Mind the gap – Synodality and the challenges of engaging the Young Church

It’s time to get serious about youth in the Church writes Ger Gallagher, a youth minister.

As we start a new year there are many hopes and dreams. Throughout 2022 many people took part in many of the processes that fed into the synodal reports locally, nationally, and now internationally. There is a sense of hope in an emerging new model of Church that will support the upcoming Synod of Bishops. The time has come to let the Holy Spirit breathe new life in future conversations.

‘What about youth?

I have chronicled and charted many of the milestones of The Young Church in Ireland for over thirty years. A constant theme has been the lament of how to engage with young people. A constant pattern is the lack of leadership to invest structurally in youth ministry. The impact of youth ministry is minimal when compared to mainline youth work. Our parishes have become used to not having young people. This is regrettable.

It has been a difficult journey for young people to remain part of our Church. In the 1980s the Irish Bishops issued a pastoral on youth. Repeatedly they spoke of “listening to youth”. Sadly, many of this generation felt unheard. Many of them are now parents and grandparents. The dark shadow of abuse that emerged in the 1990s will remain with all in pastoral ministry as they strive to bring the Gospel message to people today.

Creating a space for youth ministry has never been an easy ministry in the Irish Church. Over the past ten years various youth initiatives have been ended by both dioceses and religious orders. Many youth leaders have come and gone. Even since the Synod on Youth (2018), there are now less employed in youth ministry. Such is the challenge.

Know your audience

It is worth reminding of who exactly are the young people we speak of. The Young Church is an expression used to encompass a wide range of age. Traditionally young people referred to those aged 18+. In recent years this has changed and has confused practitioners.

Young people refer to those mainly in their teens. Young Adult ministry is directed towards those aged 18+ to mid-twenties. Just to be clear young people or young adults are those aged from their teens to late 20s. Anything involving young people younger than 18 is actually children’s or school-based ministry.

A recent trend is for youth leaders to work with early teens and even sacramental programmes. Whilst noble, this is not what is understood by traditional youth and young adult ministry. Even in the final Synthesis of the Consultation in Ireland for the Diocesan stage of the universal Synod, the understanding of youth is ambiguous, and it is not clear which category of youth it refers to.

I do hope that many of our new bishops take seriously their initial enthusiasm in prioritising ministry to young people. In 2017, youth leaders in Ireland surveyed and listened to the views of young people in the lead up to the Synod on Youth in 2018 and the preparatory work for the upcoming Synod in 2023.

One overlapping theme in many of the diocesan reports was the question of young people and their presence in Church. Many noted themes that emerged in the recent synodal listening processes. Issues of Justice, LGBTQ, access to ordination and Church teaching all emerged as talking points.

I have not detected a huge follow through to the Synodal Exhortation Christus Vivit. Not a lot of structural change or new creativity emerged as part of the post-synodal promises either.

Read the signs

With all this listening, I often wonder what changes. Each year fewer young people participate in faith-based initiatives. This pattern has been around for decades and no change. Oliver Brennan once noted, ‘the majority of urban youth have abandoned a part of Irish culture that was virtually universal in their parents’ generation’.

However warnings were issued even earlier. The late Fr Michael Paul Gallagher SJ, observed, ‘The large fidelity to mass-going is undoubtedly the greatest strength of the Irish Church; but this strength could rapidly become our greatest weakness’. Pope John Paul pointed out that, ‘countries with ancient Christian roots, and occasionally in the younger Churches as well, where entire groups of the baptised have lost a living sense of the Faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel’.

Christianity can crumble within a culture. The 2021 Census in the UK noted that Christians now are less than 50% of the population. Ireland may not be far off that mark unless radical renewal can take shape. Pope Paul VI did point out that people today, ‘listen more willingly to witnesses than to teachers and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses’.

Following up on this, Pope Francis adds his opinion, ‘we cannot overlook the fact that in recent decades there has been a breakdown in the way Catholics pass down the Christian faith to the young. It is undeniable that many people feel disillusioned and no longer identify with Catholic tradition’.

There was hope that the popularity of Pope Francis would spark a ‘marked return among the lapsed and disaffected’, but this failed to materialise. Popularity does not translate into participation. Mass attendance numbers have been on a downward trajectory for years.

There is a huge challenge facing our parishes in how to find ways to reach out and evangelise. However, many are ill-equipped. Change is required. A question emerges, will the synodal conversations assist this reality? Time will tell.

Over Catechised and under evangelised

Commentators have observed that Irish Catholics compared to other countries are ‘over catechised and under evangelised’. Huge efforts and resources go into the teaching of faith. Less resources are directed towards evangelisation. Many parishes report that recent generations don’t know much about faith.

While this is possibly true, a lot of our structures are no longer equipped to assist the passing on of the faith. These structures are even less effective with younger people. Our current generation of Millennials (those just born pre and post the Millennium) are an interesting generation to observe. They are a patchwork generation, they take bits of the Church here, inspiration from some people of faith and mix it up with modern and contemporary values – not always compatible with Church. This trend can be observed with how this generation interface with Church and State. This generation is enthusiastic about whatever is popular. Think about our recent social referendums in Ireland and how they voted. Yet it is from this generation we have to build the future.

