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A Young Adult Speaks: "Building a Synodal Church"

The Pentecost Vigil Project welcomes Adam Joseph, graduate of the Catholic University of America Class of 2023. He majored in politics and minored in sociology and business management. Here's his young adult perspective on what it will take to build a synodal Church. Many thanks Adam!


The Catholic Church has long been recognized for its significant influence and global presence. However, in recent times, the Church has faced challenges in addressing the changing dynamics of modern society and maintaining relevance for a diverse and evolving global community. In response to these challenges, there has been a growing effort within the Church to make it more synodal and open to more people, embracing a collaborative and inclusive approach to attract people from all backgrounds.


Establishing the major issue the Church faces today helps to demonstrate why the need for a synodal Church is more important than ever. The Church has historically been called upon to adapt and respond to the changing needs of society, and a synodal approach offers and effective address of those needs within a contemporary context. As the Church faces its own unique set of challenges today, including declining religious participation, shifting cultural values, and the need for greater inclusivity, the call for a synodal Church is becoming increasingly compelling as a way to engage with a new generation while effectively addressing the pressing issues of our time. The Church has previously gone through, and survived situations similar to what it faces today, however the challenge appears to be much greater than it has been historically. Thus far, attempts to stem youth attrition haven’t focused on the source of the problem, more so laying blame at the feet of younger generations for their actions while not making an effort to understand their perspectives. For a while, the attitude has been that our Church is doomed if younger generations don’t immediately change their behaviors. Perhaps though, blaming young people for growing up in an increasingly trying and secular society is not the answer to bringing vitality back into the Church.


The lack of discrepancies between young Catholics and young Americans in general has great implications for the work that must be undertaken to bring them back into the Church. It underscores the importance of understanding and addressing the unique challenges and that young Catholics face in today's society. It also highlights the need for the Church to effectively engage and connect with young Catholics in ways that are relevant to their lives and experiences. The similarities between young Catholics and young Americans challenges the Church to be more responsive to the evolving needs and concerns of younger generations. It calls for a Church that can effectively communicate its teachings and values in a manner that resonates with the experiences and perspectives of young Catholics. This may require innovative approaches to evangelization, catechesis, and pastoral care that consider the diverse cultural, social, and technological influences that shape the lives of today’s young Catholics. While younger generations including millennials have shown themselves to be more team-oriented and confident, they have also been shown to be more sheltered, likely as a result of parents overzealously protecting them from harsh realities of the world. (McCarty Pg. 43) This means that they are less equipped than others to deal with facts of life such as loss and failure, especially the first time they experience these things alone. Furthermore, they are more likely to deeply value authenticity, having personal and deep connections with their beliefs rather than holding them because that’s simply how they grew up.[1] (McCarty Pg. 45) A generation which values authenticity so much necessitates that the Church and youth ministry at large make meaningful changes to how they function, allowing youth to develop deeper, more personal connections with the Church.


The need for the Church to be more understanding and adaptive towards the views of young people has been known for quite some time by now. Going back to 2003, the National Study of Youth and Religion was conducted to identify exactly what was occurring amongst young Catholics. What this found was a stark contrast among American youth in their religiosity between Catholics and Protestants, with only 10% of Catholic teens reporting their religion was “extremely important” in their daily lives compared to 20% of mainline Protestant teens and 29% of conservative Protestant teens.[2] (Mercadante, pg. 21) While these numbers by themselves show a very low connection between Catholic teens’ religion and their personal lives, it shows that Catholic teens rate their religiosity lower than their Protestant peers. Perhaps the easiest answer to this discrepancy is to blame the youth for falling to the pressures of our postmodern society, but Pope Francis went a different way, calling for a Synod to find a way forward on this issue and better understand what young people are feeling.


In October of 2021, Pope Francis called for the “Synod on Synodality,” listening to the issues facing the Church and hearing perspectives from those on the margins to better understand what actions need to be taken.[3] The National Synthesis of the People of God in the United States of America for the Diocesan Phase of the 2021-2023 Synod reports some of the findings of the Synod, providing greater insights into the issues which continue to face the Church.


One of the first findings in the report are the “Enduring Wounds” ranging from the sexual abuse crisis which continues to impact the Church to the division facing the Church whether it be over politics or belief over how mass ought to be celebrated.[4] The report acknowledges that the wounds inflicted by the crisis run deep, affecting not only the survivors and their families but also the broader Church community. The loss of trust, credibility, and moral authority has had far-reaching consequences, leading to decreased participation, disillusionment among the faithful, and an urgent need for restorative justice and healing. An emphasis is put on the fact that division can alienate young people, who seek a sense of unity, coherence, and authenticity in their faith community. This underscores the need for the Church to foster a culture of dialogue, understanding, and mutual respect, where diverse perspectives are welcomed and valued. This includes encouraging constructive engagement, promoting open and honest conversations, and nurturing a culture of encounter and reconciliation, rooted in the teachings of the Gospel.


