They’re much too young to have known the prodigious Pirates of Pittsburgh baseball lore. But they sure sound like the 1979 World Series champions.
Youth from around the world recently gathered at the Vatican to prepare for the October 2018 Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.” (“Young people” in Vatican-speak refers more to those of university-age than to teenagers.) Concluding their get-together with a Facebook video, the digital natives adopted the slogan: “We are family; let’s listen and grow together.”
According to a press release, the seminar disclosed “the desire of young people to find in the Church a home, a family and a community where they can develop their life choices and contribute to the common good.” All of us in the iWorld share that longing, but their vantage point differs.
For this hyper-connected generation, the experience of life is technologically mediated. According to the synod’s preparatory document, this digital phenomenon gives young people a distinct “conception of the world, reality and interpersonal relationships.” Consequently, the synod seeks to develop a pastoral activity appropriate to that experience.
For the younger generation, the “world” has become quite small. Cyberspace seems vast, but the world within it is governed by minute data – bits and bytes of information gathered from activity online and fed with algorithmic precision into every aspect of a young person’s life. Meeting new people, navigating trips, receiving news and shopping for just about anything is all technologically mediated. The world is literally at their fingertips, by way of a hand-held or wrist-worn device.
Pastorally speaking, the challenge will be to get young people to look up from those devices! They may navigate the world with a point and click, but finding meaning there, especially amid so much chaos and conflict, doesn’t happen in the 0.34 seconds it takes Google to respond to a query. For that, the Church proclaims the Good News of the Gospel. Through encounters with believers who give witness to mercy and hope online and in-person, young people can experience the world in a new light.
For today’s youth, “reality” has become something virtual. It’s still real, of course, but increasingly it comes to be filtered through technology. For the digital generation, “carpe diem” translates into taking a photo or video of what’s happening. Geo-localization tags where they are. Instagram shows what they’re eating. YouTube records the concert they’re attending. Reality is not simply to be enjoyed “in the moment.” Young people prefer to capture it and desire to share it.
The challenge for pastoral outreach to this generation will be to break through the filters. They may increasingly digitize their experiences, but experience framed by a lens is necessarily limited, despite continual improvements to digital cameras. The Church offers more, by way of a sacramental approach to reality. Through this, young people can learn to appreciate mystery, to ponder the supernatural, and to experience the beauty of the sacred as it breaks forth in and through their daily lives.
For young people, “interpersonal relations” have become networked. They still socialize, but do so through screens rather than face-to-face. They prefer texts to lengthy conversation, posts to interactive engagement and tweets to sustained discourse. As the MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle describes it, youth exist “alone together” in social networks, thanks to which they can be in touch with a lot more people, while also keeping all of them carefully at bay.
Ultimately, pastoral work aims to provide a relational experience of eternal communion. Young people today may be linked in to hundreds or thousands of followers; but what they desire, as has every generation before them, is real friendship. The Church offers this, not by way of technological mediation but through the person of Jesus Christ.
By reclaiming conversation with him, mediated through the Sacred Scriptures and prayer and worship, young people can develop a lasting relationship with God and others that alone will give them the joy they so earnestly seek.
Theologically, the Church continues to stress an incarnational, sacramental and liturgical approach to human life. Our collective challenge, at and beyond the next synod, is to figure out how best to communicate that to a generation whose experience of life is technologically mediated. To meet this challenge, we most definitely need to “listen and grow together” with the young people in our Church family.
Father Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S., holds the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.