VATICAN CITY — Young people want to know they are valued members of the Catholic Church who are taken seriously enough for someone to discuss their questions and struggles with them, rather than repeating “prefabricated” responses, according to delegates to a recent Vatican meeting.
“We need a church that is welcoming and merciful, which appreciates its roots and patrimony and which loves everyone, even those who are not following the perceived standards,” said the final document of a March 19-25 meeting scheduled in preparation for an upcoming Synod of Bishops on young people, faith and vocational discernment.
The document reflects the input of 305 young adults attending the meeting in Rome and some 15,000 young people who participated through Facebook groups online.
Released March 24, the document was presented to Pope Francis March 25 during Palm Sunday Mass and will be used in drafting the working document for the October synod.
Many of the reflections and opinions expressed in the final document of the pre-synod gathering are similar to those expressed last summer by local youths and young adults as well as those who work with them, according to Shannon Loughlin, associate director of the Diocese of Rochester’s Department of Pastoral Services. Over the summer diocesan staff encouraged young people and those who minister to them to complete an online questionnaire after reading the preparatory document issued by the Synod of Bishops as well as Pope Francis’ January 2017 letter to young people in anticipation of the synod.
Diocesan staff also led listening sessions at six parishes and facilitated small-group discussions with young Catholics and those who work with them. In September, the feedback garnered through these efforts was compiled into a report that was submitted to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which was, in turn, to include it in a final report to the Vatican.
Many local young adults mentioned feelings of isolation and loneliness, as well as a desire to build authentic relationships, Loughlin said, noting that these concerns were echoed in the final document of the pre-synod gathering in Rome. The young people also said they wanted the church to take a more active role in engaging with them via social media, yet they recognized the challenges that are inherent in online communication, she said.
“They recognize that it’s not the be-all, end-all. The young people recognize it’s very difficult to speak about faith … with people online,” and that such discussions can lead to damaged relationships, Loughlin said.
Connecting with people who aren’t engaged in the church is another major challenge, she added. Recognizing this, both young people and those who work with them noted the importance of peer ministries, through which young adults who are engaged in the church are trained to reach out to those who are not connected to the church, Loughlin said.
With a frantic pace of life, thousands of life choices and proponents of different ideas and ideals battling for their attention, the young people in Rome and in the Facebook groups said what they want most from the church is “attractive, coherent and authentic models,” who will accompany them in their search for meaning and fulfillment.
But, they warned, “we need rational and critical explanations to complex issues — simplistic answers do not suffice.”
Most of the young people meeting in Rome are very active in the church and were named delegates to the meeting by their national bishops’ conference or by the Catholic movements to which they belong.
The young adults in Rome and those in the Facebook groups also recognized that, representative of society at large, they have disparate opinions on such issues as “contraception, abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation, marriage and how the priesthood is perceived in different realities in the church.”
Some, the document said, “may want the church to change her teaching” or, at least, they would like “access to a better explanation and to more formation on these questions.”
However, even “young Catholics whose convictions are in conflict with official teaching still desire to be part of the church,” they said.
Of course, the document said, one cannot ignore the fact that “many young Catholics accept these teachings and find in them a source of joy. They desire the church to not only hold fast to them amid unpopularity but to also proclaim them with greater depth of teaching.”
The role of women in society and in the church was another lively topic of discussion at the meeting, said Laphidil Twumasi, an immigrant from Ghana to Italy who helped present the document to the press March 24.
For many young people today, the document said, the church’s treatment of women is an obstacle to their deciding to remain part of the Catholic community.
“The church can play a vital role in ensuring that these young people are not marginalized but feel accepted,” the document said. “This can happen when we seek to promote the dignity of women, both in the church and in wider society.”
“One key question arises from these reflections: What are the places where women can flourish within the church and society?” it said. The young people suggested, “The church can approach these problems with real discussion and open-mindedness to different ideas and experiences.”
In their specific discussion of “vocation,” the young adults insisted that the approach must be a holistic one of God’s call to each individual to follow him, rather than being read as a discussion of a call to priesthood or religious life.
And while the document made no mention of the ordination of women, the delegates said, “We recognize in particular the unique challenges faced by young women as they discern their vocation and place in the church.”
“Just as Mary’s ‘yes’ to God’s call is fundamental to the Christian experience, young women today need space to give their own ‘yes’ to their vocation,” it said. “We encourage the church to deepen its understanding of the role of women and to empower young women, both lay and consecrated, in the spirit of the church’s love for Mary, the mother of Jesus.”
The young adults said in the document that it does little good when church leaders dance around topics or show they are embarrassed by them. “We, the young church, ask that our leaders speak in practical terms about controversial subjects such as homosexuality and gender issues, about which young people are already freely discussing without taboo.”
But the key questions for the young adults was what do young Catholics need from their elders in the church and why are so many young people in so many countries leaving the church in droves?
“Young people who are disconnected from or who leave the church do so after experiencing indifference, judgment and rejection,” the delegates wrote. “One could attend, participate in and leave Mass without experiencing a sense of community or family as the Body of Christ. Christians profess a living God, but some attend Masses or belong to communities which seem dead.”
In the document, the young adults asked the church to be more credible, more honest, more transparent and to continue to admit its failures and express sorrow for the way it has dealt with clerical sexual abuse and the misuse of wealth.
The humility of the church, it said, “will undoubtedly raise its credibility among the world’s young people. If the church acts in this way, then it will differentiate itself from other institutions and authorities which young people, for the most part, already mistrust.”
Contains reporting by Jennifer Burke.