Perhaps an even greater issue facing younger Catholics however is the desire for “A welcoming Church.”[5] This will only become a more pertinent topic as time goes on, with more people directly knowing someone in the LQBTQI+ community and feeling as though they are “condemned by Church teachings.”[6] For young people, feeling torn between supporting the Church and their religion or supporting their friend can be filled with tension and uncertainty. The report acknowledges that there is more work which needs to be done to “to accompany our LGBTQI+ brothers and sisters.”[7] In listening to and addressing the concerns of our young people while also remaining true to Church teachings, it is possible to keep them within the Church and move it forward.


Choices Choices Choices

Looking deeper at the desires and concerns facing young people in the church today was the Synod on Young People, which took place in 2018 and examined the most effective ways to help young people in today's world announnce the Good News. [8] The preparatory document released in 2017 is divided into three sections: Young People in Today's World; Faith, Discerment, Vocation; and, Pastoral Activity. [9] Looking at the section focused on today's world, a rapidly changing world presents young people with uncertainties which previous generations did not have to deal with; the rapidity with which information and events occur int he modern world is something never before seen. This can cause a sense of vulnerability for young people, not being able to know with certainty what might happen next, which has accompanied a rise in sadness and loneliness. [10] However, there are even more challenges facing young people today including an ever-changing culture around them, with pushes to conform to societal norms and shifts at every step. The freedom and ability to make choices has expanded past what any generation has previously possessed. This newfound freedom is held strongly by young people, making them noncommittal towards decisions which could prevent them from being able to change courses in the future.[11] While not certain, this could play into the reason why the age at which people are marrying has drifted later, as people increasingly want to ensure they are with the right person before they commit to a lifelong decision.

Looking at the topic of pastoral activity, today’s young people need to be accompanied on their journey, not forced into a premade program by which they have to strictly abide.[12] Accompanying young people in their faith journey requires a multifaceted approach which goes beyond preconceived frameworks and engages them where they are. As Pope Francis stated, "Vocational pastoral ministry is learning the style of Jesus, who passes through the places of daily life, stops without being hurried and, by looking at our brothers with mercy, leads them to encounter God the Father"[13] (Address to Participants in the International Conference on Pastoral Work for Vocations) This approach involves three key aspects: "going out," "seeing," and "calling." "Going out" entails breaking free from rigid attitudes, frameworks, and outdated ways of acting as a Church. It requires inner freedom from routine activities and concerns, allowing young people to be active participants in their own lives. As Pope Francis emphasized, "The young will find the Church more attractive when they see that their unique contribution is welcomed by the Christian community."[14]

This approach encourages the Church to adapt and be relevant to the realities of young people's lives, meeting them where they are. "To 'go out' into the world of young people requires a willingness to spend time with them, to listen to the story of their lives and to be attentive to their joys, hopes, sadness and anxieties; all in an effort to share them," Pope Francis further stated.[15] This involves seeing and understanding young people, enculturating the Gospel in their lives, and valuing their experiences and perspectives. It requires discernment that goes beyond preconceived notions and mental frameworks, allowing young people to express themselves freely and authentically.


"Calling" is the third key aspect in accompanying young people.[16] It goes beyond passively respecting norms and involves awakening a desire for newness of life, challenging young people to explore and embrace the joy of the Gospel. As Pope Francis noted, "Calling means asking questions which have no ready-made answers."[17] It requires a proactive and dynamic approach to help young people discern their own unique vocations, rather than imposing predetermined paths on them. This approach respects young people's freedom and autonomy while guiding them towards a deeper encounter with God and their own sense of purpose. Through integrating these three aspects of walking with young people, youth ministry and the Church at large can be better equipped to accompany young people on their journey.


Pope Francis acknowledges much of these findings in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation titled Christ is Alive! In the opening chapter of the book, he says “He is in you, he is with you and he never abandons you.”[18] (Francis, Pg. 1) This aligns very closely with what was described in the in the previous document, reassuring young people and all the people of God that they are always accompanied throughout their journey. With these words, Pope Francis offers a comforting reminder that the presence of Christ is always with us, no matter where we are or what we are going through. He emphasizes that Jesus is not a distant figure, but rather a living and loving presence within us and beside us, providing guidance, comfort, and strength. Continued efforts to emphasize the connection between young people and God can be seen throughout the book such as in Chapter Four, “The very first truth I would tell each of you is this: “God loves you.”[19] (Francis, Pg. 38) This echoes the findings of this research that highlight the importance of affirming and nurturing the spiritual lives of young people, and recognizing that they are beloved children of God.


