For the 24th year, His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph gathered the priests and deacons of the Diocese of Los Angeles and the West for the Clergy Seminar in Alhambra, California from Feb. 7-10, 2022.
“In last 24 years, we have matured and grown together,” His Eminence told them. “We have a long way to go. I am still a beginner.”
This year’s theme was entitled: “Responding to the Fire Bell in the Night: Ministering to our Youth and Young Adults.” This is the theme of the Archdiocese’s “Year of the Youth.” Sayidna Joseph welcomed Fr. Nicholas Belcher and Mrs. Erin Ghata of the Archdiocesan Task Force for Youth and Young Adult Ministry, and Dr. John Mark Reynolds of The Saint Constantine School, as the keynote speakers to help stop the world from luring away our youth from lives in Christ.
“A priest who is merely a businessman, social activist, or community organizer stands no chance of countering the gravitational pull of this worldliness,” His Eminence said in his opening address. “Now more than ever, the Church needs saints to lead—priests who are like angels in the flesh, doing everything in a godly way, and who imitate our most compassionate Lord by seeking out the lost sheep regardless of the cost in blood, sweat, and tears. We must model the Faith in our lives and authentically care for our youth, being present with them, showing love, and listening.”
This way, the laity can follow them to guide the youth and young adults in their congregations.
“Seize the moment. Rejoice in being here,” His Eminence continued. “We have a lot to learn from one another. This is a premium time to listen to good teachings.”
Each generation has its own set of challenges that it must overcome while living its life in Christ. The keynote speakers discussed how to help our young people do that and overcome their blockers.
Firstly, our teenagers and young adults want to feel like they are full members of the Church and the Body of Christ. They don’t want to be dismissed as children with nothing to contribute.
Mrs. Erin Ghata, Archdiocesan Youth Director, presented her findings of the Archdiocese’s survey of hundreds of teens, youth workers, parents, Sunday School teachers and clergy on the second day of the seminar.
The survey also found that our young people need engagement and to fill ministries within their parishes, along with mentoring from their clergy and lay leaders. Some of the youth are ready to jump in. For some others, “Meet them where they’re at, but you may have to walk where they’re sitting,” Erin said.
In the survey, one teen expressed concern that many adults are combining our faith with their political affiliation in an unhealthy manner. Metropolitan Joseph responded that the adults in the lives of our young people must show that they are instead living lives in Christ.
The majority of teens reported that their experiences at the Archdiocesan summer camps best set them on the path for lifelong participation in the Church and communion with God.
Also on the second day of the seminar, His Eminence visited the meetings of all five deaneries of the diocese.
The third day of the clergy seminar began with the Divine Liturgy for the leave-taking of the feast of the Meeting (Presentation) of Christ in the Temple. At that time, Metropolitan Joseph made Fr. Andrew Bardwell, pastor of All Saints of America Church in Homer, Alaska, a father confessor.
“The sacrament of confession does not belong to this earth. The Holy Spirit heals us after repentance,” His Eminence said. “The first thing is to love those people who seek your help. When you judge others, you will lose them. Your job is to heal and share God’s mercy.
“People fear confession because they fear they will be judged. The more you ask for God’s mercy, the more they will heal from their sin. They’re coming to be renewed.”
Later that morning, His Eminence and the clergy sat for the second keynote address. They learned that one danger confronting our youth and young adults in this world: the “absolutisation” of partial truths that can confuse them.
“God wants us to love everyone, welcome everyone, without judgment,” said Fr. Nicholas Belcher, the chairman of the Archdiocesan Task Force for Youth and Young Adult Ministry. “But we must repent and give up sinful ways and encourage others to do the same.”
Perhaps more than their predecessors, this generation of youth endure a “blizzard of information” that blocks their view of the true Christ and His Church. Fr. Nick told the clergy that it’s not about having the right youth director, programs or retreats. We must help the teens understand what they’re going through by affirming their feelings, even when wrong, and then challenge them.
On top of that, “There’s always peer pressure, ridicule and accusations when young people and all people try to do the right thing,” Fr. Nick said.
There are no quick fixes, but Fr. Nick said to start with loving Christ and His beauty, and showing our teens to do that. The task force has identified four pillars for our churches to help the youth and young adults: engagement with the liturgical life of the Church, living ascetically to the best of their abilities, creating and seizing opportunities for service, and receiving mentorship of patient clergy and elders.
Good, Orthodox Christian education is also critical for our youth, and this was the subject of the third and final keynote address on the last day of the clergy seminar.
“You cannot receive 16 years of secular education where the truths of the Faith are unimportant, and check that with 1-2 hours a week for Sunday School and youth group,” Dr. John Mark Reynolds, they president of The Saint Constantine School. He taught how to establish Orthodox Christian K-12 schools at the parish level.
He told them to start small – as several of Saint Constantine’s affiliates across the Archdiocese have done – and to bring in educators of all teaching disciplines. He cited the example of Patriarch Ignatius IV of thrice-blessed memory when he founded the University of Balamand in 1988.
“Antioch has always held firmly to the faith while broadening to embrace the whole world, without having to compromise Orthodox Christianity,” John Mark said. “It’s needed in our intellectual tradition today.”
Even the math and science classes are connected to Christ, he said. Saint Constantine also offers collegiate bachelor degrees.
To conclude the clergy seminar, His Eminence thanked the keynote speakers and all of his clergy who made the retreat possible. Fr. Michael Laffoon, pastor of St. Mark Church in Irvine, California – who has attended all 24 clergy seminars in the diocese – called it the best one he ever experienced. He and his brother clergy thanked His Eminence for his vision and leadership, as they look forward to next year’s gathering.