By Margaret Brogden
Recently, my ten year old son, Malik, had the honor of participating in a Christian marriage ceremony. As the ring bearer, Malik stood right next to the groom. From this position he was able to see and experience every aspect of the ceremony. He seemed to be totally absorbed by the ritual. Watching him, I began to reflect on how I could help him process the experience. This article is the result of my pondering as a parent and a professional youth minister. As a parent, I am glad that my son had this experience. It was a positive affirmation on love and marriage that he so rarely gets. He lives in a world where most of his friends are the children of a single parent, like himself.
As his parent, I recognize that I have the primary responsibility for my son’s faith formation, which includes his understanding of the sacrament of marriage. It is my responsibility to teach him that marriage is sacred and echoes Christ’s love for the Church. His experience as a member of a wedding party certainly aided my attempts to teach him about this sacred union. I try to model healthy relationships so that Malik can learn how to relate to others. Children learn from what they see and experience. Parents need to be aware that everything they do, especially how they relate to their spouse, is seen and processed by their children.
As the Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry states, “Parents need to make sure they spend time with and caring for one another, not only for the sake of their own marriage but also to model a healthy marriage relationship for their children.”
I am limited by the fact that I am a single parent, therefore, it is important that I partner with the church and, in particular, youth ministry in teaching my son about relationships and marriage. A good youth ministry program provides resources for parents that help them speak to their children about dating, love and marriage. Youth ministry should be family friendly, working with single parents, as well as married couples, to show the sacramentality of Christian marriage.
Good youth ministry encourages and supports Christian marriage in several ways:
1. By promoting Catholic sexual values and attitudes and the importance of valuing chastity and sexual restraint.
2. By helping young people recognize the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives and discern their particular Christian vocation in the world – the workplace, in marriage or single life, in the priesthood or consecrated life, or in the permanent diaconate.
3. Modeling and teaching healthy relationships.
4. Partnering with parents in supporting Christian marriage.
Most youth ministry programs offer some sort of human sexuality or abstinence program. In these programs adolescents are taught that love and sex are not interchangeable words. They participate in discussions on love, dating and intimacy. They get the opportunity to examine their lived experiences of intimacy through the lens of the Gospel message.
A good youth ministry program clarifies the difference between true love as defined by Jesus in the Gospels and the version of love that is part of popular culture today. Challenging what young people are seeing, hearing and reading is important and helps the young person to form his or her Christian conscience.
Young people in dating relationships are in need of guidance. Not just guidance on how to deal with sexual tension; they also need help in understanding how to communicate with the opposite sex and how to handle the joys and pains of love. Working to build self esteem, youth ministers run programs that help young people come to know and love themselves better. It is especially important that the youth minister helps young people to know what Jesus meant when he said “love one another as I love you.”
“Effective ministry with young people who are in dating relationships works at encouraging young people to recognize that their own “hearts burning” experiences are mere hints of the love that God has for them.” See http:// www.archbalt.org/ youngchurch/tlw/whatyou- can-do.cfm for full text.
Everything that happens in youth ministry is geared to help young people love God, themselves and others. Every catechetical session, lock-in, retreat and social outing can be and should be used to teach young people how to relate to others. There is no magic formula to prepare adolescents for marriage. Everything that happens in the life of a young person can be used to teach him or her about healthy relationships.
As a parent, I will continue to use my son’s experience as a catechetical tool. This, I hope, will be just one opportunity for him to witness the joys of love. As a mother and youth minister, I pray that he will always remember and try to imitate what he experienced.
Margaret Brogden is Coordinator for Youth Ministry Formation for the Archdiocese of Baltimore and has one son.