THE U.S. BISHOPS, meeting in Washington Nov. 11-14, will consider “Action Item 9.” Submitted for their approval by Bishop Tod Brown of the Diocese of Boise, Idaho, it reads: “Does the National Conference of Catholic Bishops approve the publication of Sons and Daughters of the Light: A Pastoral Plan for Ministry with Young Adults ?”
Its 77 pages, are the result of four years of planning, listening, drafting, rewriting and reflecting on Catholic young adults, the elusive, post-baby boom core of the Church's future generations. From college freshmen to those in their 30s contemplating marriage or a possible delayed vocation, young adults often have trouble feeling at home in parishes dominated by families and older Catholics. Coming of age in a media culture and untouched by the Church's post-Vatican II battles, they seek a home in an institution they don't quite fit—but that will be theirs soon.
If adopted by the bishops, the document will mark the first time the U.S. Church has formally initiated a strategy to reach out and embrace young adults, rather than teenagers. “The bottom line is, what is the good news?”said James Breen, director the young adult office for the Archdiocese of Boston. “The good news is the Church is reaching out to young adults—officially.”
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) Committee on the Laity, chaired by Bishop Brown, drafted the document, which will sell to pastors for about $8.95 per copy. The National Catholic Young Adult Ministry Association (NCYAMA) and the Catholic Campus Ministry Association have both endorsed the text. Next year, campus and young adult ministers are supposed to begin implementing the document's suggestions, which include seemingly small matters like making parish bulletins more young adult-friendly, dropping the focus on school and family news.
“The NCCB and the pastoral plan have done the who and the what and the why of young adults, and we're doing the how,”said Breen, president of NCYAMA. Conferences to discuss implementing the plan are scheduled to be held in Chicago, San Diego and Washington, D.C.
“I didn't want it to be a controversial statement,”said Delis Alejandro, one of six members of the pastoral plan's steering committee and a pastoral associate at St. Monica's Church in Santa Monica, Calif., home to one of the nation's most extensive and popular young adult ministries. Controversy, she said, might mean nothing happens for Catholics age 20 to 35.
“We wanted to make a statement [addressing] the commonality of people in that age range,”Alejandro said. “I think the whole point of this document is that there's an urgency. We need to do something now.”
St. Monica's parish might launch a mid-life spirituality group next year. Above all, said Alejandro, “it is getting people in the door [of] a Church that may have they thought was just [about] spiritual mementos of their childhood, the faith of their parents.”
“My principle thing was to get them here,”said Alejandro, 41, a former pediatric social worker. “This is a major population of people missing in the pews. Get the people in the door first.”
The bishops'document is less a teaching vehicle than a pastoral plan, which was inspired by the success of Denver's 1993 World Youth Day. It opens with an acknowledgment of “the pain many of you speak of in feeling unwelcome and alone— strangers in the house of God.”
Many Catholic young adults, like their non-Catholic contemporaries, disagree with Church teaching on a host of issues, like abortion and living together before marriage. This is handled diplomatically. “The document is pastoral, not doctrinal. It presumes the teaching of the Church,”said Father Charles Hagan, a Philadelphia diocesan priest and a steering committee member who works in the department of education at the United States Catholic Conference (USCC). If approved, the document “becomes the work of the bishops,”he said.
The pastoral does not want to turn off young adults, whom statistics show, often leave the Church after college but often return when they get married. If the Church hits young adults head-on with a series of hard rules, they are less inclined to embrace their faith, young adult coordinators argue.
“People were saying that young people were being turned off at this moment,”Hagan said, “If you just take the issue of (pre-marital) cohabitation and zero in on that, you're going up a oneway street that's a dead end. So if you hit these people with a series of things they need to get married—birth certificates, workshops—they really have to have a sense they are feeling welcome to this community.”
The pastoral plan has received early praise from some bishops. It refers to sexuality as an appropriate theme for faith formation and adult catechism and makes two references to abortion. The plan encourages young adults, “to be zealous in the pursuit of justice for the poor, the marginalized, the unborn, the elderly, the suffering, the brokenhearted.”It also says that “their commitment to the care of their children and to the unborn … all form a worthy testament to the role of young adults in living out their faith.”
Paul Henderson is the NCCB staffer who helped write the pastoral plan. He is now executive director of the Secretariat for the Third Millennium and the Jubilee Year 2000. “We as a Church have not done a good job in regenerating our ministries,”he said. “If the Church is going to continue into the 21st century, it has to regenerate itself,”he said. “It is young adults who are going to be the leaders of the Church. And the Holy Father has clearly identified the idea that in reaching young people, getting them on your side, that's how you will change the world.”
David Finnigan is based in Los Angeles.