TWENTY-year-old Matt Foxon remembers well what it was like to be searching for answers and “hungry for purpose” in those awkward teenage years.
And now, having been away on the journey of a lifetime, he’s throwing himself into helping young people in his own backyard find their way through those years.
Matt’s taken on the role of youth ministry co-ordinator in his home parish at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish, Kenmore, this year and he’s drawing on lessons learned when he was in his teens and during two years of youth ministry with NET (National Evangelisation Teams).
Having grown up as the eldest of six children in a Catholic family who migrated from South Africa to Bellbowrie, in the Kenmore parish, when he was only one, he never “went off the rails” during his high school years at Marist College Ashgrove.
However, his faith, although still important, wasn’t top priority.
“Faith was important to me, and my family is quite Catholic – we always go to Mass and stuff – and I definitely had that foundation and I was never really rebellious or anything,” Matt said.
“Faith was there but it wasn’t the most important thing, and I think I felt that as well.
“Going through high school there was quite a sense of searching and wanting something in my life that was my thing.
“I think I had no idea what I wanted to do after school, through high school – like what career I wanted …
“I was pretty hungry for purpose, I think, but I think it was right under my nose the whole time.
“My faith was there but I just didn’t see how it could give me the purpose I craved.”
Matt said it wasn’t a popular thing to do “to speak about your faith or it’s becoming less and less common to be outspoken in that way, and I suppose with a lot of the other guys Mass wasn’t a thing they went to”.
“Religion was not something that really made you popular, and so it was something that I guess I wanted to distance myself from,” he said.
“I always saw the importance of it and I had my values but I wasn’t very outspoken on those; I was pretty quiet about them and tried to watch my own business there.
“I was hiding it from myself in a way; I wasn’t really leaning in to the faith.
“I kind of wanted to suppress it because I didn’t want to be identified as a church boy or whatever.”
A turning point came when he was persuaded to go on an Ignite Summer Camp, and his whole experience around that time shows the importance of the youth ministry he’s involved in now.
“I know particularly as in my experience in high school, especially the first years of high school, they were quite a time for me of searching …,” he said.
“It was just an awkward time in life. I was finding myself a bit and asking some questions and looking for some direction and looking for some guidance and role models.
“And, lucky for me, I did come across youth ministry through Ignite Youth and I went to a summer camp that they put on, … when I was 13.
“I had an experience at that summer camp that probably, I’d say, put me on course.
“It was like an encounter with the Lord and it definitely changed my perspective on the experience of faith, and I think if I had any doubts about God, I think that blew it away – that experience that I had there.”
He clearly remembers the night; it was when the camp leaders stood two-by-two to pray with individual youths as they came forward.
“I think it was on what they call Holy Spirit Night, … and two people were praying for me …,” Matt said.
“I had a feeling like I needed courage … (thinking) of what I’d gone through at the time in high school, I was kind of afraid to stand up for my faith, or come across as the church boy.
“I think I needed courage just to live that out, so I thought I’d ask for that.
“I can remember waiting in line feeling really nervous, but it was my turn to be prayed for.
“And the people praying for me – one of them just kept repeating the words ‘stand tall’ or ‘stand firm’ …
“I’d never experienced anything like it; it was like an encounter with the Holy Spirit.”
And, with renewed courage to live his faith, Matt’s next step in faith came at the end of high school.
“I wasn’t really too sure what I wanted to do at uni or what I wanted to study or anything, and I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll take a gap year just to think about it a bit …’,” he said.
“And I thought NET would be a good way to do that. That was probably the big reason; I just wanted a gap year.
“I didn’t really know what I was signing up for, I guess, but then the first year of NET was amazing.
“I was on the national team so that’s the team that travels around the country, and I was the youngest person on that team as well.
“It was a big team; there were 11 other people and it was cool – I got a lot of attention.
“I guess a lot of the responsibility sort of just went over my head and I had lots of fun travelling around and on retreats.
“I grew heaps in that year just with confidence and getting up and talking in front of people.
“We ran heaps of retreats for high-schoolers and primary-schoolers.”
He developed in people skills “like learning just to live with your team and resolve conflict and those sort of things”, and he grew in faith.
In that first year, Matt’s NET group travelled from Brisbane to Coffs Harbour, to Adelaide, Alice Springs, Darwin, Broome and Perth, and then back home.
Matt then signed up for a second NET year, this time for a diocesan team based in Wollongong diocese, NSW.
“I was on a smaller team, and I actually co-led that team, which was quite an honour but also a little bit scary at first,” he said.
“The second year was a lot more responsibility and I think I grew a lot more in leadership in that year.
“There were about nine high schools that we worked with pretty regularly in Wollongong – as well as in some primary schools.
“We travelled around the diocese and visited a lot of parishes.
“I reckon so far they were probably the best two years of my life.”
A new chapter in youth ministry opened for Matt in his home parish at the end of last year when Kenmore parish priest Fr Mark Franklin invited him to be youth ministry co-ordinator.
They’ve had a good year, firstly re-establishing a primary school youth group and forming a young adult group to add to the high school group that’s been “a constant”.
Matt knows well the importance of a good youth group – he’s experienced that with Ignite Youth.
“At that youth group there were leaders who cared about me and who were good role models and gave me something to hope for in the future, and there were quality friendships to be had at youth group,” he said.
“There are lots of high school students out there who are going through that same stuff (as I did) and who are asking questions and who have all sorts of concerns and worries.
“It’s a pretty scary time, especially the early years of high school, and I just hope that the high school youth group we have can be a safe place for the high-schoolers to get away from all the stress and anxiety, and connect with God and come to a deeper understanding of who they are and who God is and how much they’re loved.”
Seeing young people grow and “encounter God” is what motivates Matt.
“There’ve been a few times this year when we’ve had some chances for Adoration or prayer teams, and just seeing the youth step out of their comfort zone and seek the Lord, and take brave steps and grow in their relationship with Him, and seeing the change and seeing them flourish in the youth group and come out of their shells – seeing that week in, week out, I think that keeps me going,” he said.
“Knowing that they can come to OLR Youth and have that experience and grow in their faith and just encounter God, I think that’s the big thing.
“That’s what I want to provide.
“I don’t really want them to stay because it’s fun …; I want them to stay because they’ve met God here.
“That’s how their lives are really going to change; it’s only if they can have that relationship with God, and I just hope I can just play a small part in setting that up for them, I suppose – giving God a space where He can say G’day …”