Katie Prejean McGrady is a Catholic speaker, author, and youth minister from Lake Charles, Louisiana. In March of 2018, she gathered with three hundred other young adults in Rome to help the Catholic Church prepare for its Synod on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment. One year later, Pope Francis released his apostolic exhortation Christus Vivit [Christ Lives], summarizing the synod and encouraging the entire people of God to reflect on youth and how we can accompany them toward lives of holiness. We asked Katie for her perspective on this—and for a peek into her own life.
TWAU: Earlier this year, in the exhortation Christ Lives, Pope Francis wrote about some of the challenges facing modern young people. Why is this context important?
Katie: Quite frankly, we have to know what young people are up against. They are facing evil and violence at an earlier and earlier age. Student loan debt is crippling. Pornography addiction is rampant. Relativism is king in most secular college environments, and the idea that faith matters or that Jesus Christ is Lord is laughed off by a lot of people. Pope Francis wants us to know that the landscape of their lives has changed, which means we have to change our approach. We have to help young people understand that Christ enters into their suffering. He doesn’t abandon them in their hurt.
TWAU: Pope Francis suggests a blend of devotional and recreational activities to evangelize young people: silence, Eucharistic Adoration, music, nature, and sports. Does that strike a chord with your work?
Katie: Absolutely—we made it a priority in our youth ministry program to do a Eucharistic holy hour at least once a month followed by a time of fellowship. We also played a big dodgeball game every year, hosted silly theme parties, and rented huge, inflatable bounce houses during finals week to let the kids unwind. Our time together always flowed out of and back into encounters with Jesus: in the Eucharist, reading Scripture, spending time in prayer, and learning the truths of our faith. It is a holistic approach that can bear great fruit with teens. Three of my former teens from the youth group are in seminary, and two others are now working for the Church. They definitely encountered God along the way!
TWAU: How do you bring the faith to life when you speak to young people?
Katie: Young people usually want to know how I’ve seen the Lord acting in my life, why he matters to me today, and how they can meet him too. I recently told a story about a little boy in an airport. He was cheering people on at the baggage claim—literally clapping for them when they grabbed their suitcases off the carousel. I thought this illustrated how God is truly on our side. He watches and cheers and supports us as we stand and wait and then step up and act. The story was super simple, but it really resonated with the audience because in that tiny encounter, God spoke to me and I saw him working through that little boy. The ability to notice God at work is something we can teach our young people.
TWAU: What kind of creative evangelism do you see coming from young people?
Katie: There’s a really cool movement of people on Instagram and Twitter who are sharing their faith. They post about experiences at Mass, explain how they encounter God, and host Instagram Live video chats to explore what they believe. Young people (especially members of Generation Z, who were born after 1995, but also Millennials) are totally digital natives. They feel comfortable on the Internet, and they’re using digital forums to share, learn, connect, and grow in their faith.
Just recently, a seminarian on Twitter, John De Guzman, started a trend with the hashtag #BreviaryViews. He took a picture of his Liturgy of the Hours prayer book with a cool background and posted it. Within a few days, hundreds of people from around the world also posted pictures of where they were praying the Divine Office. From there some folks started a fund to donate breviaries to people who wanted to pray but couldn’t afford their own copy. What creativity! How beautiful! How simple!
TWAU: How can parishes and families help young people to engage with their faith?
Katie: As lay men and women, we’re called to bring our “Church life” into areas of our lives where we may not think it fits: to talk about the homily we heard on Sunday in the lunchroom at work; to invite friends to join us for a parish picnic; to hang crucifixes and Catholic art in our homes and tell people who come over why it’s there; to give testimony and witness to the glory of God in the everyday. And when it comes to teens, we ask them to do the same.
You might begin by teaching them how to tell their stories—the joys, sorrows, sufferings, and successes they experience—and to articulate how Jesus Christ is in the midst of that. The witness they give each other is far more powerful than any talk I might give because they understand each other. Their honesty and vulnerability with other young people can bring about encounters with Christ.
And then we need to listen. It’s important to give our young people space and to ask them, “What do you want to do?” We have to give them permission to disagree, to explore and dive deep into a topic so they can wrap their heads around it. Without us interjecting or correcting, they need the freedom to talk to one another. The way they talk about something—by posting on social media or reacting to something they’ve seen—may look different from the way adults would interact, and that’s okay. We have to enter into their reality and let them teach us what’s going on in their world, in their minds, and in their hearts. Then we can respond to what we see, hear, and notice with them.
TWAU: Any words of encouragement for parents and youth ministers who are worried about how God will reach the kids they care about?
Katie: Sometimes it seems that my best efforts with young people are falling on hardened hearts and deaf ears. But it’s in those moments that God encourages me to keep going. In this work, all of us get to help young people love Jesus. While we may not see the fruit of our labor right away, we’re planting seeds in the fields of their hearts—and there is no greater work than that.
TWAU: Pope Francis says that this next generation is the “now” of the Catholic Church, not her future. Do you believe this, Katie? Tell us what gives you hope for the future of young people in the Church?
Katie: I do believe this, wholeheartedly. Pope Francis tells us that “youthfulness” means an openness to newness, movement, and action—not just an age range. Young people have a lot to offer the Church. They have ideas, opinions, and talents. They have real openness and hunger for the truth.
When I speak and work at events with young people, I can see and feel their urgent desire to learn, worship, pray, and become closer to the Lord. Many young people—even those who have wandered from the Church and have sworn off belief—are passionate, zealous, and feel strongly. This is good. Their passion isn’t something we should hide from or ignore but instead harness and embrace by inviting them to the table.
At the pre-synod meeting, Pope Francis said something that I haven’t forgotten for a year and a half now. He said to us attendees, “If you are not present, then a part of the access to God is missing.” In other words, each person can make a unique contribution to the Church through their worldview and individuality. I think those words are remarkably relevant to young people today who need to know we need them and who hope to be needed.
Go deeper into the Catholic Church’s reflection on accompanying young people at www.synod2018.va.