Austin Booth has no disrespect for his Catholic faith. But the 17-year-old senior at Jesuit High School has a confession to make.
"Sometimes when you go to Mass, it gets a little stale," he admits. "I don't think I'm inspired the way I should be. I'm hoping this trip will change that."
Booth is one of 52 students, alumni and staff from the private Catholic school on a pilgrimage to Rio de Janeiro where Jorge Mario Bergoglio - better known as Pope Francis - will lead Masses, make public appearances and open events at next week's 13th annual World Youth Day, running Tuesday through Sunday. Booth says he's hoping to get a "spiritual lift" by taking part in the 13th annual gathering.
"He's the first Jesuit pope, which makes this all the more special," Booth says. "What he stands for, we stand for. I can't wait to hear what he has to say."
There's no better time for the church to reconnect with its youth. A recent Barna Group poll found that a majority of young American Catholics believe that the church's teachings on sexuality are "out of date" and find Mass attendance an onerous obligation.
With more than 2 million people expected to converge on Brazil's second-largest city, this will be the pope's first large-scale event since his March election - and one in which the world will be watching. Observers say this likely is a pivotal moment in his papacy, because he will have the attention of the generation that is the future of the 1-billion-member church.
Already, the popular pontiff - who travels in a Ford Focus instead of a luxury sedan and lives in a Vatican guesthouse instead of the opulent papal residence used by his predecessors -- is making the right connections. He's got a Twitter account (@Pontifex) with 2.6 million followers, a Facebook page and a lifelong commitment to humility, simplicity and service that appeals to youth.
And on July 9, they got a little incentive from a Vatican decree that declares Pope Francis will give plenary indulges -- complete relief from the suffering of purgatory -- to those who follow World Youth Day celebrations on social media, live streaming or television. (To be fair, they also have to devote time to prayer and the Lord, and go to confession.)
Taking those steps is more than a goodwill gesture; it's a necessary one. Religion in general is not resonating with young Americans under 30, according to a study released late last year by the Pew Research Center. One third of those polled said they had "no religious affiliation" at all -- the highest number of "nones" ever reported.
So finding ways to reach out to that generation without compromising values is crucial. Pete O'Shea, a senior youth minister at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Largo and a radio host on WTIS, says it starts with appealing to teenagers "in a way they can relate."
"This generation thinks and acts differently. They can assimilate information much faster than generations that came before them," O'Shea says. "Therefore, how they are taught their faith needs to be far less antiquated. If we're going to truly reach them, we must leverage technology as a teaching tool."
Living in a high-tech world isn't always advantageous, either, O'Shea says. The typical youth he works with juggles a full class load, a job, multiple hobbies and sports, online and in-person social circles. They still thirst for a relationship with God, he says, it's the responsibility of spiritual role models to arrange the initial meeting.
"Our childhoods were far less complicated and far more stable," O'Shea notes.
Justin Kelley, a Jesuit senior, is making his second World Youth Day trip. He was in Madrid for the 2011 gathering led by Pope Benedict XVI, who shocked his flock in February when he announced his resignation. That news meant the Brazil-bound pilgrims would be getting a firsthand glimpse of Benedict's successor.
That's one of the reasons Kelley didn't want to miss the opportunity to go on this trip, a $2,800 investment that included visits to Jesuit communities in Paraguay and Argentina. And more important, the Spain trip was a "life-changing" experience for him.
"It really rekindled my faith in such an incredible way," he says. "That's something you need every day. Because the secular world is so attractive and tempting, and it will suck you in if you don't pay attention."
This year's World Youth Day theme is "Go and Make Disciples of All Nations" (Matthew 28:19), a reflection of the pope's call for Catholics to evangelize. It's also consistent with why the late Pope John Paul II created World Youth Day in the first place back in 1986. He said he wanted to create a "powerful moment" in which the young people of the would could meet Christ and learn from him on how to be the bearers of the Gospel to other young people. He led nine World Youth Day celebrations before his death in 2005, and believed that the event served its purpose, with millions of younger Catholics becoming better Christian witnesses as a result of their participation.
Ryan Phelen, associate director for youth and young adult ministries for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, says despite the bad rap it gets, this generation is not afraid to answer that papal challenge.
"You evangelize by getting out there and doing good works, setting a Christ-like example. Yes, I've dealt with the ‘me, me, me' generation, but I see an equal amount of the ‘we, we, we' group that really gets it. They want to participate, they want to volunteer, they want to contribute," he says.
Last week, Phelen, 29, got to experience that call to service firsthand as he directed 50 teens in a "Young Neighbors in Action" project in Buffalo, N.Y. Among their projects: Volunteering at a camp for special needs kids and working on a Habitat for Humanity house.
"Youth today are living in an instant-gratification world," he says. "You post something about yourself online, and you've got 50 likes in 60 seconds. We focus on encouraging them to do good work, even when no one is watching. Do something you won't get credit for, simply because it's the right thing to do."
As a pastor, the Rev. Steve Ryan of Mary Help of Christians Parish has seen the typical drop-off of young Catholics who quit attending church once they leave home to go to college. Don't get concerned, Ryan is told. That's typical. They'll come back one day.
"That's not good enough," he says. "What are we doing wrong that we can't keep them committed to their faith through that searching period in their lives? We have to do a better job of keeping them connected. Because if they go away, they may not be coming back."
The message he gives his youth: Stick with it. This is a daily walk on a lifelong journey. Yes, the morality bar is high, but you can do it if you develop relationships with people who care about you.
Ryan, who has attended several World Youth Day events, says he thinks this pope is the right man to deliver that message to the multitudes on a global stage.
"Pope Benedict was like the kindly old grandfather," the priest says. "Francis, on the other hand, will be bringing some energy the kids can relate to."
And not only the youth. Sandra Sequeira and her husband, Yader, will be serving as chaperones for a World Youth Day-bound group of 14 from Resurrection Catholic Church in Riverview, which departed Friday for Brazil. Seven of those are college students.
"We did the one in Madrid and it was electrifying," says Sequeira, 51. "Being around those young people on fire for God does something to your soul and recharges your batteries. This time, it's going to be a historical experience with our new pope giving his message before his biggest audience yet. And we'll be right there in person to hear it."
Follow TBO.com for a World Youth Day blog and photos from the Jesuit pilgrimage group.
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