Friday, September 7, 2018

The Young Life Catholic Forum: A Defining Moment

There are moments that define my vocation, moments that make me stop and say, “This is it. This is what my life is about.” January 24-26, 2019 will be one of those moments for me. It just may be one of those moments for you too.

When I consider my life in Christ and my service to the Church, there are a few things that I stand for, ideals that draw the best out of me, horizons that tug at my heart and guide my journey. The first is Jesus Christ. I can never forget that my faith was forged in an encounter with the living God who came in the person of Jesus. Not just a creed, not merely a moral compass, but a divine Person who speaks and listens, who challenges and forgives, who saves me from the pit and sets my foot upon the rock. Like He did for every one of us, I live and die for Jesus Christ.

The second defining ideal is unity in the body of Christ. This has always been a deep plumb line for me. Christ’s body is one. Many parts we are, but together we are the Mystical Body of Christ on earth. Broken and tattered as we are, we are the ark of salvation. Darkened by sin and prone to wander, we are nonetheless the People of God. When Jesus prayed “that they all may be one” (Jn 17:21), it always resonated with me. It struck me as one of the most important parting words that He spoke. As Christians we are called to overcome the stain of division and love each other in a way that the world would see Jesus (Jn 17:23). I want my life to build up the Church, the body of Christ, “until we have come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature and full grown in the Lord” (Eph 4:12). 

The third defining ideal is mission. We don’t just have a mission, we are a mission. We are a sent people. From our encounters with Christ we are sent out to proclaim the kingdom of God and manifest His will “on earth as it is in heaven.” We can’t wait for it. We can’t wait passively in our church buildings, Pope Francis reminds us. We have to go. Like Jesus came searching for us, we have to go after people – engage them, listen to them, love them. This is precisely how the kingdom will come. Saints like you and I leaving our comfort zone and sacrificing our lives so that others might encounter Jesus and have eternal life in Him. I want my life to be a mission.

So it is with great enthusiasm that I invite each of you to participate in an event that is decidedly about Jesus, unity, and mission – the Young Life Catholic Forum. Co-sponsored by Young Life Catholic Relations and the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, we invite you to a historic gathering in the heart of New York City, January 24-26, 2019. Be a part of the surging movement of unity, friends on mission for Christ and for kids. Young Life staff and volunteers, Catholics from parishes, schools and dioceses from around the country, coming together to glorify God and equip God’s people to do His work in reaching every kid, everywhere for eternity

This is a defining moment. Be a part of it. Come to New York. Jesus is calling.

Click on this link for more details!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

"What Can We Do Together?"

“What can we do together?” Pope Francis asked this week in Geneva during his address to the World Council of Churches, representing 350 Christian denominations and over 500 million Christians worldwide. It is a question which echoes through my mind after spending a week with delegates from Catholic dioceses and parishes from around the US at the 6thAnnual YL Catholic Adult Guest Camp at Timber Wolf Lake. We’re all asking, “What can we do together to reach young men and women who are struggling without a sense of worth, belonging and hope that can only be found in Jesus?” 

We begin with spiritual friendship. Spending time together throughout the week made us realize that underneath the titles and positions, we are all human beings with names and families, joys and hopes, hurts and frailties. We listened to one another. We prayed over each other. We laughed our heads off at club and we cried through so many beautiful moments. We tackled the ropes course together and we heard the gentle voice of Jesus beckoning us forth. This week we became not merely co-laborers in the Lord’s harvest but friends in Christ.

Second, we committed to a common path. With eyes focused on Jesus, we stacked hands on introducing kids to Christ and helping them grow in their faith. We honored our differences without getting mired in disagreements. We chose a path of graciousness and trust rather than arousing suspicion and putting up walls. We discovered that we want the same things – for kids to know Christ, to place their trust in Him as the source of their lives, and to reconnect to the Church, each according to his or her tradition. 

Kathy Goller, Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministry at the Diocese of Buffalo, NY shared, "My experience at the Catholic Adult Guest Week convicted me more than ever that the Catholic Church can, and needs to, partner with Young Life to reach our young people with the hope and love of Christ. Further, it gave me clear ideas and a plan for how to transform those convictions into actions for our diocese!"

