Earlier this year, Isaac Withers was one of 300 hundred people who attended the Vatican Pre-Synod of Young People, speaking with Pope Francis on the issues that his generation and younger face. Inspired by this incredible trip he has written an eight-part series of articles highlighting these challenges and sharing how we, the Church, can support and nurture this young generation. We are excited to present the eighth and final of his articles here. You can find the other parts of his series at the bottom of this page.
I want to start the last part of this series with the story from the Pre-Synod Meeting of young people that inspired me to write this whole thing. I haven’t written about it before and it was the most moving part of the whole experience for me. I was really privileged to represent England and Wales at the Pre-Synod in March and as part of that I ended up in an English language group thrashing through all of the relevant issues. That amazing international dialogue produced a moment that stays with me very vividly.
There was a point in our third discussion, when we were talking about how the Church could reach young people, in which a young woman from a European nation suddenly asked this question, ‘“How? How can we actually, really reach them?”’ There was emotion in her voice. She then shared that she had known, in some way, ten young people around our age that had committed suicide in her lifetime. I could see the truth of it in how urgent she had become. It caused our whole group to pause the conversation, no one knowing quite how to answer the stark level of her honesty, and the tragedy of that situation.
These kinds of hard truths are actually why this Synod is happening Pope Francis had never intended this Synod on Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment to be solely about Catholic youth. Just days earlier, he had spoken to us about the rising rates of substance abuse and suicide among young people linking it with a lack of purpose, citing the Italian youth unemployment rate at 25% nationally, in some parts over 50%. In the UK, I have often heard it said that suicide is the leading cause of death among young men, and the Office for National Statistics reported in 2015 that it is true that suicide is the most common cause of death for men aged 20-49 years in England and Wales. Pope Francis told us that ‘these are realities we must be conscious of. A job on the continent would save them!’ It was clear that these bleak situations facing young people really affected him, and he said simply, ‘we have to help young people who are disorientated.’ I have realised since that this was not the first time I had heard the Pope speak about disorientation and lack of purpose among my generation, as at World Youth Day Krakow he had said something similar:
‘Dear young people, we didn’t come into this work to “vegetate”, to take it easy, to make our lives a comfortable sofa to fall asleep on. No, we came for another reason: to leave a mark. It is very sad to pass through life without leaving a mark. But when we opt for ease and convenience, for confusing happiness with consumption, then we end up paying a high price indeed: we lose our freedom.’
‘Leave a mark’ is a phrase he repeated six times in that address. In fact, it was Pope Francis who added ‘Vocational Discernment’ to the title of the Synod, which would just have been on ‘Youth and Faith’ – because of his want for young people to find their place in the world, the intertwining of vocation and purpose. Blessed John Henry Newman phrased this ‘God has determined … that I should reach that which will be my greatest happiness. He looks on me individually, He calls me by my name, He knows what I can do, what I can best be, what is my greatest happiness, and He means to give it to me.’
So that young woman’s question remains, in all its rawness, especially now that the Synod is in motion – how can the Church reach a generation with such serious symptoms. In truth, I think the disorientation we’re speaking about here comes from a layering of factors over the lives of young people, not just a singular factor. In England and Wales, the Bishops’ Conference, after their extensive Mega Youth Poll, published a report which described the world that young people were living in now as ‘a highly pressured, rapidly changing and fragmented society’ in which there is ‘an erosion of previously held norms in the midst of growing mistrust for established institutions.’ This layering of these many factors became the foundation for this series with Catholic Link.org.
But after all the research and conversation, what could the institution of the Church and the function of this Synod do to affect change here? Well, I would humbly suggest these three core practical steps that could go some way to meeting the deep need that young people have for meaning and purpose.
In Pope Francis’s papacy, we have heard a lot about going to the peripheries, meaning taking the Gospel to the outskirts and to the people who have not yet heard about salvation through Jesus. This is a great emphasis, but I think in the context of this synod it would be equally valuable for the Church to realise that it is constantly losing young people at pronounced parts of their lives and losing the vast majority of them for good.
I know from living in the UK that it is common experience to see a large Confirmation group disappear right after receiving that sacrament, which is really tragically ironic. I think this experience is probably common of all of Western Catholicism, seeing another wave of thirteen year olds verbally commit to faith in front of their parish to never be seen again. In fact, this is so common that in his first year of being Pope, Pope Francis said at a Confirmation ‘they say that Confirmation is called “the sacrament of goodbye”. Is this true or not? After Confirmation you never go back to Church: true or false? … so, so!’
