Youth find life in the Bible

WCR PHOTO | THANDIWE KONGUAVI

Mike Landry (far right) leads a Bible study discussion at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic High School in Spruce Grove.

May 18, 2015
THANDIWE KONGUAVI
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

When students walk into Lorne Zelyck's Introduction to the Bible class at the University of Alberta's St. Joseph's College, he can quickly tell the difference between a young person who has had Bible reading fostered in their life and one who has not.

"Sometimes it's tragic how little they know," said Zelyck, whose students tend to be about 20 or 21 years of age.

"Other times, I'm blown away that something went right along the way with their parents, with their church, that they know issues, they know their text; they at least know what it says. So it's a wide range."

Often, said Zelyck, it seems students who have been raised in the Church and attended Catholic schools their whole lives have never read the Bible for themselves. Nor have they thought through the theological issues that the text presents.

"There was a girl that totally shocked me to where I'm like 'You have to be an evangelical Christian to know the Bible this way' because that's the trope – that Catholics know theology and not the Bible, and Protestants read the Bible more frequently."

Part of Zelyck's work is convincing his students of the importance of the Bible.

Some students understand that it's a sacred text that is relevant to their faith and they want to read it, he said. For others, it's a dead text on a bookshelf that meant something to people in earlier times or even now, but it's not worth their own effort to read it.

While the first Bible of many young Catholics collects dust on the shelf, Zelyck is not alone in attempting to engage more young Catholics in Bible reading.

A number of initiatives at schools and parishes in the Edmonton Archdiocese are successfully engaging an increasing number of students in active Bible reading.

One such initiative can be seen at St. Dominic Catholic High School in Rocky Mountain House, where teacher Barry Kirtzinger runs a lunchtime program called Smoothies for the Soul.

Now in its second year, every Tuesday at lunch students meet to pray, read Scripture, enjoy fellowship, make and drink delicious smoothies, and watch film clips of Catholic speakers.

"This extra-curricular program started humbly with only a few students attending, but it has flourished considerably since then," said Kirtzinger.

"This year I have seen groups of 20-25 students and staff arrive at my classroom at lunch to nourish their mind, body, and spirit. This is an impressive gathering for our small town Catholic high school."

The great response to the program has only confirmed for Kirtzinger – who does not believe the Bibles on the shelves of young Catholics are any dustier than the bibles on the shelves of older Catholics – that youth possess a deep-seated thirst for truth that demands satisfaction.

That thirst for truth, which can only be found in reading God's word, he said, often leads them on a desperate search in all of the wrong places.

"I have personally seen the life-altering power of the Holy Spirit working in youths who have discovered this veritas through Scripture," said Kirtzinger.

"Smoothies for the Soul offers students an opportunity to be intentional about their discovery of truth, meaning and the redemptive love of Christ."

LIVING WORD

The scriptural tagline of Kirtzinger's program, "One does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God," also rings true for students at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic High School in Spruce Grove.

There, students have been flocking to a lunchtime Bible study program run by Mike Landry, division chaplain for Evergreen Catholic Schools.

While there's little that draws young people more quickly than the promise of food, what started with just a few students meeting in the library for Bible study has grown this year to nearly 20 students forsaking their lunch hour once a week for the Bible meeting . . . with no promise of food.

"We can be guilty sometimes of not giving young people enough credit," said Landry, who has seen, like Kirtzinger, the hunger for truth that often leads young people away from the Church.

"What's driven them away is they don't see the relevance (of the Bible) in their lives. So what these kinds of opportunities do is give them a chance to kind of sink their teeth into it themselves, to make sense of it, to apply it and to bring it to life.

"It points them back to the sacraments and it points them back to the life of the Church because they start to see why it all fits together or what's going on."

The students learn in the Scriptures lessons about themselves, about the world around them and issues they are dealing with in our world today that have been dealt with for centuries, said Landry.

"Conflict among nations is not a new issue. People using religion as an excuse to fight each other is not a new issue. We see it all over the place," said Landry.

"They see themselves in these stories, they ask the questions and it's an amazing thing to watch when they can put two and two together on how a story applies to their lives or how the whole of the Bible fits together as one big picture of God's eternal rescue mission for us."

Grade 11 student Desiree Hoffman said young people can feel overwhelmed by the massive scale of the Bible. Not knowing where to start, they often end up not reading it at all.

"It's a very big book, so some find it intimidating," said Hoffman, who is grateful for the retreats she has attended and programs like Landry's Bible study.

In fact, it was the students themselves who requested the Bible study program, called Into the Deep.

"We wanted something deeper, something more to deepen our faith beyond the normal youth group some of us attend," Hoffman said.

However, encouraging more students to attend has posed a challenge.

"It's a big step in a young person's faith to go and pick up the Bible for themselves and read God's Scripture," she said.

For some, who are already ridiculed just for attending a Catholic school and being a practising Catholic, taking the extra step of going to daily prayer and Bible study and reading the Bible in their spare time can be seen as uncool.

