PROVIDENCE — Over the course of 30 years, until she retired at the end of 2022, Louise “Duce” Dussault, former director of the diocesan Office of Youth Ministry, developed very successful programs for young people that continue to thrive today, such as Catholic Athletic League sports, the Mother of Hope summer camp and the ever popular retreat weekends.
But demographic shifts and the effects of pastoral planning consolidations and closures have strained resources, making it more difficult to provide additional opportunities to evangelize to youth and young adults.
Michael M. Lavigne, the new secretary for diocesan evangelization and pastoral planning, said that following a series of listening sessions over the last couple of months, a central theme emerged of how to better evangelize young people.
“The running theme was families, in particular the moms and dads,” Lavigne said, noting how parents, first and foremost, should be the primary catechists for their children.
At the University of Notre Dame, Christian Stephen Smith, Ph.D., professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, who is well-known for his research focused on religion, adolescents and emerging adults and social theory, is currently involved in a longitudinal study on people and faith.
Lavigne says that study, which he is using to help guide local evangelization efforts, is clearly showing that when mom and dad have a positive association with their faith and pass that on to their kids, those kids are more likely to have faith into adulthood.
“And when dad is in that picture, it’s a 90-percent likelihood that kids will have faith into adulthood,” he said.
Lavigne uses anecdotal evidence from his own personal faith journey to reinforce the study results.
“I was really blessed. My brother, sister and I had parents who were disciples, who loved Jesus, loved the Church, and practiced that in the home, and then also made sure we were part of the parish family,” he said. “And all three of us married people of faith, all are raising our kids in the faith, and so, as somebody who’s worked for the Church for 30-plus years, when you look at any successful efforts that I’ve been a part of in terms of evangelizing young people, and seeing fruits with those young people, almost every single time mom and/or dad were a part of it. They also had faith. Almost every single time.”
Lavigne attributes the decline in participation in some youth ministry programs across the Diocese of Providence, and thereby a decline in the intended fruits of those efforts, to a variety of factors, including demographics shifts, cultural decline, and a significant decline in the number of paid parish staff available to focus on youth and young adult ministry.
“Part of our problem today in youth ministry is that we have a lot of parishes and not enough priests. We don’t have enough resources, so we’ve seen a diminishment of some activity because you have diminishment of resources to pay staff,” Lavigne said.
“I think the vision going forward is to put even more emphasis into looking at moms and dads and families.”
Lavigne said that when priests ask him about where they should start when seeking to build a strong program of young adult evangelization, he tells them that marriage and baptismal preparation are where they should begin because these typically involve young adults.
He sees these occasions as moments to really connect with young people because they are seeking spiritual guidance and want to do the right thing in accordance with their faith.
“It’s an obvious opportunity, so I would encourage pastors to assess those moments in their parish and ask themselves, ‘Is it bearing the fruit to help people who approach us in those moments to fall in love with Jesus, or are we assuming that they already do?’”
“I think we should not be assuming and really present the kerygma and begin to build relationships with these people in those moments and begin to walk with them and then hopefully help them take another step in their journey of faith with Christ,” Lavigne said.
After many conversations about these issues with diocesan leadership, priests, parish lay leaders, current staff from the Office of Catholic Youth Ministry, the Diocesan Youth Ministry Advisory Board, and a subcommittee of that board, a new path to enhance evangelization efforts was created.
The Office of Catholic Youth Ministry will become the Office of Family, Youth, and Young Adult Evangelization. The office will work to accompany and support parishes in the mission of forming disciples: bringing families, youth, and young adults into relationship with Christ.
The diocese is in the process of hiring a director for this new office who will be tasked with creating a plan to engage, equip and send disciples into the mission field of evangelizing families, youth and young adults.
“Part of my role is overseeing Catholic schools, faith formation, college campus ministry, pastoral planning, and family, youth and young adult evangelizations; they’re all connected,” Lavigne said.
“This is not going to be just a silo approach. The whole department will be talking about this and thinking about this together. Each office has particular areas of focus on how to live that out, but I think we need to tackle it as a group.”
Lavigne noted that new efforts will be built upon the very strong foundation created by several successful existing legacy programs, such as the Catholic Athletic League, the Mother of Hope Camp as well as a really solid foundation of retreat work developed over the years through the youth ministry office.
Father Brian Morris, chairperson of the Youth Ministry Advisory Board, chaplain at Bishop Hendricken High School, as well as director of vocations for the diocese, said that while the traditional area of ‘youth ministry’ is still a reality, those engaged in evangelization are recognizing that it is deeply connected and should not be separate from ministry to families and young adults. He said that this was the reason the board changed the name of the office.
“In today’s world, our children are so extremely busy that they do not feel there is any time for God and faith anymore,” Father Morris said.
Previously, he noted, more young people found a sense of community as members of their local parish, whether it was CYO athletics or church youth groups or other parish social events.
Now, young people are finding community in their travel or other sports teams, which requires their parents to shuttle them about on the weekends.
Additionally, they find that sense of community online through their cell phones and apps such as Snapchat and Instagram.
“Basically, the problem is that our young people feel that they have no need for Christ and his Church in their lives. And on top of that, many of their parents feel the same way. If they participate in parish life at all, it is often simply out of tradition,” Father Morris said.
He said that the new task for evangelizers is to convince the young people, and their families, that God is necessary — that there is a place in their lives for God — and that there is something they can get in their local parish community that they cannot find elsewhere.
“The world is trying to offer our young people something, but as we’ve seen, when it has been embraced, it has led to extremely high levels of anxiety, depression, violence and suicide among our youths. We hope to offer them a way out of that darkness,” Father Morris said.