Young Catholics have made it clear that they want to be active in their parishes and participate fully in the life of the Church.
But “the way things are” often makes that difficult.
“They told us, ‘We have a lot to offer, but our parishes don’t have good ways to assess our talents and gifts,’” stated John DeLaporte, who until recently served as diocesan director of youth ministry and religious education.
Mr. DeLaporte led a virtual diocesan Youth Summit this summer as part of the process of developing a new pastoral plan for the diocese.
About 100 young people from parishes throughout the diocese took part.
“We were looking for honest feedback, and they gave it to us,” Mr. DeLaporte stated.
The original intention was to invite delegations of young people from every parish in the diocese to take part in a live gathering in Columbia.
There, they were to discuss their understanding and experience of the three pillars that Bishop W. Shawn McKnight has deemed essential for the pastoral plan:
Efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 led to the creation of a virtual event with the same objective.
The summit’s agenda was built around “Christ is Alive” (“Christus Vivit”), Pope Francis’s 2019 apostolic exhortation to young people and the entire Church.
“In that document, Pope Francis reminds us that we need to make room for the voices of young people,” said Mr. DeLaporte, “that they are a source of renewal that helps keep the Church from becoming complacent and corrupt.”
“The Church needs her young people, and young people need the Church,” he continued. “Part of what the Holy Father is telling us is to find creative ways of helping them embrace their discipleship.”
Mr. DeLaporte, along with Shannon Cerneka and Orin Johnson of Oddwalk Ministries, worked with Ashley Wischkirchen, diocesan director of parish communications, to produce a series of videos and written materials to send to participating parishes.
Each parish conducted an online Zoom meeting, inviting young people to discuss a series of questions.
The parish’s facilitator then compiled the answers into an insight report and presented a copy to the pastor and parish pastoral council president.
Mr. DeLaporte also received copies of the reports and synthesized them into a single diocesan report.
“We shared that with the Diocesan Pastoral Council and with Bishop McKnight, so that it could influence our diocesan pastoral planning process,” Mr. DeLaporte said.
The stewardship portion of the Youth Summit focused on young people placing their gifts and talents at the service of God and His Church.
“We asked our young people what motivates them to get involved, what gifts and talents people their age have to offer, and how the Church is assessing and using those talents,” said Mr. DeLaporte.
He based the discussion materials on the four pillars of Catholic stewardship: hospitality, prayer, formation and service.
“This generation has so much talent and potential and a real love to make the world a better place,” Mr. DeLaporte noted. “Every talent has a starting place, so find a way to creatively use it to advance the mission of the Church.”
The young people consistently said they’re especially motivated by the presence of adults who encourage them, as well as acquiring skills that can help them succeed in the future.
Many young people have only a vague idea of what ministries their parishes offer.
“Across the board, we don’t do a very good job of communicating these things to them,” said Mr. DeLaporte. “Maybe they go to church and the fall festival, but they don’t have a good understanding about the ministries and activities that are going on.”
A personal invitation is important to them.
“That’s not an announcement from the pulpit or in the bulletin or an email from the youth minister,” said Mr. DeLaporte. “It’s ‘someone who knows me, is involved in something and is reaching out to me personally and asking me if I’d like to help.’”
They said they’re interested in helping develop ministries that are targeted at their age group, but they also value intergenerational ministry.
“So the earlier the parish can create familiarity between young people and the other parishioners will really benefit everyone when it comes time to get involved and share their talents in a specific way.”
Co-responsibility refers to how ordained ministers use their leadership and authority in partnership with laypeople in a way that advances the mission and ministry of the Church.
“A priest or deacon who is attuned to that and to assessing the gifts of the community can really align those gifts and use them in the community to advance the mission of the parish,” he said.
Most of the Youth Summit participants said they are entrusted with little responsibility in the life of the parish.
“Most of our young people experience parish life as a community of adults, for adults and by adults,” he said. “Youth are rarely consulted and given a voice in the life of the community, especially when decisions are made.”
He emphasized that none of the young people at the summit said they dislike their parish or feel any hostility or antagonism toward it.
