By Fran Lavelle
In the last decade we have solicited the input of the young church from the Pope’s synod for youth and young adults which was detailed in Christus Vivit (Christ Alive), a USCCB national process of youth and young adult listening, and most recently the Synod on Synodality. In our diocesan efforts to produce a listening process we were keen on hearing from the young church. We heard a lot in our local and regional listening sessions for the Synod that folks are worried about losing our youth. It seems that it has been a problem that in the past few years has grown exponentially. Every year or so a new research poll comes out underscoring what we already know. Many of our youth and young people today are spiritual but not religious. They do not reject the idea of God, but do not support organized religion. This is not an exclusive problem for Catholics as other traditions are facing the same issue.
Looking at the input young people have shared with church leaders over the past decade we have more than enough input to begin to look at ways to improve how we communicate our faith to the young church. As Pope Francis is oft to say they are not the church of the future, they are the church of the now. And, as such, we must find ways to engage our youth and young adults in ways that connect faith and action. In our recent experience with the Synod on Synodality, the young church spoke and was not shy in sharing their perspective.
They asked for more opportunities for service, they feel a call to take care of the poor. They asked that church leaders (ordained and lay) be more authentic in words and actions. Specifically, they asked for leaders to stop being hypocritical. They asked for better preaching that is more relevant and address issues that matter. They asked that we stop using religion to support political views. They want the church to be better examples of faith in action and be more welcoming of others.
In 2017, the National Dialogue on Catholic Pastoral Ministry with Youth and Young Adults began a listening and reflection process focused on understanding and enhancing the church’s ministries with young people. Many national organizations were collaborators in this effort, including the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry (NFCYM), the Catholic Campus Ministry Association (CCMA) and the National Catholic Network de Pastoral Juvenil Hispana (LaRED).
The results of that process clearly identified what the young church needs. Included in their findings was a call for more intentional connecting the life of faith with the lived experiences of young people. Address the “authenticity gap.” Many voices expressed that the church needs to show more empathy and authentic engagement with the young. Increase the investment in accompaniment. The church must train more people in “the art of accompaniment” with youth and young adults. Expand ministry with young adults. Reimagine faith formation. There was regular encouragement to move away from a classroom model and toward more relevant learning models featuring mentorship, small groups, accompaniment, faith sharing and authentic witness. Reconsider preparation for the Sacrament of Confirmation. There was a clear call to reexamine and reconsider how the church prepares young people for Confirmation. Partner with parents and enhance family ministry. There must be increased dialogue and collaboration with families and the domestic church, including the growth of intergenerational/family ministries. And, last but not least, transform ministry leadership. It was evident from the feedback that the church needs to seriously address the formation, support, and resourcing of ministry leaders and create a culture of collaboration and unity across ministerial and ecclesial lines.
If you are an older adult, you might be thinking that no one ever asked you what you needed from the church and you turned out just fine. If that is where you are, I understand and appreciate you. I imagine if you think back to your own Confirmation and ask yourself how many of your high school or college friends are still Catholic, you can easily see the need to adjust how we convey faith to the young church. Be assured, we are not reinventing doctrine or dogma to suit present day culture. The rich beauty of the church and that of the Catholic faith are to be preserved and treasured. What we are looking for are ways to animate our faith in order to keep the young church on fire with the love of God.
The reality is that we cannot unknow or unhear the voices of the young church. We cannot afford to be idle with our “we have always done it like…” mindset. The future of the church will be determined by our ability to dare to reimagine how we communicate our faith. I believe we can find a way.