A Critical Question for the Synod: How to Keep Kids Catholic

Those who minister to youth discuss what’s needed to invigorate young Catholics’ faith and help them successfully engage today’s secularized and complex culture.

Pope Francis waves to the faithful after celebrating a Mass for the opening of the youth-focused Synod of Bishops Oct. 3 in St. Peter’s Square. The synod, which runs through Oct. 28, brings together 266 bishops from five continents.
Pope Francis waves to the faithful after celebrating a Mass for the opening of the youth-focused Synod of Bishops Oct. 3 in St. Peter’s Square. The synod, which runs through Oct. 28, brings together 266 bishops from five continents. (photo: Vatican Media/CNA)

This month’s synod on youth should confront a wide array of issues — ranging from how to explain Church teaching on sexual morality to how to make young people feel more welcome in their parishes, according to teachers and those in ministry who work with high-school and college students.

The 2018 Synod on “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment” runs through Oct. 28 in Rome. It is aimed at addressing young people age 16 to 29.

That age range roughly corresponds to what Fellowship of Catholic University Students calls the “critical decade,” according to Nathan Stanley, the director of apostolic development for FOCUS, which ministers to students on secular campuses. “It’s really going after a group of people who are making big decisions in their lives,” Stanley said, noting that those decisions include who to marry and what career to pursue.

They are also years when a number of young people start to question their faith, leading some to stop practicing it. According to a survey released earlier this year by St. Mary’s Press and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University (CARA), 74% of those who had left the Church did so between the ages of 10 and 20.

According to Stanley, the central task facing the bishops of the synod is threefold: to reach out to young Catholics no longer filling the pews; to fan the flames of faith of those who remain practicing; and to “accompany” youth as they grapple with the “big questions” of Church teaching, including on sexual morality.

“I think they’re facing tough challenges, particularly today. They’re asking questions about identity, sexuality. They’re faced with broken families, relativism, individualism and isolation,” Stanley said. “And they’re looking for the Church to be able to step in there, meet them personally and walk with them.”

Young people are also expecting answers from the Church, Stanley noted. “They don’t want a half-hearted attempt to answer these questions, but an attempt that really gets to the heart of the issues,” he said.

The official agenda for the synod includes not only “faith and vocational discernment,” but also sexual morality, immigration, pornography, video games and the “throwaway culture” of which Pope Francis warned, among other topics, according to one report.

Controversy has tailed the synod in the final months leading up to the event, including calls from some bishops to postpone the synod due to the mushrooming sex-abuse scandal in the United States and elsewhere; concerns that its working document has serious flaws in terms of articulating Church teaching on sexuality and other important contemporary issues; criticism of some of the Pope’s choices of delegates among the bishops; the exclusion of successful youth apostolates like FOCUS; and an alleged lack of clarity in the voting procedures.

For one high-school teacher, the key issue is authenticity.

“Young people have incredible ‘radar’ for inauthenticity. The Church must be real and genuine and avoid anything that seems contrived or aloof. Young people want the truth, and they can handle it, and they want it directly and frankly. They want their tough questions answered, not in bland talking points that seek to avoid offense, but with sparkling-clear and bold truth — and they want the Church to admit that not all answers or teachings are easy,” said Aimee MacIver, a theology teacher at St. Scholastica Academy in Covington, Louisiana, and co-author with her husband, Colin, of a curriculum on the theology of the body.

Another top issue is a lack of credibility. “I think the sex-abuse scandal has to be confronted. I don’t think there’s any way to dance around it. I think it would be a huge travesty if we danced around it and pretended like it didn’t happen,” said Mark Knox, the director of campus ministry at St. Mary’s Catholic Center at Texas A&M University. He said that the scandal has convinced some young people that they can’t trust the Church.

Knox said he hopes the bishops realize the Church needs to develop ways of evangelization that are specifically geared toward youth, instead of a “blanket” approach. A “different mentality” and “different models,” he said, are needed to reach teenagers and young adults. And, in order to do that, Knox said Church leaders need to listen to youth discuss their experiences and where they are struggling.

Such listening is essential because of what Aimee MacIver says are “rapid shifts in thinking patterns and cultural conditions” among youth.

“Nothing is worse and less effective than leaders trying to be what they imagine is ‘cool,’ because they’re probably wrong,” she said. “So from this standing, I personally strive to form genuine and personal relationships with my young people so that they can tell me what their needs and struggles are, what questions they have, what frustrates or bores them in their faith, etc. They are and must always be the primary source for assessing their own spiritual needs.”


Obstacles to Faith

Many youth do not feel like the Church is a place for them, according to Colin MacIver, who also teaches with his wife at St. Scholastica Academy.

“While the official message is that faith is for the young, the idea that faith is for old people is still the prevailing sense of many in their generation. We aren’t broadcasting our messages on the right channels,” Colin MacIver said, relaying feedback he had received from a philosophy class he teaches for juniors and seniors. Another issue is the low visibility of religious men and women. “Young seminarians and sisters need to be visible and vibrant. Most couldn’t remember the last time they saw a sister. Religious life is largely invisible and out of sight, out of mind,” MacIver said. Some obstacles to faith among young people are deeply fundamental. Knox recalls substitute teaching a theology class for seniors at a local Catholic high school in Texas. He said he led the class in an hour and a half debate over whether objective truth exists.

“This generation feels so much that there is no objective truth,” Knox said. “When you get to that, then there is no objective morality.”

The current mentality is expressed, Knox said, in a popular phrase “You do you” — which was the title of a 2017 self-help book panned as narcissistic and also appears to be the inspiration behind a Diet Coke commercial airing this year.

“If ‘You do you’ applies, then there is no need for Jesus. There is no need for a Savior,” Knox said.


Sexual Fault Line

Another fault line is over sexual morality. One priest who ministers to those experiencing same-sex attraction said he appreciates the importance of having bishops “accompany” those on their way to accepting God’s plan for their lives.

“I think the key, both pastorally and theologically, though, is not to stop there, but to situate the stories that individuals bring about their own experiences in the one story that is the story of salvation and the story of the Gospel and to help people to understand their own experience, their own desires, their own challenges, their own perspectives in light of God’s plan for every human being,” said Father Philip Bochanski, the executive director of Courage International. Father Bochanski said he hopes bishops work on framing Church teaching on chastity not as an ideal possible only for a few select saints, but instead as something attainable to which all Catholics are called.

He said the Church should highlight examples of chastity in contemporary figures like Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, a university student and an early 20th-century activist who advocated for Catholic social teachings, and Blessed Chiara Luce Badano, an Italian teenager who died of bone cancer in 1990.

Colin MacIver said students in his class had indicated a need for more role models who are relatable.

“Stories about saints are still stale and distant” to many young people, “and the saints now need to be visible,” he said.

Father Bochanski said he also would like to see the synod articulate a clear definition of chastity — and show that it does not involve repressing one’s desires so much as integrating them into one’s life, leading to happiness and fulfillment.

That is just one word among many that the Church needs to emphasize in addressing young people, according to Colin MacIver. Other key terms “in need of rehabilitation” include: vocation, charity and virtue.

“As soon as we say ‘vocation,’ many tune out and think whatever is to follow isn’t relevant to them. The idea that marriage is a vocation has to become clear and real,” MacIver said. “If it does, we will find that there are more vocations to priesthood and religious life.”

Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.