Notre Dame sets stage for a discerning Church

Young people have a desire to grow in the Faith and become more involved in the Church, but often the disconnect they feel is like struggling with a second language, said Katherine Angulo, associate director of youth ministry for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, to a gathering at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, on March 7.

“They know they’re looking for something. They don’t have the language, the words to express what they’re looking for,” she told an auditorium of academics, catechists, teachers, bishops and other Church ministers.

Angulo, presenting in her third language, English, kicked off the third and final day of Cultures of Formation: Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, a conference hosted March 5-7 by Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life. The keynote and featured lectures of the conferences first two days came from Bishop Robert E. Barron, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, and writer Nicholas Carr, who addressed the role of smartphone technology in people’s lives.

When the Vatican announced in October 2016 that the next assembly of the Synod of Bishops, in October 2018, would tackle the theme “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment,” the staff of the McGrath Institute ran with the ball and planned an event that anticipated and contextualized many of the issues involved. The end result brought together over 500 people from throughout the Church in the United States.

Jessica Keating, left, and Colleen Moore, right, of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute, presented March 6 on fostering presence and mercy in ministry environments at the Cultures of Formation conference. Don Clemmer

“I think it was just incredible foresight from my colleagues who said ‘Why don’t we till the ground here and begin the conversation now, so that we’re part of the conversation?’” Colleen Moore of the McGrath Institute told Our Sunday Visitor. “My hope is that this isn’t just helpful for this particular Synod, but that the institute can gather folks like this more frequently.”

Moore presented with her colleague Jessica Keating on cultivating mercy and presence in Church ministry, “because we can have the best programs in the world and the best strategic plans, and none of that will happen if we’re not embodying this presence and mercy.”

Academic and pastoral

“In the fields of youth and young adult ministries, this Synod has created a lot of buzz,” Paul Jarzembowski, assistant director for youth and young adult ministries at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told OSV. He noted the importance of bringing together people with academic and ministry backgrounds created a dynamic of dialogue that allowed a more complete picture to emerge of the “big ideas” underpinning the Synod.

“A lot of the work that is being done in preparation for the Synod is pastoral,” he noted, referencing the consultations bishops have conducted with their people and have sent to the Synod Office in Rome. “But this also represents the great intellectual tradition of our Church. … In a way what this is preparing people for is not necessarily for the Synod, but what happens after the Synod.”

While some parish ministers and high school theology teachers said the academic nature of the conference was initially jarring, presentations such as Moore’s and Angulo’s broke through in terms of being relevant in their pastoral application. A number of them invoked Angulo’s image of now being equipped with the right language to bring back to their parishes and schools. They also noted another theme from Angulo, of making the Church present for both young people’s milestone moments and at all times.

(Left to right) Hope Feist, Caroline Reuter, Sean Driscoll and Colleen Campbell brought their perspectives as young adults, but also their backgrounds in education, ministry and academia to the Cultures of Formation conference at Notre Dame. Don Clemmer

“The majority of the work is in showing up in their lives,” Sean Driscoll, director of faith formation at St. Joseph Parish, South Bend, told OSV. “We care more about who they are as a whole person, and not just in what we need to accomplish, like in our sacramental preparation or our ministry on a weekly basis.”

Hope Feist, a religion teacher at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Illinois, noted the pastoral importance of the line “What are you going through?” It’s something she plans to employ more intentionally with her students from now on. “It will be used. I will go back to it, and I’m grateful that they connected that with mercy and presence.”

Caroline Reuter, a religion teacher at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, said the experience led her to see her own work more holistically.

“Something I really appreciated from Bishop Barron was a line where he said, if our students are ready to read Shakespeare, then they can read Augustine,” she told OSV. She said too often the experiential and the intellectual are cast as a false dichotomy when they are really a both/and. “We have to do both. You cannot let one of those fall apart any time.”

Leaving vs. belonging

A major thread of many presentations and discussions — also anticipated to be a major theme at the Synod in October — was the growing disaffiliation of young people from any religious identity.