“They weren’t even saying they disagree with the decisions that are being made,” he said. “And many speak of their experience of Church in warm and hospitable terms.”
But they feel like they’re being left out of most conversations.
To remedy this, Mr. DeLaporte suggested that each parish pastoral council include a youth subcommittee, through which consulting young people becomes standard procedure.
The final report also lists many other strategies parishes can use to nurture young leaders and make space to consult with young parishioners in the decision-making processes.
This would get more young people involved and help them know the priests, deacons and adults of the parish better.
“And we need to be working on ways to consult with young people, give them responsibility and build up their capacity for leadership,” he said.
The summit’s participants overwhelmingly agreed on what they value most in a pastor: his pure, pastoral presence.
“There is a real desire for relationship,” said Mr. DeLaporte. “They want to know their priest personally and for their priest to know them. This means more to them than his liturgical style, his homiletics or his canonical or theological perspective.”
Charity and mercy
The current generation of young people thrives on connecting with people through concrete acts of service.
“We know service works with young people,” said Mr. DeLaporte. “They kept telling us they have a strong desire to be involved in meaningful service that puts them in contact with people in need.”
Many are unaware of all the service opportunities that their parish already offers.
“If they don’t know these things are going on, they think their parish isn’t helping,” he said. “So once again, what’s missing is that personal invitation.”
They specifically indicated an interest in personally reaching out to new members and people who have become inactive, providing hospitality to visitors and people with no faith affiliation, and being open and inclusive.
“They see a need for stronger catechesis on social-political issues,” said Mr. DeLaporte. “When they hear about a social issue in the world, they want to know what the Church teaches on it.”
Among their peers, they see a need for help handling anxiety, stress, bullying and emotional health.
“So we need to be asking: Are our young people involved and aware? Are they being called on to serve in ways that are meaningful and interactive?
“Is the Church responding to the pastoral needs of young people? Are we aware of what those needs are?
“Are we offering parents what they need to help young people navigate the difficulties they encounter? Are our catechetical programs helping them understand current issues in light of their faith?”
Setting the pace
Feedback from the young people was in line with what experts on revitalizing parish life are saying: that parish catechetical ministries, especially for young people, must continue to move away from a school- or group-based model and toward one that fosters intentional discipleship.
“We keep hearing that the Catechumenate Model should be the model for all catechesis,” Mr. DeLaporte said. “That is, Catholics mentoring and accompanying new Catholics on the road to discipleship.”
It must engage the “head, heart and hands” in meaningful and authentic ways, he stated.
He said service should be the cornerstone of every component of ministry in this diocese.
“Some coordinated experience of authentic and meaningful service in a Catholic context,” he said. “Even just one of those kinds of experiences can pack a lot of evangelizing power in the hearts of young people.”
Other models of ministry that embrace a discipleship approach include small group ministry; mentor-apprentice relationships between adults and young people; service, charity and social justice opportunities coupled with teaching, prayer and reflection; leadership development; and help for young people seeking to discover their gifts and talents.
Parishes must also put greater emphasis on equipping, accompanying and collaborating with parents in raising faith-filled children in these complex times. Opportunities for families need to include prayer, faith-sharing and service, Mr. DeLaporte stated.
Mr. DeLaporte reiterated a point Pope Francis makes in “Christ is Alive”: “If you are to accompany others on this path, you must be the first to follow it, day in and day out,” (#298).
Accordingly, parishes need to invest in adult faith-formation, intergenerational ministry, integration of young people into as many aspects of parish life as possible, doing things to make young people a priority in all aspects of parish ministry, and creating a culture in which young people are consulted and know they are being heard.
Mr. DeLaporte closed his summation of the Youth Summit with a message Pope Francis made to young people at the end of “Christ is Alive”: “My joyful hope is to see you keep running the race before you, outstripping all those who are slow or fearful. ... The Church needs your momentum, your intuitions, your faith. ... And when you arrive where we have not yet reached, have the patience to wait for us,” (#299).
“Amen!” Mr. DeLaporte added.