Reaching teens: The priest who roared

Mary Hasson

Photo by Petr Kratochvi

It’s hard to impress a 16-year-old boy. 

And it’s even harder to impress a 16-year-old boy with a Sunday homily.

But on a recent Sunday, a priest at our parish (we’ll call him “Fr. Joe”) did just that.

“Hey, you know that visiting priest, mom?  He was on fire. It was like one of those old fire and brimstone deals. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Neither, apparently, had most of the other teens in the Church.  Or even most of the adults, most likely.

His topic?

Pop culture…and its brazen efforts to normalize sexual perversity. Not an easy topic on which to engage teenagers positively and persuasively.

Teens too easily put on mental headphones and tune out “predictable” grown ups. “Yeah, yeah.  Back in the day…lecture 192.” Besides haven’t adults always complained about rock-n-roll, teen culture, fashions, and the like? It’s just a generational thing.

But when a priest grabs their attention, keeps them listening—and gives them something meaty to take home and chew on--it’s worth noticing what works.

So what went right?

For starters, Fr. Joe got their attention. He didn’t glide gently into his topic. He fairly roared. He spoke passionately, compelling attention by the volume and certitude in his voice. His voice conveyed the unspoken message: ‘Listen up. This is important. The stakes are high: your soul and our culture hang in the balance.’

Father Joe wasn’t angry and out of control.  But he was vehement, concerned, and loud. Troubled about the likely future of our culture, he insisted that his listeners respond, in their own lives, to what he was saying.

Look at it this way:  kids understand passion. Celebrities, teachers, coaches, and websites encourage our teens to discover their passion and pursue it, to find what matters to them, and to be a voice for it. But if a priest or youth leader addresses sexual morality or serious cultural problems with the same bland tone of the weekly “doughnuts-and-coffee-in-the-parish-hall-after-all-Masses” announcement, few teens will listen. 

And why should they?  The speaker’s tone of voice implicitly says, “I know you’re not listening but, bear with me, I’m required to say this.”

Hardly a way to inspire teens to risk their popularity, face humiliation, or endure rejection because they stand up for truth.

A priest who roars, on the other hand, gets their attention.  Don’t cringe. I’m not advocating a weekly rant or ear-splitting homilies.  But our teachers, pastors, and ministers need to command attention and one way to do that is to let loose with the change-up pitch.  Be unpredictable. A dropped voice, a whispering tone, or compelling rhetoric does the trick too.

What else worked about Fr. Joe’s homily? 

He used specific words, pointed criticisms, and concrete analogies. Gay marriage?  It’s like Grape Nuts: neither grape nor nuts. Gay marriage isn’t “gay”—the homosexual lifestyle teems with unhappiness, depression, disease, and substance abuse. And it isn’t “marriage” either. Marriage has a centuries old meaning that cannot be changed by popular vote—it requires the faithful sexual intimacy of a man and woman, united permanently to parent the children born of their intimacy. Two women and a turkey baster (or two guys and a rented womb) can’t compare.

Dozens of times a day, the culture pulses seductive, destructive messages to our kids—through music, videos, websites, peer conversations, the media and our schools.  (Read Mary Beth Hicks’ excellent new book "Don’t Let the Kids Drink the Kool-Aid," and you’ll see the problem.) 

Teens need us to respect them enough to provide reasons why certain acts are immoral.  Forget the euphemisms. Give them the words to defend traditional morality and provide the examples that challenge the lies behind accepted cultural ‘wisdom.’ If we want our teens to rebuff the culture’s assault on morality, then we need to tackle the other side’s arguments head on. Where else will our teens hear the truth, if not from their families and the Church?

Kudos to Fr. Joe for tackling tough subjects, with passion, clarity, and certitude.

I hope there’s more where that came from---in your parish and mine--for the sake of all our kids.

Topics: Faith , Young Women

Mary Rice Hasson, the mother of seven, is a Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C. She blogs at wordsfromcana.

View all articles by Mary Hasson

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