And if they don’t leave then, the next watershed is university;the first real taste of independence for many in Western countries. Here, ‘university culture;’ often the opposite of what Christian thinking would regard as ‘life to the full’, can see another wave of young Catholics decide that the faith of their childhood is irrelevant. Statistically this holds true as the 2008 ‘US Religious Landscape’ report found that of American Catholics who became “unaffiliated” 48% were unaffiliated by eighteen, and 71% were unaffiliated by twenty three. I knew that these two time periods were generally the times in which Western young Catholics left their faith behind, but at the Pre-Synod, a global gathering, I recall hearing these two periods generally acknowledged as the universal experience.
And yet, perhaps still in our Catholic culture is the sense that those who leave return to the faith to get married or to raise their kids in the faith, an idea G.K. Chesterton phrased as the “unseen hood and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” In fact, I was quoted just this by someone I worked with this year in relation to the Youth Synod. However, this theory just doesn’t hold up in reality. Sherry Weddel says it well:
‘Our pastoral practice still operates on the presumption that although most Catholic teens vanish after Confirmation, they will find their way back when they are ready to get married and especially when they have children. One huge problem with this paradigm is that Catholic marriage rates are, in fact, plummeting. The number of marriages celebrated in the Church decreased dramatically, by nearly 60 percent, between 1972 and 2010, while the U.S. Catholic population increased by almost 17 million. (Mark Grey ‘Exclusive Analysis: National Catholic Marriage Rate Plummets’ Our Sunday visitor, June 26 2011.) … If younger Catholics are not going to Mass or getting married in the Church, why would they bother to raise their children in the faith? We can no longer depend upon rites of passage or cultural, peer, or familial pressure to bring the majority back. … So let’s be clear: In the twenty-first century, cultural Catholicism is dead as a retention strategy, because God has no grandchildren. In the twenty-first century, we have to foster intentional Catholicism rather than cultural Catholicism.’
The ratio of those joining to leaving Catholicism drives the point home.
‘Fully 10 percent of all adults in America are ex-Catholics while 2.6 percent are converts to the Church. In other words, nearly four times as many adults have left as entered the Church. The lifeblood of new members being transfused into the Church is a steady trickle, while the blood being lost is a haemorrhage.’
So if we have established that the majority are not coming back, what the institution of the Church could try is actually acknowledging and investing in the Young Church in those watershed times. Young adult formation as norm, following up on the sacramental prep we give to kids, would be a start. After all, if we could minister effectively to the young people within our walls, we would not have to go to the peripheries to find them again later in life. Which brings me to point 2.
Finding clear answers was a serious through line of the Pre-Synod discussion – the Final Document mentions it five times, usually in the same way. ‘We need rational and critical explanations to complex issues – simplistic answers do not suffice’, ‘The young have many questions about the faith, but desire answers which are not watered-down, or which utilize pre-fabricated formulations. We, the young Church, ask that our leaders speak in practical terms about controversial subjects.’ Even in relation to those who disagree with Church teaching it reads, ‘As a result, they may want the Church to change her teaching or at least to have access to a better explanation and to more formation on these questions.’
All of these statements read as though young people feel as though they have not been given the full answer by the Church, and would give the impression that their pastors and teachers have been scared of addressing the difficult issues. Now, keeping in mind that the faith is far more than just a morality, there are increasingly issues that the Church is countercultural on and the list has only increased in the last couple of decades (abortion, homosexuality, birth control, divorce and remarriage to name a few). These issues are often what the media focuses because these are often the issues that affect the lives of ordinary people and so, rightfully, young Catholics want to be able to know the Church’s reason for being counter cultural on them. It is totally understandable also, why people teaching the faith would be cautious of engaging those topics however, as the Catholic stances on these issues really click into a wider world view of creation, love and salvation, without which the issues become more like political debates than spiritual accompaniment. So I personally have empathy for both sides here.
Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney addressed just this failure to provide real answers to those seeking in his speech to the Synod. This came in the form of one long extended apology, starting with the scandal of sex abuse and cover up in the Church, but which transitioned into something broader.
‘For the times Catholic families, parishes and schools have failed to introduce you to the person of Jesus Christ, his saving word, and his plan for your life; and for the times we’ve seemed to you unwelcoming, distant or harsh, or have not demonstrated the sheer joy of being Christians; and for the times when you were searching for your sexual, ethnic or spiritual identity, and needed a moral compass, but found Church people unsympathetic or ambiguous: I apologize.