Third, we leaned into hope. We all know the state of affairs today. We know that faith is out of fashion and that for every 1 who enters the Church 6 leave. We know what kids are exposed to through social media and modern “entertainment.” Yet the power of the Resurrection compels us forward with hope. God is writing a beautiful story. We saw it right before our eyes. The victory of goodness over evil is real. Walls are coming down. Reconciliation is happening. Lives are being transformed. “The best of Young Life is yet to come,” Jim Rayburn proclaimed in his last days. And I believe that includes widespread partnership with the whole body of Christ – Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox

“What can we do together?” A lot, it turns out. And the best is yet to come. 
Sunset on Timber Wolf Lake

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Young Life Brings Protestants and Catholics Together in the Holy Land by Deacon Nathan Gunn

Young Life’s commitment to unity in diversity and bridge-building just reached new heights. In some parts of the world, bridges need to be built between socio-economic groups.  In other places, the need is to bring healing to issues of racial tension.  On the continent of Europe, the biggest need for unity is between Catholics and Protestants. 

In late May, the staff and spouses from YL Europe joined with Mission Leaders and guests representing a group of over 200 pilgrims.  For a week, people from nearly 20 European countries toured the Holy Land, following in the footsteps of Jesus, His family and His apostles.  The journey began in the tightly-wound ancient city of old Jerusalem.  The group descended the Mount of Olives and ascended the Via Dolorosa – trodding the very paths that Jesus took, carrying His cross to Calvary.  We floated in the Dead Sea and looked into the Caves at Qumran. We sailed across the Sea of Galilee and traced Christ’s miraculous works through ancient Capernaum.  With every turn and every detail, the mercy and grace of God was extended through the landscape, the history, the recollection of the stories, and the vividness of the setting.

Then, in a powerful movement of God’s grace, another element emerged.  At YL “Club” each night, we heard from one of two European ministers.  Rev Dr. Keith McCrory, a Protestant pastor from Northern Ireland, and Father Lukasz Szymanski, a Roman Catholic priest from Poland, took turns preparing us for the next day’s sites and leading us into deeper communion with Christ.  Two men from two Christian traditions, overcoming centuries of division and strife to lead Young Life hand in hand through the Holy Land, was a living testament to Young Life’s priority of unity within the Body of Christ.  Along with the shared teaching, the corporate prayer of the Stations of the Cross, walking Christ’s steps to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher brought more reflection and deeper unity among us.  

But the biggest movement of the Holy Spirit was experienced in Nazareth.  Together, with one voice, all two hundred-strong sang worship songs and prayed together as Fr. Lucasz celebrated Catholic Mass at the Basilica of the Annunciation.  Not only was the setting dramatic, but the movement of God’s Spirit as Catholics and Protestants basked together in the Presence of God was awe-inspiring.  For many, this was their first experience of the Mass.  For others, this was their first experience of Mass in such a powerful Catholic setting.  During small groups that night, pilgrim after pilgrim shared that the Mass was the highlight of their day, if not their trip.  While the Mission Leadership set the direction and put the players in place, it was the Holy Spirit that took over and sparked the unity that Christ prayed for in John 17.

As the pilgrimage ended, conversations continued. There are about a dozen meaningful entry points for cooperation between YL and the Catholic Church that are ready for immediate follow-up.  Beyond those venues, there are dozens more YL staff who are hungry and eager to learn more. Plans for partnership are being crafted, trying to keep pace with the unity that the Spirit is forging. The groundswell of unity is happening. The tsunami of partnership is coming. And at the center of it all are two elements that YL has always held most sacred – the love of Christ for every kid and every kid’s need to hear of His love for them.   

*post written by Deacon Nathan Gunn, a 20-year veteran of Young Life who serves as Associate Director of YL-Catholic Relations for the Eastern States, and is a permanent deacon in the Roman Catholic Church.                   

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Big Dreams, Big Impact in the East

“Right now God is doing something special and I think it is going to have a significant impact on the future of our Church,” says the young man in his late 20s. When you look at that impact in western Massachusetts, Steve Fydenkevez is a big part of it. Steve is helping Young Life and the Catholic Church come together on the ground level, developing relationships that will yield fruit in local parishes and dioceses for years to come.

Steve grew up attending St. Mary’s Catholic parish in Longmeadow (Springfield MA Diocese) and was exposed to Young Life through the parish youth group’s annual summer trip to Saranac Village, a YL camp in the Adirondacks. “The relationship I had with my YL leader (who is now a Catholic priest actually), absolutely played a significant role in my development as a Catholic adult,” he says. The memory of those experiences at YL camp helped to spark a passion in him while sitting in Mass one day:

I remember one particular morning looking around the church and realizing that my wife and I were the only ones under forty who were not with their parents. I knew that if we didn’t do something more to reach our middle school and high school friends now, this entire generation would be lost. This is the future of our Church, I could not do nothing! I knew right then that what our Catholic youth needed is what Young Life works so hard to develop in teens - relationships with Jesus Christ.

