Gonzalo Alvarado understands youthful rebellion, anger, self-doubt, peer pressure and the misbegotten promises of secular culture
By Christina Gray
The Redwood City native was hired in late 2022 as the new coordinator of youth and young adult ministry for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Informed by his own circuitous faith journey, Gonzalo Alvarado is on a mission to galvanize the faith of young local Catholics from adolescence through early adulthood.
Alvarado is visiting parishes as he wraps his arms around his new job, offering a compelling tale of spiritual estrangement and reconciliation — his own.
“When you share about your own life and how God has worked miracles in it, I think that story is a way to reach youth and young adults,” he told Catholic San Francisco. You can talk all about God’s goodness and love, he said, and about how He sent His Son to die on the cross so that we could have eternal life. “But if they don’t hear something concrete from someone they can relate to, it might not get through,” he said.
Alvarado is responsible for organizing or facilitating confirmation retreats, catechetical events, speaker series, pilgrimages (such as to World Youth Day), mission trips, special liturgical opportunities, leadership training and more.
A priority, he said, is helping establish parish-based ministries for youth and young adults where none exist and reviving those that disappeared during the pandemic.
“Less than one-half of the parishes in the Archdiocese have active youth or young adult ministries,” said Alvarado. Many existing ministries went dormant in or after 2020, and some have “simply failed to come back.”
The “now of God”
In 2016, Pope Francis proposed a synod process to help the Church respond to the realities of young people in matters of faith, Church and vocational calling. A year after the 2018 Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis issued a post-synodal apostolic exhortation in which he called young Catholics the “now of God.”
“We cannot just say that young people are the future of the world. They are its present. Even now, they are helping to enrich it.” (“Christus Vivit,” 67)
For pastoral purposes, young Catholics fall into two separate demographic groups, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Youth” includes middle and high school students ages 13-18; “young adults” are college students, singles, married couples and young parents ages 18-39.
The bishops have long recognized the value of youth and young adults as a means of “advancing the Gospel with every generation.”
“Young people inject a contagious energy into their societal and ecclesial communities and set hearts on fire,” the bishops collectively write at usccb.org. “The Church cannot ignore youth and young adults, for they are active witnesses to the love of Jesus Christ in the world.”
In two separate pastoral plans, “Renewing the Vision” issued in 1997, and “Sons and Daughters of the Light” issued in 1996, the bishops offer dioceses a general framework for ministry to youth and young adults.
For adolescents, the emphasis is on helping them see themselves as disciples of Christ, drawing them into Church participation and fostering personal and spiritual growth.
For young adults, ministry is aimed at maturation in one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ, participation in the life of a local Catholic community, connection to the mission of the global Church, and development of faith-sustaining peer relationships.
Disillusionment to discernment
As a boy, Alvarado, 50, was an altar server at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Menlo Park, his family’s home parish. That ended in high school after he grew increasingly “attracted by the culture and what I thought it offered me.”
As a college student, he rejected the Church teachings he was raised with, and for all practical purposes, adopted peer beliefs on sex, abortion, marriage and more.
“I would still try to go to Mass every Sunday,” Alvarado said. But his life was a loop of sexual “hookups,” parties and porn that continued well into his 20s.
“I was thinking this would bring me happiness or that it would fulfill me,” he said. “But I was still empty.”
Alvarado said anger was another reason he strayed from the Church. He was angry at his violent, alcoholic father, but angrier at God for his family situation.
“At some point I decided I was going to be the god of my own life,” he said.
That’s pretty much what he did until the day a friend from St. Anthony’s invited him to a meeting of the parish’s Neocatechumenal Way. Founded in Spain in 1964, “The Way,” as it has been approved by the Holy See, is a “post-baptismal catechumenate at the service of the bishops.” St. Anthony is one of more than 20,000 parishes worldwide with a Neocatechumenal Way community.
“For some reason, I listened,” Alvarado said. “God lured me back with His love. I came back to the Church and turned away from the life I was living.” In time, he › became the parish confirmation teacher and the young adult coordinator, and he continues to serve as its pro-life coordinator. Alvarado’s reconcilation with God the Father helped him reconcile with his own father.
In 2021, after 20 years as a social worker for the County of San Mateo, Alvarado left a comfortable lifestyle to serve as a lay missionary.
The year he spent in service to a parish in Queens, New York, was in one way an opportunity for discernment. He had always wanted to get married, but it had not happened.
“I wanted to know what my vocation was,” said Alvarado. He abandoned his desires and listened for God’s voice.
“It gave me a true freedom that I’ve never had before,” he said. “It allowed me to be in this intimate relationship with Christ and trust Him more.”
With his year of service complete, he returned to the Bay Area but without confirmation of a vocation to the priesthood. Soon after, he was offered the job as youth and young adult coordinator.
Alvarado feels he has real hope he can offer young people at a time when suicide is an increasingly common solution to depression, isolation and anxiety.
“I firmly believe that most young people do not want to end their lives,” he said. They want to end their suffering, but they don’t know how. “Storms are going to come in life, but if you have Christ, you will not sink.”
World Youth Day 2023
Having attended the past five World Youth Day events with young people from his parish, Gonzalo Alvarado is a World Youth Day veteran. “I’m planning on going to this one too, God willing,” he said.
WYD 2023 will take place this summer from Aug. 1-6 in Lisbon, Portugal.
St. John Paul II instituted WYD in 1985 as a worldwide encounter of youth and young adults with the Pope. It takes place about every three years in a different host country.
The Archdiocese of San Francisco will not have a delegation of youth and young adults traveling to Portugal this year, said Alvarado. By the time he came on board at the end of last year, it was too late for a coordinated pilgrimage.
He’s connecting local young people interested in going to WYD to other organizations with space in their delegations.
For more information on World Youth Day visit Lisboa2023.org.
Christina Gray is the lead writer for Catholic San Francisco.