Concerned about the lack of youth in the Church? It’s simple – go to them!

With the young Catholic scene thriving in a number of hubs around the country, many young Catholics view themselves as having all they need to get on with the business of living out their faith, writes Jason Osborne.

One of the key mysteries dogging the Church’s synodal way – not just in Ireland, but across the western world especially – is where all the young people have gone. They’ve been missing for some time, and the Church’s most recent, widespread effort at outreach has failed to turn up any further results. Synthesis after synthesis told the story of synodal meetings devoid of young people, which leaves the Church just as stymied as it was at the beginning.

To clarify the picture, we can separate “young people” into two helpful and broadly used categories: under-18s and those between 18-35 (as most youth events and retreats are designated). Children and teenagers under 18 still aren’t too unusual a sight in parish-run prayer meetings and Masses (although they are dwindling), accompanied by their parents or strongly encouraged to attend these things as they are.

Get involved

However, over-18s are a different story. With parents unable to compel these young adults to get involved with the Faith they hold dear, attendance at church and retreats unfortunately seems to drop off a cliff – as attested to by the dearth of college students and young professionals in Faith settings. And yet they’re out there. An attendee of many youth prayer meetings and retreats myself in recent years, the young, Catholic scene is vibrant and thriving – not just in Dublin, but in a number of hubs around the country.

This generation has eschewed the traditional structures, in my experience, in favour of driven, missionary groups such as Youth 2000, Net Ministries, Pure in Heart and Holy Family Mission, to name but a few. While young Catholics aren’t the biggest demographic of all time, they’re slowly but surely growing, and committed to the person they’ve gathered around – Jesus Christ – and the teachings of the Church as they find them.

With that being the case, why hasn’t the enthusiasm I report them as having translated into engagement with the synodal way, and the Church-at-large? My two, tentative answers to that are simple ones: they’d rather hang out with other young people than with an older crowd, and; in the experience of many young people, those involved in the synodal process aren’t listening to what they’re saying.

To begin with the first point, young people are creatures of instinct, and young Catholics are no less so than their secular counterparts. A New York Times opinion piece from August of this year claimed that the Catholic Church is “New York’s Hottest Club”, and while I can’t speak for New York, there’s certainly something to it for the young Catholics I’ve met in Ireland. The teachings of the Catholic Church are wildly countercultural in any age, and no less so today. Its established teachings on the person of Christ and his Church, social justice, human sexuality and pretty much everything else turn the conventional wisdom of the age on its head and then some.


With that being the case, what could be more intoxicating than finding other people your own age who believe the same outrageous, world-upending things you do? Very little. As Catholic teaching finds itself increasingly at odds with a number of hot-button developments in western society – abortion, euthanasia, and transgenderism among others – the cohesive effect that has on those who do subscribe to the Church’s teachings only intensifies.

How does all of this relate to the Synod, and the lack of youth engagement with it? In a word, the Synod has largely been reported as a meeting of older (than them) people, who feel that what’s needed to attract young people back is to change some of the Church’s less popular teachings to something more in-tune with what their secular counterparts are revelling in and clamouring for.

Whether the image is justified or not, it’s not likely to attract the attention of those who like the Church and its teachings just fine as they are – which is an accurate description of the vast majority of young Catholics who are actively engaged with the Faith today.

It’s incredibly revealing that in the national synthesis that the Church in Ireland sent to Rome, the only reference to young priests is, “some participants were concerned that some younger priests are very traditional and rigid in their thinking”. And yet, the young priests that The Irish Catholic newspaper spoke to about this finding – Fr David Vard, Fr Jaimie Twohig SAC and Fr Declan Lohan – are extremely popular among the young Catholics they minister to, and no less so because they convey the Church’s teaching as it stands.

“I think if people see a young man who is in love with the Church and with what the Church teaches, it’s almost seen as a negative thing,” Fr Vard told The Irish Catholic, continuing, “I don’t think it’s a negative thing, I think it’s a beautiful thing.” Similarly, Fr Twohig asked, “Does that mean we’re orthodox, that we actually believe what the Church believes? If that’s rigid, then I’m happy to be rigid”.

These priests – men who’ve staked their lives on Christ and his Church being what this life is all about – are signposts to successful synodal engagement of the youth. A listening ear would tune in to those the Church already has, and really hear what they have to say, rather than telling them they’re too “traditional” or “rigid” in their thinking.

And how to hear from them? Go where they are, rather than waiting for them to come to you. In an ideal world, they’d come to the synodal meetings, but then, that’s not really their scene.

Leave a comment

Subscribe to The Synodal Times weekly newsletter


Become a Member

Ireland’s only synodal publication is available for under €2.50 a month.

Join today to access all the latest analysis from the ongoing Irish Synod.

Members also receive a FREE eBook of The Synodal Pathway.

€25 per annum