Faith for the youth

First slide

Bill Gavin knows what it's like to be young and confused about God. Though he grew up Catholic, he had years of doubt and questions about his own faith. Since then, Gavin has dedicated himself to a career in ministry as a religion teacher and youth minister.

Confusion in college

Gavin grew up in Alexandria where he attended Queen of Apostles Church and school. After graduating from Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria in 1988, he went on to study religion and philosophy at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.

Though Gavin always had been active in the faith - attending youth group and yearly Christian Family Movement retreats with his family - he lost his safety net when he got to college.

"My experience with church was very focused on a small group of people," he said. "In college, it was a whole variety of things - being away from home, being away from what was familiar; I went through some difficulties."

During his sophomore and junior year, Gavin didn't know what he believed. Though he stopped going to church, he still had an instinctive need for God in his life. When he was troubled, he went to pray at night outside St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg.

He also was drawn to faithful role models. A Christian philosophy teacher helped him understand how Christian thought mixed with philosophy, and a friend from his soccer team invited him to attend Intervarsity, the university's Christian fellowship group.

"I was fairly connected to the world of Evangelical Christianity for a little while," Gavin said. "There were a lot of good people that I met, but I never felt at home with that."

Forming an adult faith

During his senior year and after college, Gavin began to feel more comfortable with his own Catholicism. After college, he got a job helping Youth Apostle Father Peter W. Nassetta, parochial vicar of Queen of Apostles. He also decided to study theology for a year at Catholic University in Washington, and then at Princeton Theological in Princeton, N.J. Gavin, one of very few Catholics at Princeton, got a job working as an assistant to the chaplain.

"The experience at Princeton was certainly not what I expected," he said. "I had a very unique experience where I was working in the campus ministry, so I met a lot of great Catholic people, but it immediately challenged my faith in a way I'd never been challenged before."

In those years, Gavin began to deeply study his faith. For two years, he ran the campus ministry Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program, which strengthened his faith even more. By the time he graduated in 1997, Gavin thought he might have a vocation to the priesthood.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I knew I was being called to the ministry," he said. "I looked at the priesthood, I visited some friaries, and in the middle of all that turmoil, I met my wife."

Or technically, he met his wife again. Gavin and Gina had known each other since 1975, when they were in kindergarten. After attending elementary school together, they went their separate ways. They were reconnected when Gavin visited a friend at the University of Dallas in Texas, where Gina was a student. They married two years later in 1999.

A career in ministry

Gavin moved back to Virginia in 1997 and became involved with the Youth Apostles. He worked as a full-time youth minister at St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax until 2005, when he began teaching religion at Ireton.

"I enjoy having fun with students, I'm interested in the faith and it always felt very natural to me," he said. "Teaching can be very draining, but I truly love what I do. I love going to school and spending time with students."

Gavin also serves as part-time coordinator of youth ministry at his parish, Holy Trinity in Gainesville. That job can be particularly challenging, he said.

"Certainly there are times when it can challenge your faith, when you don't do as well as you like, and you start to question yourself," he said. "Most people have no idea what a youth minister does, but most youth ministers that I know are continually thinking about their kids, praying for them and worrying about them. You have to be very careful to understand your limits and to know there's only so much you can control."

To make the faith fun, he tries to bring humor into all of his lessons with jokes and funny videos.

"I think that young people (should) see the church as a place where they can laugh and have fun, a place where they can be joyful," he said. "The day that I'm not laughing while doing youth ministry is the day I should quit. God doesn't send us kicking and screaming to where He wants us to be. If you're not joyful in what you're doing you should be doing something different."

Over the years, Gavin said he has received great support from his friends and family, especially his wife. Today, he and Gina have five children - four boys and one girl.

"My wife is a tremendous spiritual guide and somebody that, for anyone who knows her well knows, she is a very wise person," Gavin said. "She has kept me out of trouble many times."

In his work, Gavin hopes he can help young people come to know and love Jesus.

"I think the faith is impossible to know outside of a relationship - you have a relationship to the church, to your parents, to your friends and to God," Gavin said. "If you approach your faith as a bunch of rules, it's never going to make sense. (Young people should) understand that God wants the best for you, He doesn't want to make your life miserable."

Gavin said his favorite part of his work is when something the students learned has touched their heart. Sometimes he's been surprised by students - that the ones who didn't seem to be paying attention were the most affected by what he taught them.

"Anytime you get a sense that a teen has kind of got it, you're just experiencing the presence of God," he said.

Bahr can be reached on Twitter @KBahrACH.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013