For when we’ve sold you short not encouraging you to live heroically your baptismal call to holiness and the paschal path to life through self-renunciation; or when we’ve provided too little youth ministry or other support, so you’ve found living as a young person of faith and ideals lonely in a secular, often cynical world; or when unbeautiful or unwelcoming liturgies have failed to inspire or include you, and when you’ve been denied the Church’s treasury of examination of conscience, reconciliation, adoration, pilgrimages, penances and devotions: I apologize.’
This long apology was the first part of the Synod conversation that I saw go quite viral on ‘the Catholic internet’. The apology for not being a source of answers and moral guidance sounds lot like the narrative of people like Jordan B Peterson when speaking of how ‘In the absence of such a system of value, people simply cannot act. In fact, they can’t even perceive, because both action and perception require a goal, and a valid goal is, by necessity, something valued.’ This lack of goal speaks to the idea of disorientated people, as if you don’t know what to avoid and what to strive for (in other terms virtue or vice), you won’t know how to strive for holiness and therefore find happiness.
The theme of answers was echoed again later by Bishop Robert Barron. Recently having been the first Catholic bishop to do a Reddit AMA (ask me anything), it is fair to say that Bishop Barron has a good idea of the questions that young people have, and at the Synod, he has called for ‘a new apologetics’, saying:
‘Innumerable surveys and studies over the past ten years have confirmed that young people frequently cite intellectual reasons when asked what has prompted them to leave the Church or lose confidence in it … What is vitally needed today, as an aspect of the accompaniment of the young, is a renewed apologetics and catechesis. … I hope it is clear that arrogant proselytizing has no place in our pastoral outreach, but I hope it is equally clear that an intelligent, respectful, and culturally-sensitive explication of the faith (“giving a reason for the hope that is within us”) is certainly a desideratum. … That the faith has not been effectively communicated was verified by the most recent Religious Landscape Study, from the Pew Research Center in America. It indicated that, among the major religions, Catholicism was second to last in passing on its traditions.’
The above is just factual really, but there are then two insights that Bishop Barron makes that are very useful to the conversation. The first is on maturation of faith from childlike to adult (previously mentioned in depth earlier in this series). ‘Why has it been the case, over the past several decades, that young people in our own Catholic secondary schools have read Shakespeare in literature class, Homer in Latin class, Einstein in physics class, but, far too often, superficial texts in religion? The army of our young who claim that religion is irrational is a bitter fruit of this failure in education.’
The second insight is to actually start with the questions that young people naturally have, instead of just rolling out the answers. Bishop Barron says that this new apologetics, ‘would not be imposed from above but would rather emerge organically from below, a response to the yearning of the mind and the heart. Here it would take a cue from the method of St. Thomas Aquinas. The austere texts of the great theological master in point of fact emerged from the lively give-and-take of the quaestiones disputatae that stood at the heart of the educational process in the medieval university. Thomas was deeply interested in what young people were really asking. So should we.’
My favourite part of the Final Document from the Pre-Synodal Meeting, is this section:
‘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. Young people are attracted to the joy which should be a hallmark of our faith.’
All to often, at least from a Western perspective, the experience of young Catholics is that of being the only young person at Mass, and when I saw these lines in the Pre-Synod document, it spoke to my experience and the experience of many of my friends in the UK – nobody wants to be part of a Church community that is dead and joyless, but this is often the experience. In a sense, that is the simplest issue here – young people often feel a lack of authentic community, but that is not something that can be fixed top down by a Synod. However, the document later goes on to express where many of us go next, and this is something the Synod could do – in short: learn from what is fruitful.
‘On many occasions, young people have difficulty finding a space in the Church where they can actively participate and lead. Young people interpret their experience of the Church as one where they are considered too young and inexperienced to lead or make decisions as they would only make mistakes. There is a need for trust in young people to lead and to be protagonists of their own spiritual journey. This is not just to imitate their elders, but to really take ownership of their mission and responsibility, lived out well. Movements and new communities in the Church have developed fruitful ways to not only evangelize young people, but also to empower them to be the primary ambassadors of the faith to their peers.’
This too speaks for me and many others that I know. When faced by a dry local community that consistently loses generations at the same moments and a lack of real answers to natural questions, those young Catholics who remain are few and far between, and they find (or create for themselves) a new network beyond the local. You can see this in many movements and organisations and at the Pre-Synod, I realised that this was again a global trend. The Americans would talk about things like FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, the Steubenville Conferences and LifeTeen, the Australians talked about NET ministries and the Australian Catholic Youth Festival (set up after World youth day Sydney) and for me in the UK it has been Youth 2000. Even within that list, I know that there are countless initiatives that I am leaving out, but just for those I had connection with at the Synod, these were the names mentioned.
