Fifty years ago, it might have seemed like an unlikely event: The head of the Catholic Church gathering bishops from around the world to listen to young people share their stories, struggles and suggestions as to how the church can help them discover their vocations and live meaningful lives.
Then again, within this half-century, the world experienced the pontificate of St. John Paul II, who reoriented the church’s focus toward youth through World Youth Days, and that of his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, who began communicating with young people on Twitter.
So while a synod on “Young people, faith and vocational discernment” might not have been on the radar at the close of the Second Vatican Council, it’s an obvious choice for Pope Francis to include in a list of priorities.
We get a good sense of the direction the synod will take from reading its preparatory document. It puts forward some important givens and presuppositions: Despite the perennial tendency of older generations to disparage the voice of young people, the church sincerely believes that we want to live purposeful lives, and that despite an increasingly secularized culture, many of us want to live “in light of faith.”
As the document says, young people “show a willingness and readiness to participate and commit themselves to concrete activities” in creating a better world. The church wants to encourage us to remain passionate in this pursuit.
So why can’t the church simply continue on with St. John Paul’s methods and message? Because the world looks a lot different than it did in 1978.
The great saint took the threat of moral relativism head-on and provided both the armor and balm to face an encroaching secularism. Every gift he gave the church remains necessary, but our generation faces a different cultural and global landscape and we need new approaches, language and ideas to appropriately respond.
What are young people facing today?
Pope Francis points to the increasingly fluid and destabilized situation of today’s young people and the effect that it has on our ability to discern, choose and take actions toward living our vocations.
While millennials around the globe have particular stories and experiences, he knits together some common themes: the proliferation of young adults who are “not in education, employment or training,” leaving them without the dignity that work provides; hyperconnectivity in the virtual world but a lack of authentic human connection; destabilized family structures creating restlessness; imminent persecution, resulting in the need to seek refuge; and an abundance of choices and options (from consumer goods to spouses) often resulting in paralysis.
This column will provide a platform for a range of voices and serve a two-pronged mission.
First, we hope to highlight the specific contributions that young people can (and already do) offer to the church. Second, we want to examine what the church can offer to young people at a time and in a culture characterized by skepticism of institutional religion, saturation with identity politics, and changes in communication and commitment.
Pope Francis’ hope is that “by listening to young people, the church will once again hear the Lord speaking in today’s world.” We’re confident that these words will prove true — and in light of faith and in the spirit of accompaniment, we’re inviting you to join in the conversation.
Join the conversation. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Elise Italiano is executive director of communications at The Catholic University of America. Christopher White is director of Catholic Voices USA.