I had just came out of the church after celebrating Mass. An altar server came up to me and told me that one youth decided to leave home and wanted to speak with me. I saw a bag sitting in the guard house and I got nervous thinking, it must really be true. I knew who the kid was and so I asked for him. When I found him, his eyes were red from crying and so I asked him to see me in one of the counseling/confession rooms. He sat down and started to sob.
He had a fight with his mother who told him to leave the house unless he stops serving in the church as an altar server. He explained that he has done everything his mother told him to do but he cannot leave the church or stop being an altar server.
He then said, "the church is home for me. Home is not home." The boy explained that the church is like a home for him not like the house he lives in. He feels at home and is free to be himself in the church. I tried my best to calm him down and asked him to go back home. After a little more convincing, he told me he would go home.
In May 2015, after my diaconate ordination, I joined the parish team in Malate Catholic Church. As a deacon, I started to assist another priest in the parish youth ministry and later on took over from him accompanying the youth of the parish.
Building on what was started and already organized, we continued to conduct monthly general assemblies for the youth and faith-sharing sessions twice a month.
Most of the young people come from difficult family situations, and many of them consider Malate Church as their home. One young girl shared how her mother is addicted to drugs, taking it to help her keep up with work and leaving her siblings to her to care for. Another shared that she finds herself alone because her parents left her with her maternal grandmother since her parents are now separated and have their own families. She envies her friends who have families to call their own. A young person told me that his mother is angry at him because he reminds her of her father who left her, and he is introduced as a cousin to his stepbrothers. His mother has a family of her own now. A young girl, just 14 years old, comes home late drunk and pretends to be sick. Her mother continues to look after her probably knowing that she is not sick at all but drunk. She continued to share that she does not understand why she is angry at her parents, just angry. There is so much hurt and pain in their stories.But there is hope. Knowing that the parish and the church is there for them, many of them come home to church to be nourished – to feel accepted and needed.
When young people consider the church a home, I feel we have truly become the church Jesus intended us to be — a home for everyone.
To see them laugh and enjoy being who they are is really heart-warming and life-giving. People noticed that the young people are alive. The church is alive.
Working with the youth in Malate has strengthened my conviction like Pope Francis who said in one of his interviews, "This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity."
The church is a home particularly to vulnerable groups of people like the youth. Many of them are looking for attention and affection which is often lacking or missing in their family life. Most of them just want to be listened to and to feel they belong and are needed. The parish has been providing opportunities for them to take on responsibilities and to show their talents.
In the final month of my stay in the parish, the young people put up a "surprise farewell" for me. It was really a surprise for me to hear from them. As they shared one after the other, I could not help but cry a lot inside and hold back some tears but a few dropped not of sadness but of joy listening to them. I often wondered how was I able to survive a year with these crazy, beautiful inside-out young people?
I am called by so many different names from "kuya" which means older brother to "pads" short for "father" to names only they can understand. I learned to speak their language and listened to their stories.
Having worked in Fiji as a missionary and spent time with young people there, and now working with Filipino young people has been an inspiring and educational experience for me – disheartening and challenging at times but also joyful and fulfilling. Thank you! You all taught me that it is ok to be me.
God calls us to be faithful, not successful, that is what Cardinal Tagle said at a closing of a youth program. It's true, young people today are trained to be successful in life, to find their value in terms of how they look by the standards of the world or in terms of accomplishments measured in awards and grades.
Cardinal Tagle at the Third Philippine Conference on the New Evangelization commented that we are trained to be problem-solvers. We are anxious to find solutions to everything because we make everything a problem. He suggested that instead of seeing everything as a problem we must treat them as dilemmas. Life is a dilemma – a reality we live with, not a problem to be solved. In turn we are called to be faithful not successful problem-solvers.
Young people are not problems to be solved, not mere objects of the church. They are the church, too. And when young people consider the church a home, I feel we have truly become the church Jesus intended us to be – a home for everyone.
A comment from a young person that continues to stick with me is "God does not always give what we want but God always give what we need." And I believe the church is God's response to our need. The comment of the young boy who said, "Ang simbahan po para sa akin ay tahanan hindi tulad sa bahay" meaning, "The church is like a home for me not like the house I live in." This is a reminder to adults to welcome every young person just like how Jesus welcomed every child who came to Him, a reminder for us to be a home to everyone.
Columban Fr. Kurt Zion Pala lives and works in Myanmar.