the needs of one organization or another, but because it teaches young people that they have infinite value to their community and parish.
All too often, teenagers are perceived as self-centered and self-absorbed individuals better left to muddle their way into adulthood when they can finally shake that off and become contributing members of society. As a church family, we must recognize and celebrate the gift young people are in the life of the parish.
Giving is its own reward
Over the years, I have yet to see a teenager engaged in an act of service who looks miserable. There is something beautiful about setting ourselves aside to serve others. We are transformed through giving. We are more fully alive and more aware of the gifts we have been given when we freely give.
The culture wants us to believe that it is grand acts that will change the world. St. Teresa of Calcutta, in her countercultural approach to life, said, “Do small things with great love.” We change our world one smile, one hug, one dish washed, and one diaper changed at a time.
We have all heard it said that giving is its own reward. And while we certainly shouldn’t be doing good just so we feel good, it cannot be ignored that this is true. My own children have often left a service night and been unable to contain their joy. There is something truly special about being the hands and feet of Jesus to help another. This isn’t an accident or a funny coincidence. God created us for more. He feels our love for him when we show love for one another.
Putting it all together
In whatever way we can begin modeling this as adults, we must. The world isn’t going to do it for us. Our children are being bombarded with how their very existence is to blame for the destruction of the planet, how their use of the resources we’ve been blessed with is selfish, and that humans are the source of every evil. Our message to them must be different.
We must remind them regularly that they are fearfully and wonderfully made, and God’s purpose in placing them here, at this moment in time, was to better the world, not worsen it. Along with that comes the responsibility to leave the world a better place than we found it.
There is no better way to do this than to give young people the chance to serve and give of themselves in our parishes. And always remind them that the gift isn’t measured by how many people see it or how many people show up. Mother Teresa encouraged us, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time, and start with the person nearest you.”