Steve is recently married and works in the insurance industry just south across the Massachusetts border. He came back to Saranac in the fall of 2016 to attend a Young Life leader weekend. After hearing more direction from the Lord and talking with other YL staff who are trying to bridge the gap between the Church and YL, Steve began to direct his passion toward St. Mary’s the and opportunity he saw there.

Since then, God and Steve have been laying groundwork to establish a fruitful model for YL in a Catholic parish. The process has been intentional and broad in scope, including people of influence from the parish and the diocese. “Through the open lines of communication both sides have continued to grow closer in the vision of working alongside one another to reach kids,” Steve says. The recruitment and training of college leaders has been a strong focus and Steve notes a real symbiotic relationship between YL and the Church:

There are five colleges within a 15-minute drive of the church. This is a very Catholic part of the country. A stand-alone Young Life area would have a very difficult time getting into these schools and reaching potential leaders. Working with the Catholic Church however, we have a legitimacy that otherwise would not be possible. On the other hand, Young Life has the tools and resources to prepare these young leaders to reach kids in a way that the Catholic Church doesn’t have. It’s a real win-win! 

As Young Life begins to gear-up for FORWARD, our dream is to take kids “into the deep” as they walk with Christ, and working with parishes like St. Mary’s is a natural fit. “My dream is that we would see a Young Life Club and Campaigners happening at St. Mary's,” Steve says. But it’s more than just Catholics in Steve’s vision. “It’s time for us to come together as a Christian community. We want Catholic leaders alongside Protestant leaders reaching out to all kids in town. We’re talking about high school kids receiving the Sacraments for the first time - being Baptized, receiving the Eucharist, and being Confirmed - because they were introduced to Jesus Christ through the love of a YL leader.” 

Steve is changing the missional landscape in western Mass, but the process is also changing him. Rather than directing his attention solely to his career path, Steve is now pouring his energy into starting YL in Longmeadow and collaborating with St. Mary’s. “God is absolutely present in this,” Steve says. “In all my life I have never felt Him so much. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve all laughed together at the obvious presence of God in all of this.”

Having a significant impact on the future of our Church… that’s a great dream.  Having a significant impact on the lives of young people… that’s a great dream too.  What a gift that we get to walk alongside servants like Steve who are rolling up their sleeves to make both dreams happen. 
Steve and his wife Francesca

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Missionary Discipleship: What Protestants and Catholics Are Learning from Each Other

It was perhaps a curious coincidence that I was reading James Smith’s recent work on discipleship, You Are What You Love, as I participated in the Convocation of Catholic Leaders last week in Orlando. I scratched my head to find Smith, a Protestant theologian from Calvin College, talking about liturgy, ritual and sacrament as the transformative framework for discipleship while I was in the middle of a Catholic gathering where “going out”, “meeting people where they’re at”, and “building authentic relationships” were the catch phrases of the day. The crossfire of foreign tongues made me feel part of a new and entirely ecumenical Pentecost.

Two words really capture the essence of the convocation in Florida: missionary discipleship. Pope Francis used these words to describe the vision of Catholic evangelization in the world today. We need to be true disciples of the Lord, authentic followers of Jesus who then go out and engage the world with the overflowing joy of Christ. “[We] should never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!” Pope Francis jests. Missionary disciples rejoice always in the Lord and bridge the distances which separate people from the mercy of God. Missionary disciples “take on the smell of the sheep” and happily accompany people on their journey to Christ. It was both sensational and strange to hear a room full of Catholics talking like Evangelicals!

Then I read Smith who reminds us that the first question Jesus ever asked is not “What do you believe?” but “What do you want” (Jn 1:38). It is our heart’s desires and not our mind’s convictions that constitute real discipleship. We are not what we think, Smith says, a remnant of our overly Cartesian (“I think, therefore I am”) mentality. We are what we love. We are what we desire. We are what we long for. In other words, Jesus is not a lecturer-in-chief. To be a disciple of Jesus is to enroll in a veritable school of love. We are more defined by what we desire than what we believe. And, scary thought, “We might not love what we think.”

It is entirely possible, Smith notes, to believe in all the right things but be habitually carried away by “secular liturgies.” After all, we don’t think our way into consumerism, gluttony, objectification and individualism. Nobody convinced us with a compelling argument about how donuts and distraction will make us happy. But we find our desires taking us in those directions because we virtually bathe in cultural practices that calibrate our heart’s desires toward these rival kingdoms. And whether we’re hooked on Minecraft or microbrews, heroin or high fructose corn syrup, Parks and Rec or pornography, our tangible and repeated practices leave a powerful (albeit unconscious) mark on the kind of story our hearts are living into. “We are what we love,” it turns out.

