As I sat at Mass last night at St. Paul’s, I was overcome with joy and hope as I witnessed all of the young people singing and praising, all while donning their retreat t-shirts. As I sat on the altar as one of the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, I looked to my left and saw Oggy in the music ministry. And straight ahead of me was Father Justin Huang, the youngest priest in the Archdiocese of Vancouver, celebrating Mass at his home parish (after spending 2 years in Chilliwack).
Both Oggy and Father Justin played prominent roles in our Searching in the Spirit post-Confirmation event that we held back in August with the YMO. There is no greater feeling in youth ministry than to see “former teens” making an impact and doing extraordinary things as “adults” in the church. It’s both inspiring and humbling.
Oggy served on the 12-member Leadership Team charged with planning and executing the 5-day program for close to 100 grade 7s and their adult leaders. Oggy teamed with Jeremy to present a wonderful, faith-filled day themed “We are Witnesses.” As part of his testimony, Oggy shared that it was at a similar retreat with St. Paul’s back in 2000 where his life changed forever. That experience served as a catalyst for his involvement in parish and now diocesan youth ministry. In his testimony, Oggy mentioned the many leaders who have helped him and inspired him along his faith journey, including Gerard and me (it was funny because we were both sitting in the back of the room as Oggy was sharing…I hope he didn’t feel like he HAD to mention us…haha).
I pulled Oggy aside on the last day of Searching, affirming him and encouraging him. I told him that he is an outstanding young leader, and that he has the ability to draw people towards him with his talent, his humility, his good-looks and his obvious love for Jesus and the Church. I was struck by some of the similarities between him and me as a 19 year-old (minus the good-looks…and maybe some humility), and I warned him against some of the things that I’ve found challenging over the years. But most certainly, I told him that he was already way ahead of where I was 15 years ago and that the sky’s the limit for him with respect to his talent and the way he can make a positive impact on young people. Oggy was receptive to this old man’s advice and we shared a laugh over what Oggy might be like 15 years from now. In his words, “Hopefully a bit skinnier.”
Father Justin came up on Thursday night and celebrated the closing Mass with us on Friday. In his awesome homily, he spoke about community and how important it is for young Catholics to worship God and grow into deeper relation with Christ, but not as a lone ranger. He too mentioned Gerard and me, recalling how he used to go the youth ministry at St. Paul’s as a teen, and how Gerard and I were “younger” and “cooler” back then. He cracked the participants up by stating: “Well, they were younger…but I’m not sure about cooler.”
I remember Justin as a youth participant at St. Paul’s. He was very keen, very smart, and wasn’t afraid to challenge us leaders (respectfully of course). It was a good learning experience for me, as I was often racing to my catechism or bible after a good discussion with Justin. As a community, we stayed in contact with him as he studied at the Abbey and then in New York, and we were thrilled when he was ordained in June 2006 at St. Paul’s. Then, it was great news to hear that he’d be returning to St. Paul’s starting July 2008. Needless to say, our parish community is very proud and excited.
I don’t mention Oggy and Father Justin just because they mentioned me during Searching in the Spirit. Rather, it humbles me to see that I, along with many other great leaders, had a small part in their faith formation. It could have been in sharing our testimonies, in performing a skit, or perhaps during a one-on-one conversation. Regardless, they are both in strong leadership positions now, and young people in general are the ones who benefit.
There are countless other examples of former teens doing good things. My sister-in-law Julie Ann has served at many archdiocesan events, including emceeing Youth Day and being part of Spirit Day’s Stage Team. Krissy is a regular volunteer with the YMO and even worked for us as our administrative assistant for a year. Alvina, Pam, and Mike and many others are now professional teachers. Young people are making a difference in many other fields: medicine, business, engineering and others.
Youth ministry is about people, not programs. We need to be interested in the souls of young people, and not just their attendance.
Sometimes, I get too bogged down in numbers: how many people came to our last event or meeting???
Instead, I should ask myself: how many souls are we touching? How many lives are we changing?
For inspiration, I need not look further than Oggy and Father Justin.