Katherine Angulo, associate director of youth ministry for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, speaks on taking a holistic approach to young people in the Church on March 7 at the Cultures of Formation conference at Notre Dame. Angulo addressed the ages at which young people stop considering themselves Catholic, as well as ways to reach them. Don Clemmer

Angulo, who participated in the research informing a recent study, “Going, Going, Gone,” by St. Mary’s Press and Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), offered alarming data in her presentation, such as 13 being the median age at which young people stop self-identifying as Catholic. She offered the assessment that high school and college campus ministry in the United States are “doing OK,” but that ministries for young adults and middle schoolers are “doing poorly.”

“That middle school age group of persons is an area that we really haven’t looked at very carefully,” Bishop Anthony B. Taylor of Little Rock, Arkansas, told OSV. The “nones,” young people with no religious affiliation, were a central takeaway for the bishops, he said, along with “remembering the importance of proclaiming the truth of the Catholic faith, that people have a real hunger for the truth, and also to be good listeners and try to encounter people where they’re at.”

“We have a lot of work to do,” Bishop Bill Wack, CSC, of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, told OSV. “It’s sobering, kind of shocking to see the statistics and everything. But at the same time, it’s hopeful.” He cited the experience of seeing so many great people from across the country gathered with a shared commitment to these issues. “It’s neat to imagine us going from here out into the dioceses.”

The over 20 bishops in attendance gave the event an added dimension of episcopal leadership in dialogue with the rest of the Church’s leaders, a reality that John Cavadini, director of the McGrath Institute, noted with gratitude. Cavadini also noted that so many presentations have brought up the importance of fostering a sense of belonging in the Church for young people. “Cultures of formation are in some ways cultures of belonging,” he observed.

Young leaders emerge

Another fruitful dynamic of Cultures of Formation was that numerous participants fell within the 16-29 age range the Vatican designated for the Synod’s focus. As Mireya Magallanes, a Hispanic youth ministry leader in formation at St. Boniface Parish in the Diocese of Lafayette, Indiana, told OSV, “They are focusing on real problems that we have.”

young adults
(Left to right) Mireya Magallanes, Crystal Serrano-Puebla and Rodrigo Rosas Santiago brought their perspectives working in Hispanic young adult ministry to the Cultures of Formation conference. Don Clemmer

This was a source of hope for Colleen Campbell, a Ph.D. student at The Catholic University of America, who presented on forming catechists who are storytellers. “While this is such a seemingly desperate time for the Church,” she said, “how comforting it is to see people of my generation — I’m 24 — also speak for us as millennials and offer what we have to say to the Church: This is how you can accompany us, and this is how you can help us.”

Reuter, of Roncalli High School, said despite her also being 24, she still sees the vast disparity between her experience and her students who’ve had smartphones since childhood. “We can’t relate to that depth of connectivity,” she said, citing Nicholas Carr talk as a wake-up call. “The level of hyper-connectivity and the level of deep anxiety and loneliness that our students experience as a result … it’s all the more urgent now because of all this.”

The conversations among bishops and observers at the Synod this fall will occur behind closed doors and, if tradition holds, only be made public but through summaries provided by the Vatican press office, a final document approved by the Synod fathers and, possibly, an eventual exhortation written by the pope. So Cultures of Formation has provided a window into what a Church-spanning conversation around these issues looks and sounds like.

Crystal Serrano-Puebla, an apprentice in the McGrath Institute’s two-year Echo program, in which she studies theology at Notre Dame in the summers and develops Hispanic young adult ministry leaders at the parish level the rest of the year, lauded the conference’s following Pope Francis’ lead.

“I think he’s very in touch with the pulse of the Church and what’s happening on the ground,” she told OSV, directly linking the 2014-15 Synods on the family to this fall’s gathering on young people. “In order to get at the families, you have to get at youth, because our young people, our young adults, are also going to be starting those family units. … I think he’s been very clever in backing these two things together, because they really go hand-in-hand and work in dialogue with one another.”

Don Clemmer is managing editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow him on Twitter @clemmer_osv.