Keeping the pilot light lit

Isabelle Boyd looks at how to keep young people engaged with the Church.

One of the recurring themes from the Synodal conversations I was involved in was concern at the number of young people ‘absent’ from church.

As a Catholic headteacher I believed it was important to have Mass in school for all pupils on feast days and opportunities for reconciliation during Advent and Lent. I often worried about low participation levels.

Discussing this one day with the school chaplain he suggested that we continue to provide these opportunities as a way of ‘keeping the pilot light lit’ in the hope that one day our young charges would find their way back.

I offer these wise words, which I have held dear ever since, to all parishes and families worried that the young are not attending Mass. It is our ministry to keep the pilot light lit in their hearts in the hope that one day it will spark to life.

So how can we keep pilot lights lit in the young in our families and parishes? I don’t think we can do this by lecturing or blaming them for what we perceive as their disinterest or by labelling them as lapsed.

We can keep their pilot lights lit by modelling the faith and by providing opportunities for them in our homes and parishes.

We have to model our own faith in the way we live our lives. We cannot be using words of hate, injustice or inequality. We need to live gospel values to demonstrate that our faith is not simply a cloak we put on each Sunday. We know our young people are often in tune with Church social teaching as evidenced by their support for ‘green’ issues and the marvellous fundraising they do in schools for charities such as Missio, Mary’s Meals and Aid to Church in Need.

We need to help them recognise this as living the Faith. We also need to talk openly about faith, about parish and about our beliefs – not in an argumenta- tive way but just plain and simple conver- sation. How about this kind of chat?

▶ At Mass today Father said we should remember …. in our prayers as she is very ill.

▶ We had the annual collection for SCIAF last week and it raised more than


▶ The sermon today focused at Pope Francis’ latest encyclical on the environment – about the need to take care of our planet

▶ I was thinking about you today in Mass when we said ‘O merciful Father, gather to yourself all your children scattered throughout the world.’

▶ I said a wee prayer for you today for your exams.

All of these may result in the rolling of teenage eyes, but you are showing your Faith to be a key part of your life. You just never know when this will come back to your young person and help them find their way to their own relationship with God.

We can keep the pilot light lit in our parishes by setting the tone and by creating the structures to ensure that young people have opportunities to know the Faith, live the Faith and share the Faith. What do we provide in parishes that is meaningful to young people? I am really unsure.

Pre-Covid we had many teenagers undertaking their Caritas award in school and doing work within the parish. I often wondered where they went next. We don’t build on this tangible sense of service and Faith and we let them go. We now urgently need to find ways to help some of them come back and for the next cohort to stay.

Parishes need to be at the heart of this. Maybe we need Youth Ministry coordinators, a range of activities – things for them do get involved in. I do not have the answers but many of us are willing to reach out and listen to the voices of the young.

Let’s find out what they want, what they need and then build with them.

We know and understand that many young people feel disillusioned and no longer identify with the Catholic tradition. We have to help young people make sense of their world and how this relates to the teachings of Christ.

Therefore, our role is to model and create opportunities of faith in action to ‘keep the pilot light lit ‘and assist people to build a relationship with Jesus now or in the future.

I have used the pilot light imagery here but I am also reminded of chapter 42 from Prophet Isaiah who tells us that God ‘will not break the bruised reed, nor quench the dimly burning flame’.

In other words, what we see as a weak candle needs to be nurtured to help it burst into full light. Finally, and most obviously we need to continue to pray for all young people in our homes and those who have flown the nest that they have the opportunity to live full lives and that one day their pilot light will spark and they will know the joy of Easter in their hearts.

Isabelle Boyd is a Education Consultant Cor ad Cor and former Catholic Headteacher.

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