Smith’s remedy is surprising coming from a Protestant scholar. Interestingly, he advocates a return to ancient Christian practices that aim to recalibrate the heart ostensibly through the body. “Our loves need to be reordered by embodied, communal practices that are ‘loaded’ with the gospel and indexed to God and his kingdom,” Smith says.[1] Far from the novelties of contemporary Protestant worship, Smith beckons us back to the “catholic” wisdom accumulated by the body of Christ through the centuries – liturgy and lectionary, ritual and repetition, confession and the Book of Common Prayer. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Smith opines. The Church’s sacraments and sacred liturgies have the power to rehabituate our hearts for heavenly desires. Once again, strangely sensational to hear a Protestant speaking like a Catholic!

This experience leaves my heart strangely warmed (to borrow a Wesleyan phrase) by what Protestants and Catholics are learning from one another today. We are seeing the wider Church in all of her diversity embracing the many parts as members of one whole. Boston College theologian Peter Kreeft describes the mutual stoking of heavenly fires when Protestants and Catholics come together as one Body of Christ:

Catholics discover the fire, and Protestants discover the fireplace. Catholics discover the essence of Evangelical Protestantism; a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Protestants discover the essence of Catholicism; Christ own visible, tangible Body. . . In this meeting, both parties change by addition, not by subtraction. No one gives up anything. Both recover what they used to have together.[2]

Let us continue to learn from one another and may the fire of the Holy Spirit burn!

[1] James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), 58.
[2] Peter Kreeft, Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017), 29-30

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Young Life Staffer and Ecumenical Group Meets with the Pope

Today history will be made. Pope Francis will welcome a staff person from Young Life at the Vatican. But first a little backstory.

In 1968, Young Life’s founder, Jim Rayburn, visited Rome where he met with five Catholic seminarians studying for the priesthood. Rayburn loved it. He loved them. He reveled in the meeting, calling it “the highlight of my European tour.” Whether he knew it or not, that meeting ushered a rising tide of unity and shared mission has been growing for half a century. And it is about to reach a true watermark for the kingdom.

In 1969, one year after Rayburn’s powerful visit to Rome, a young man named Marty Caldwell met Jesus Christ through a group of Young Life leaders in Phoenix and it changed his life forever. Nearly 50 years later Marty is now the Executive Vice President of Young Life International Ministries, overseeing the explosive growth of YL ministries in over 100 countries around the world.

Marty has always embraced the ecumenical vision of Young Life and has built abiding friendships with Protestants and Catholics across the country, and in his current role, around the globe. For years Marty has been working with a group of ministry leaders from Phoenix who pray the John 17 prayer of unity for the sake of the city.

Today Marty and this group of John 17 leaders, both Protestant and Catholic, will retrace the steps of Jim Rayburn in Rome but will take it a step further. They will be received by Pope Francis himself. This is truly a day to celebrate as it exemplifies the prayer of Jesus, that we may be one, that we may reach across the dividing lines and walk hand in hand into the world of kids and share with them the abounding love of God in Jesus Christ.

Pope Francis understands the valuable work youth ministers do every day. “You are the ones who accompany young people on their path,” he says, “helping them find the way that leads to Christ.” He furthermore understands the incarnational approach of Young Life that is necessary to reach kids today. “Much more than promoting a series of activities for young people, you walk with them, accompanying them personally in these complex and difficult times.” It is this ministry of accompaniment, meeting kids where they’re at, and walking with them through all of life’s challenges, that creates real and enduring connections. “It’s in this connection,” Pope Francis says, “where a true dialogue can be engaged in by one who lives a personal relation with the Lord Jesus.”

Marty notes, “This is a wonderful opportunity. Our group is small enough to have a good discussion with Pope Francis – about Jesus, about evangelization, about the Church. We’re trusting God is up to some big things among the diverse churches who yearn to see Jesus lifted up.” In a special moment, the group will pray the prayer of John 17 together with the Holy Father. I can only imagine the celebration in heaven, including the likes of Jim Rayburn whose insistence on "majoring in the majors" set the course so many years ago for such a momentous occasion today.

Pray with me, with the mission of Young Life and with the entire Church universal, that our unity today will help the world to know the love of God in Jesus Christ and embrace the life that can only come through him. All glory be to God!