WASHINGTON (CNS) — For Katie Prejean-McGrady, youth and young adult ministry is about building relationships.
Prejean-McGrady, 28, is one of three delegates representing the United States at a pre-synod gathering at the Vatican March 19-25 in preparation for this October’s Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment.
Gearing up for the pre-synod gathering, Prejean-McGrady, a youth minister, wife and mother, has been reflecting on her own ministry’s best practices and reading the fall synod’s preparatory document.
Highlighted in her notes is a line from the document’s section on accompaniment: “It is a question of fostering a person’s relationship with God and helping to remove what might hinder it.”
“It seems as if Pope Francis’ vision of youth ministry,” Prejean-McGrady said, “is standing alongside the person and shining a light — not dragging them along that path kicking and screaming — but saying let’s walk on this path together.”
“In my experience of ministry, that’s what works best, is that walking with,” she said.
Born and raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana, she grew up in a tightknit Catholic family and community. “I’ve always made the joke: Some kids grow up going to the baseball field, and some kids grow up going to the dance studio, but we grew up going to church,” she said.
Despite being active in the church from a young age, faith did not always come easy.
A turning point came her junior year of high school, when Hurricane Rita hit Louisiana fall of 2005, and her city, Lake Charles, was evacuated for eight weeks.
“High school up to that point had been pretty easy and pretty great,” she said, “and then this hurricane hit.”
She wondered why God would let this happen. “I went through a very angry period right there, and of course, that’s when I was going through confirmation preparation as well,” Prejean-McGrady said.
Her mother, one of the confirmation teachers, told her, “‘I’m not going to force you to be confirmed. I’m not going to make you do this, but you have to go to classes.'”
“It was a slow burn,” Prejean-McGrady said, but gradually, she came to an understanding of “why bad things happen and how the Lord uses our suffering to essentially sharpen our faith and help trust him more.”
Her youth minister at the time also provided support, by setting up a Facebook group to keep the youth group connected. “She wanted to make sure we felt we still had a home in the church even if our houses were destroyed and even if our school was messed up,” Prejean-McGrady said.
These and other experiences of being ministered to in her diocese helped Prejean-McGrady discern a call to pursue a theology degree at the University of Dallas to become a youth minister.
At the pre-synod gathering, Prejean-McGrady plans to spend much of her time simply listening.
“And as a mom, I’ve discovered, in just five and a half months, I think I know a lot about something and then my reality is completely shifted,” she said.
She’s eager to hear the experiences of the delegates from around the globe.
“The lived experience of ministry is going to look different in Africa versus America versus France,” Prejean-McGrady said. “I want to know how it works. I want to know how it doesn’t work.”
In the pre-synod discussions, she hopes to contribute her perspective as a wife and mother, and sees the importance of raising the topic of family life in ministry.
Her husband, Tommy, is a teacher and part-time youth minister at a parish. His ministry and relationship with teens at the parish has benefited from involving Katie and their daughter, Rose, Prejean-McGrady said.
“Even just seeing a picture of family life, of a husband and wife working hard at their relationship and working hard to raise their child, bringing their baby to the church on a consistent basis” has been fruitful for the ministry, Prejean-McGrady said.
Young people are looking for visions of family life and for great examples and models of virtue, Prejean-McGrady said. “So I want to bring forward that testimony.”
When it comes to approaching young adults who no longer practice the faith, building relationships is crucial.
“When you meet young adults that have left the faith,” Prejean-McGrady said, “sit down with them and say, ‘Why did you leave?'”
“Give them a voice and an opportunity to tell us where they’re at,” she said, “then slowly build a relationship of trust and understanding with them, not in pursuit of just getting them back to church, but because you want to know who they are, because they are a valuable person in and of themselves.”
Prejean-McGrady said she looks forward to gaining a greater appreciation for good ministry being done internationally and to gathering information to bring back to the U.S. bishops.
“Personally, I’m looking forward to good gelato and pizza,” she said. “And it’s on all three of our (the delegates) bucket lists to shake Pope Francis’ hand and say thank you for what he’s done for our church.”