By continually emphasizing the love of God for young people, Pope Francis encourages a more synodal church that values and prioritizes the spiritual well-being of young people, recognizing their unique place within the faith community. Furthermore, Pope Francis underscores the importance of fostering a culture of encounter and dialogue in the church, where different voices and experiences are valued and respected. In Chapter Six, he states, " If we journey together, young and old, we can be firmly rooted in the present, and from here, revisit the past and look to the future.... Together, we can learn from one another, warm hearts, inspire minds with the light of the Gospel…" (Francis, Pg. 69).[20] This aligns with the findings of this research that highlight the need for a more synodal church that promotes open and respectful dialogue between young people and the church leadership, fostering mutual understanding and collaboration. Pope Francis recognizes that young people have unique perspectives, questions, and struggles that need to be acknowledged and addressed by the Church. He also emphasizes the importance of being rooted in the present while also using learnings from the past to better inform our decisions today. In doing this, the Church can better adapt to the needs of today’s young people while not making mistakes of the past and sticking true to Church teachings.


Taking these learnings and implementing them in the real world can show demonstrable impacts in the participation of today’s youth. One learning from the pandemic is the potential to conduct more youth ministry events online, expanding access for young people who feel that they don’t have the time to commit to in-person events. In the past, young people in remote areas or with limited transportation options may have struggled to attend in-person youth ministry events. However, with online events these barriers can be overcome, allowing more young people to participate regardless of their location. This can result in increased engagement from a more diverse group of youth, including those who may have previously felt excluded or left out. By continually taking our learnings to make the Church more accessible, the perspectives of young people can be better understood to help make the Church more welcoming. The role of leadership in embracing and implementing synodality, as well as the need for formation and education at all levels of the Church are a continuous effort, which will help the Church adapt to the needs of younger generations and draw them closer to God.


Bibliography

Documento Preparatorio Della XV Assemblea Generale Ordinaria Del Sinodo Dei Vescovi Sul Tema "I Giovani, La Fede e Il Discernimento Vocazionale", https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2017/01/13/0021/00050.html#EN.


FAQ: What Is Synodality?” The Pentecost Vigil Project, Mar. 2023, https://www.pentecostvigilproject.org/synodality-101.


Francis. “What Does the Word of God Have to Say about Young People?” Christ Is Alive!: The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit of the Holy Father Francis to Young People and to the Entire People of God, Paulist Press, New York, 2019.


Francis. “What Does the Word of God Have to Say about Young People?” Christ Is Alive!: The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit of the Holy Father Francis to Young People and to the Entire People of God, Paulist Press, New York, 2019.


McCarty, Robert J., and Laurie Delgatto. “The State of Catholic Adolescents.” The Vision of Catholic Youth Ministry: Fundamentals, Theory, and Practice, Saint Mary's Press, Winona, MN, 2005, p. 41.


Mercadante, Frank. “We Don't Have a Youth Problem.” Engaging a New Generation: A Vision for Reaching Catholic Teens, Our Sunday Visitor Pub. Division, Huntington, IN, 2012, p. 21.


“U.S. National Synthesis 2021-2023 Synod.” USCCB, https://www.usccb.org/resources/us-national-synthesis-2021-2023-synod.

[1] Ibid. p.45. [2] Mercadante, Frank. “We Don't Have a Youth Problem.” Engaging a New Generation: A Vision for Reaching Catholic Teens, Our Sunday Visitor Pub. Division, Huntington, IN, 2012, p. 30. [3] Ibid. [4]“U.S. National Synthesis 2021-2023 Synod.” USCCB, https://www.usccb.org/resources/us-national-synthesis-2021-2023-synod. [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid. [7] Ibid. [8] Documento Preparatorio Della XV Assemblea Generale Ordinaria Del Sinodo Dei Vescovi Sul Tema "I Giovani, La Fede e Il Discernimento Vocazionale", https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2017/01/13/0021/00050.html#EN. [9] Ibid. [10] Ibid. [11] Ibid. [12] Ibid. [13] Ibid. [14] Ibid. [15] Ibid. [16] Ibid. [17] Ibid. [18] Francis. “What Does the Word of God Have to Say about Young People?” Christ Is Alive!: The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit of the Holy Father Francis to Young People and to the Entire People of God, Paulist Press, New York, 2019. [19] Ibid. Pg 38 [20] Ibid. Pg 69


Photo: Unsplash/Nathan Dumfao

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