These networks seem to be everywhere, in fact, when we were drafting the Pre-Synod document, we wanted to include specific names of good movements like these in the ‘initiatives to be reinforced section’ and were inundated with names of initiatives to the point that we realised there were just too many to name and so we decided not to be specific so as not to leave anybody out. This made it clear, that universally, the life that young people bring to the Church is often exploding outwards into these networks. So what do all of the above have in common? They provide a critical mass of young people typically not found in parishes, mature theological input to address the questions of the young, and opportunities for young people to lead and take responsibility of their own faith.
Because of this, these initiatives tend to be fruitful, they tend to use narratives of personal encounter and open up the sacraments to young people as really transformative and powerful things. I have frequently helped with the musical worship at large reconciliation services at these kind of things in the UK and you can watch hundreds of young people have life changing experiences of forgiveness in confession in a way that they had never experienced in their Churches or in their sacramental preparation. The hunger for these things is real, and it doesn’t take much more than presenting well what the Church already has to address that.
These initiatives are often also led by young people for young people, in what is referred to in Church terms as ‘peer ministry’. This invitation to be actively involved in the awesome, transformative work of the Church is also something that is often just not offered to young people where they live. Bishop Barron has also touched on this at the Synod, saying that young people are ‘hungry for mission… they’re hungry for involvement in the life of the Church, and to be out in the field declaring the Lord.’ In this way, young people can actually be an active part of the solution to the problem, as a young person living the faith and living a normal life against the pressure to fit in is a powerful witness to others their age, it was to me.
So we then see almost two layers of Church, the official and the networks within. The gap between these worlds can often seem vast to a young person however, and the return to parish from such events often has feels like returning from the mountain top to a lonely faith experience. This too was acknowledged in the report from the Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales when it speaks of ‘a gap of quantum proportions between these experiences and the pastoral experience, or lack of it, experienced in many parishes.’ The more these two worlds can work together the better, because it makes so much sense to see what is fruitful and to pursue that together.
This gap was another thing that seemed a common experience to those at the Pre-Synod, so a solution was proposed in that document too. ‘We respond to well-organized, larger-scale events, but also hold that not all events need to be of this scale. Small, local groups where we can express questions and share in Christian fellowship are also paramount to maintaining the faith. These smaller events in social spaces can bridge the gap between larger Church events and the parish.’
Being the Counterculture
Having painted an image of a disorientated generation, Pope Francis in March proposed his own solution. He told us that young people ‘are building up cultures with your style and your originality! You are able to build up a culture that is maybe invisible but that is growing.’ This creativity he said, was at the centre of the Church, saying ‘the Church’s heart is young! You represent a vital renewal.’
I think that’s the heart of this, a disorientated generation needs a counterculture, and young people are able to help to create that counterculture. I have received so much of my meaning and purpose from being involved in the Church, especially through those networks of young people which were what I was looking for, the counterculture built around Jesus, the person who reveals the ultimate truth about humanity as both creator and human.
Before the Synod, I didn’t think that there was anything new about my generation, but the more I have dived in to it, the more i have realised that boy is it a weird time to grow up. Now more than ever is there an urgency to reach those without meaning and to tap them in to this counterculture.
It has been a joy to journey with this Synod and I have loved writing about it – I’ve learnt so much from the reading that went in to informing these pieces and it has frequently not only revealed to me the problems of my generation but also made me examine my own habits closely (my phone charges on the other side of my room now). At the end of this series, I would like to thank the friends who started this journey with me and who have accompanied me on it, so to Fr Chris, Alexander, Maggie, Eileen, Fr Joao, the ‘Steam Roll’ crew, the Forming Intentional Disciples online forum and especially to Ruth my awesome editor at Catholic Link (who has been a source of real enthusiasm throughout) – a huge thank you to you all.
For some reason, I feel like the best way to conclude all of my writing on the Synod is with these verses.
‘If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.’ 1 Corinthians 13 1-3
(PS if you have followed these, a huge thank you to you too.)
‘A New Apologetics: Bishop Barron’s Youth Synod Intervention’ by Bishop Robert Barron
‘Report on Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment’ by The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales
‘Youth synod bishop apologizes to young people on behalf of Church leaders’ by Courtney Grogan
‘Forming Intentional Disciples’ by Sherry Weddel
‘Final Document from the Pre-Synodal Meeting’ by the members of the Pre-Synodal Meeting
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