A week ago, I thought I understood the state of youth and young adult ministry in the Church today. My experiences as a teacher and parish youth minister, as a speaker at events throughout North America, and with the thousands of people I’ve met in Canada and the United States have given me a fairly wide perspective of what good ministry looks like, what youth and young adults seem to want in the Church, and how to effectively share the Gospel and build faith. But then I spent a week at the Vatican’s pre-synodal gathering of young people in Rome, March 19-25, and immediately realized I actually had a very limited, close-minded attitude. Not that my experiences were totally invalid. What I knew of ministry in the United States was still useful. But when placed against the experiences of those from around the world, I was humbled and learned so much.
That week helped me see the state of youth and young adult ministry on a global scale. To watch young people from around the world, ranging from 20-32 years old, give testimony to the reality of the Church they experience and how young people seek faith in their countries was, in a very real way, a personal renewal of my own faith.
Preparing the way
As the week began, after Pope Francis made us all feel that his time with us was the best part of his Monday, we broke into language groups and were tasked with discussing questions about identity, the Church, vocation and discernment. The task of the whole gathering was simple: write a document for the bishops that would give them perspective on youth and young adults in the world today, representing both those who identify as passionately Catholic and those who have disaffiliated themselves from faith of any kind — and everyone in between. Pope Francis cast a wide net, inviting those to speak up who go to Mass every Sunday and those who have never even set foot in a Catholic Church. On the outside looking in, it may have seemed a bit odd to bring atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Jews, Christians, former and passionately faithful Catholics all to the same table to talk to the hierarchy of the Church.
But when those young people help answer questions and give their varied, wide-ranging, honest perspectives, the Church can then save the entire culture by redefining how we approach, work with and walk with the young people who are in the world but still long to seek Jesus and not be “of” this world. Throughout the week, it slowly dawned on me that the bishops are gathering in October to address the identity crisis many young people face, and they are hoping to help renew the way the Church aids people in building and growing a relationship with Jesus. The synod on youth, faith and vocational discernment can — and I imagine will — issue a revival among the Church, and bringing so many youth and young adults to the table and having us answer key questions was just one small step in the process of preparing, in a real way, to change the world just as Jesus did (and does).
In being there, we were doing something much bigger than just sitting around talking, writing and eating (because it’s Italy, so of course there was an abundance of food). Those of us speaking on behalf of our countries and movements, and giving witness to the experiences of young people from around the world, also were seeking identity in relationship with Jesus by way of authentic, real, vulnerable and life-giving relationships with one another. By being together, we experienced Church, especially when we had the chance to share our experiences and thoughts in our small language groups. In those small groups, we experienced fellowship and joy, each of us given the chance to see the Church less as an “institution” or “club” and more as the very real Body of Christ, of which we are a part. When the young woman from China shared about the struggles of remaining true to the Faith in a country where the government controls every aspect of life, many of us became grateful for our religious freedom. When we heard about the vocation crisis in Sweden, we became aware of how badly we need to foster, support and promote vocations to the priesthood and how the whole Church must be committed to this. We recognized and celebrated the great joy of the Church in Africa, came to know the real success of small youth movements in England and tried to pinpoint why there are so many successful conferences in the United States.
As I reflect on the week, I keep thinking back to the road to Emmaus and how, for a week on the outskirts of Rome, 300 young people were gathered by the pope to go on a journey: to walk along the way, together with Jesus, our hearts burning with a love of him and his Church, sharing our experiences of life and faith with our bishops so they can further learn how to lead others to him, so their hearts can burn with love for him, too.
This was not merely an effort by the Vatican and Pope Francis to seem relevant. This was a chance for youth and young adults from around the world to reveal our hearts, share our experiences, express our desires and articulate initiatives we feel the Church should embrace. As we did so, we were unified in our recognition and love of the beauty, depth, breadth and joy of the universal Church.
Katie Prejean McGrady was a U.S. delegate to the Vatican’s pre-synod gathering of young people. She is a youth minister, speaker and the author of “Follow: Your Lifelong Adventure with Jesus” (Ave Maria Press, $13.95).