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Tuning in to youth

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They can be difficult times at the best of times. Adolescence, the teenage years and then the 20s throw up challenges at a rapid rate. Grappling with your faith is often one of the ‘big ones’ and that is where the Catholic Office for Youth and Young Adults (COYYA) steps in; providing support and accompanying youth through this transitional stage of life.

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The COYYA team – comprising coordinator Peter Bierer, Arch D Radio producer James Meston and youth ministry support officers Holly Roberts and recently-appointed Jean-Marie Nguyen – may be small in number but has a big impact on young people in the Archdiocese and local Catholic schools.

Charged with ‘affirming, encouraging, challenging and supporting’ young people and those who accompany them on their faith journeys, COYYA has an operating model different to other youth offices in Australia. While it is guided by the vision set by the Archdiocesan Council for Ministry for Young People, COYYA is a diocesan ministry structurally part of the Catholic Education Office.

“The greatest access to young people is through schools and there is a unique task in helping a young person to transition from school into the wider world in the context of faith,” Peter explained.

“The common model is to be situated in the diocesan office. We still have regular meetings with the diocese but we also receive direction from Catholic Education SA, and we are located here at Thebarton. It offers us opportunities to be creative and autonomous. We have a certain amount of freedom.”

This freedom translates into the wide variety of work undertaken by the team in a school or parish setting.

In any one week it’s not uncommon for a member of the team to be attending a school retreat, making a presentation at an assembly or in a classroom, training and assisting the 54 youth ministry leaders in the diocese, providing resources to a parish or helping to organise a youth event.

Peter Bierer and Holly Roberts outside their office in Thebarton.

“The world of youth ministry is so diverse and varied and the kind of things you do, even in a school or parish, is just as wide,” Peter said.

Coming to Adelaide from Minnesota, USA where he was a parish youth minister, Peter’s role encompasses looking at the ‘bigger picture’. He works closely with parish pastoral councils, often attends diocesan parish visitations and is involved with many committees and councils, offering “consultation or the perspective of youth”.

“When we go to speak to groups about young people or youth ministry, someone always asks what is the ‘silver bullet’ with young people? And my perspective is that it’s all about building a personal relationship and friendship with that person, which has to happen face-to-face, one-to-one,” he said.

“Social media helps us to stay connected to young people and is a great way to advertise an event…but we need to stay connected to a young person through the duration of their life.

“We talk about how to be a friend to young people – how does a grandparent be a good grandparent to their grandchild, or parent to their child, or neighbour to their neighbour? What does it mean to be genuinely interested and care about a young person, without feeling intimidated by youth culture?

“It has nothing to do with how cool you are, but has more to do with how interested you are.”

While it is badged as a Catholic office, Holly said many young people they interacted with were from other faiths – or no faith.

“We are working with various expressions of faith and are involved in ecumenical and interfaith things as well,” she said.

“It’s not just connecting through the common faith but connecting through common causes like social justice.”

For Holly, who this year is also juggling a teaching degree with her COYYA work, Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation, Christus Vivit has provided plenty of inspiration. In June she was one of two young Australians to join an international delegation in Rome to identify ways to implement the Pope’s vision for youth in the Church.

“One of the things Christus Vivit has been about is empowering young people to have a voice in what they are passionate about,” she said, adding that climate change and social justice issues topped the list.

“There are many young people in schools who are passionate about that…and it’s important for them to know that is something that is also important to the Church as well. We want to support them having a voice.”

Arch D Radio is another way for young people in the Archdiocese to express their voice. James said he enjoyed being able to collaborate with students at Catholic schools to produce the one-hour weekly radio show.

A member of the COYYA team since 2012, James has also been responsible for coordinating large scale events such as the Australian Catholic Youth Festival in 2015. Earlier this year the team staged its first Archdiocesan Youth Festival, to coincide with World Youth Day celebrations.

Peter said the success of the festival meant it could now occur every other year to help nurture the faith and participation of young people in the mission of the Church.

“I have great hope in the future of the Church and where things are going,” he said.

“I don’t worry about ‘is there going to be a Church for our young people?’ I worry ‘is the Church going to be ready for the Church our young people want and need?’

“The Plenary Council gives us an opportunity to be empowered. We’ve started asking young people and the whole Church ‘what do you think?’ and that door can’t be closed.”

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