Stephen Bullivant refers to this as, ‘failing intergenerational transmission…and the ‘stickiness’ of Catholic upbringing’. In our postmodern world we seem to know the problems of disaffiliation. We don’t seem to hear many solutions. Most of us might agree with this.

This was a point made in the National Synthesis from the Irish Church for the upcoming Synod. It noted ‘serious weakness in adult faith development.’ Clearly this has been an unaddressed issue for many years. The report also notes ‘a crisis in transmission of faith rather than a crisis of faith.’

It also supports a viewpoint that Share the Good News, the national directory for Catechesis, really did not embed itself in pastoral life and language in Ireland. Has this ever been reviewed?

The impact of what some call “aggressive secularism” has challenged generations of young people, now parents and grand-parents in the area of passing on the Faith. While this might seem to be a problem in the first world, this is an emerging challenge in the Universal Church.

Mind the gap

According to the Bishops’ Council for Research just about one quarter young adults attend mass regularly. The huge drop off is between teenage years and post school. It has been this way for many years.

It is often commented that huge efforts go into the sacraments of initiation and parish programmes and little or no regular faith commitment post administration of sacrament. However any follow up is family ministry and not youth ministry.

Recent moves towards the role of the parish volunteer catechist might help. Yet, catechesis in the absence of a ‘personal encounter to Jesus Christ’ is integral as Pope Francis has suggested. It will need strong support for programmes and evangelisation orientated initiatives.

There are few parishes-based programmes for our teenagers. Some programmes help, but most are just holding back the dam of popular culture. Even less parishes have healthy programmes of youth ministry. We maintain programmes that don’t seem to be effective for our mission. Let me also note that there is a young Church in Ireland. It is a small minority of youth culture. But it does exist. It might not be as robust as in previous times, but some of these young people are extraordinary.

Some of these young people do extraordinary expressions of faith and charity, but sadly not all of them might be active with our parishes and dioceses. This group include the recent World Youth Day pilgrims, those who attend various summer faith conferences and those who help regularly in the parishes.

I have heard that many migrants to Ireland from Brazil, Africa and Asia are breathing life into some parishes. Hopefully we provide space for these young people to contribute to the pastoral life of the local Church.

Covid and youth adult ministry

A number of youth leaders undertook a study during Covid to check in with young adult leaders. Most youth and young adults appear in general to have coped and adapted well to their faith during Covid-19. Some struggled.

It became clear that many youth and young adults are not present in a faith capacity or perspective on platforms that we use for communication. We assumed they were present. By and large they were not. Covid did strike youth and youth ministry hard. Many are disconnected.

Many have moved on and filled the ‘faith slot’ in their life with other activities. Overall, there is an agreement that many young adults became disconnected during the pandemic and have not returned.

When they are gone they are gone….or are they?

There is a trend toward less frequent Mass attendance amongst Catholics in Ireland now. Look around your local parish and notice who attends and participates in their teens and early 20s. It is a small number.

Some parishes note that some parishioners have not returned since the Covid-19 restrictions have changed. The fatigue of the pandemic has also affected how we as Church have welcomed and invited people back.

As I look around at our current models of Church in Ireland, most of our efforts are directed at the minority of youth that engage with us. There is a disconnect between youth work and youth ministry and it has been this way for years.

Many of our sporting organisations have captured the hearts and minds of young people. We need to listen and accompany our young people where they are at. Sadly we as Church are distant from many of the places where our young people gather. Before lamenting, it is the same in the adult Church. There is a disconnect between many of the social services that the Church provides and the values of the Gospel too.

As a parent, it is difficult to retain the values of Church and faith practice when there are many reasons for why most “Catholic” children do not attend regularly. The integration of young people, young families into the life of the Church is most likely one of the biggest challenges now facing the Church.

Begin again

Young people, it could be argued, are one of the significant voices within the Church. Pope Francis tells young people that they are the ‘now’ of God. Their future, in some ways, depends on how the Church evolves in their time and how well they take up the task of living the Gospel. Each new generation and culture require the imagination of everyone to develop and present the message of the Gospel.

There remains a great opportunity to respond to this invitation for a Synod. Pope Francis repeatedly reminded people of the importance of “a renewed encounter with Jesus Christ”. The Synod hopefully might provide the catalyst for the Church in Ireland to reflect on not just what do we do for young people but listen to their voices too.

As we expand our tents to include more diversity, we may have to consider moving the tent closer to where our younger generations are. Tents are portable. Our Church needs to be more portable, flexible and ready to pitch new tents in new spaces.

Finally ‘may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelisers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervour…’ I hope that an honest appraisal takes place on the role and place of young people with the Church in Ireland.

Most importantly, I hope the voices of young people in Ireland are invited to make an honest contribution. We are all in this together. If we truly dream of a missionary Church where young people are part of it too, we really need to include them today or as Pope Francis says, ‘now.’

Gerard Gallagher works with AMRI (Communications and Members Services). He is author of many books most recently Faith – In Search of Greater Glory in Sport Hero Books. He also published Exploring Christus Vivit as a commentary to the previous Synod on Youth.

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