"There's the fear of becoming a Bible thumper," said Hoffman.

Hoffman said she is seeing improvement in the acceptance of spiritual growth at her school.

"That's something that's been really nice at our school and in our community that we've created here, that everyone's accepted for their faith, for as much as they might have," she said. "It's all accepted and we're all there to support each other."

At St. Dominic's, the students are given a challenge before the closing prayer of each weekly lunch hour Bible meeting.

Recent challenges have included: Spend a few minutes with Scripture each day this week; discover your favourite Scripture passage and share it before the next meeting; discover what your favourite book of the Bible is and why.

Kirtzinger has encouraged the students to make it a goal to "wear out a Bible in your lifetime."

DVD series such as Decision Point, created by Matthew Kelly, have proven to be useful tools for engaging youth in Bible study. At St. Dominic, a DVD is sometimes used as a starting point for student reflection and discussion, said Kirtzinger.

One of Landry's favourite resources for high school students is T3: The Teen Timeline interactive DVD Bible study series from Ascension Press. T3 is based on the Bible timeline and tries to outline the big picture of the Bible for teens in a fun way.

The video series features a translation by Mark Hart, a popular Catholic speaker for young people.

"It takes them through the Bible and Gospels and apostles and tries to bring these things to life," said Landry, who has used the DVD series with great success.

The key to using multimedia tools, such as a DVD series, is that they point young people back to the Bible.

"If you use movies instead of a Bible, then yes, you're missing out. But movie resources or these timeline video talks, or websites, what they can do is they can point us in that direction," said Landry.

While film could be used to bring young people back to the Bible, film and videos posted to popular websites such as YouTube can also plant seeds of doubt.

In one of his 300-level classes, Jesus of the New Testament, Zelyck has his students watch Zeitgeist, a pseudo-documentary film which presents a number of conspiracy theories and makes bold claims against the Bible.

PROPAGANDA

Students must face propaganda that tries to tell them Christianity is false, said Zelyck. "It causes anxiety and fear, and if you're looking for a reason to walk away then sure it can provide a pseudo-intellectual reason or propaganda reason.

"If they know history but also the biblical text, they won't be fooled."

Brittney White, director of campus ministry at St. Joseph's College, believes a greater threat to engaging young people in reading the Bible is the lack of silence in society.

"Especially in the university, there's very little room for silence in our lives," said White.

"So it's important to teach students how to cultivate silence in their lives. We could learn so many different things about theology but unless we're silent and give God time to speak to us, it'll be hard to understand anything that we've learned."

Zelyck agrees that silent time with Scripture, such as lectio divina, or "divine reading" – a practice traditionally used in monasteries – is crucial for young Catholics.

"It's part of the devotion, part of the worship – a quiet time with God thinking about his word," said Zelyck. "There's growth in that."

Through silence, young people could be encouraged spiritually along the way, said Zelyck, who believes that avoiding Scripture is also a spiritual illness.

"If (the word) is God and you don't want to talk to God and you don't want to hear God, then you're not going to read the Bible," he said. "You won't come near it because you might read stuff that you don't like and it disagrees with your social world or whatnot."

WORK OF THE SPIRIT

A longing to meet with God will draw a person to Scripture, he said. "That's the work of the Spirit."

White encourages adults to not be afraid to talk to young people about the Bible and about their faith. She also encourages students to get spiritual direction from people in ministry – underscoring a need for more youth ministry and trained, educated youth ministers in churches.

"It's important that we're not just hiring people who have a lot of passion for children, but also people who are educated, who could start to answer deep theological questions that teenagers do have," said White.

"Then once they get to the university level, they have some sense of the importance of reading the Bible."

At St. Peter's, Hoffman said she is encouraged by the correlation she has seen between reading the Bible more through the lunchtime Bible study program and increased prayer and spiritual growth among the students.

"I would love for it to be that all young Catholics would see (the Bible) as a tool that they're able to use in prayer and their own spiritual growth," she said. "That they would never be worried or scared to be able to take the time to look at it and really be able to be a part of the mysteries and the stories that are within it."

The bottom line, said Landry, is to get them to open the book.

"What can be done going forward? I think it's not a question of going looking for the perfect Bible study," he said. "It's finding whatever we could do to get them to open the book.

"The Bible studies and the videos and other things – all of them are tools to get them to look in the book and that's what we want. We want them to open the book; we want them to listen to God's voice speaking.

"Yes, we're hearing it every Sunday at Mass but there's a reason why Scripture is such a prominent part of the Mass; we need to read it, we need to hear it, we need to know it."

CONNECTING WITH GOD

Zelyck maintained that if there is a sure way for a person to connect with God, it is by reading the Bible, God's "spoken word to humanity."

"Second Timothy says 'All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training for this Christian life.'

"That's what it's for, but also at the end of the Gospel of John he says, 'These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that through believing you will have life in his name.'"

Landry posts his weekly Bible studies for young Catholics at www.iamthird.ca.