Are young people the future of the Church?

Are young people the future of the Church? Pope Francis prepares to take a photo with young people at a presynod gathering of youth delegates in Rome.
Chai Brady discusses the upcoming Synod on Youth


As the Church comes closer to a major discussion on young people, it’s worth taking note of the aims and processes behind what it hopes to address: a crisis in reaching youth.

The Synod on Youth will be held in the Vatican from October 3-28 on the theme ‘Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment’, with bishops attending from around the world.

The document that will be at the centre of discussion, the Instrumentum Laboris, was published in June of this year, and will help steer the bishops regarding issues close to the hearts of young people from hundreds of different societies and cultures.

The Synod of Bishops was established by Pope Paul VI in September 1965 in order to involve bishops from around the world in assisting the Pope in addressing important issues facing the Church. With many young people not practicing the Faith or abandoning the Church – particularly in Ireland as well as many countries in the Western world – the synod comes at a pivotal time.

This will be the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops and much has been done to get to the bottom of this conundrum.

It was announced on Saturday the full list of priests, bishops, cardinals, collaborators and observers who would be taking part in the synod.

To the list of members elected by national bishops’ conferences, Pope Francis added cardinals from 14 countries, bishops from another 10 nations, as well as 10 priests who will be full voting members of the gathering.

The observers and collaborators include 30 women and several young adults. They participate in the synod discussions, but do not have a vote on the final proposals given to the Pope.


The Church is both locally and internationally “trying to learn to dialogue” with youth and help them discern their vocations, Bishop Donal McKeown told The Irish Catholic.

Dr McKeown will be attending the synod with Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin, and said he was very impressed with the efforts to involve young people in informing the upcoming discussions.

“What’s been very interesting has been Pope Francis’ approach to the synods, there’s been synods of bishops over the years but in early 2016 there was a letter that came out to all bishops’ conferences asking them to consult with young people, and to send back comment on the situation, the reality, in their own country,” said Dr McKeown.

This began a process of surveying thousands of young people in Ireland and around the world, which received 65,000 responses by October 2017. The Vatican’s survey began in June 2017 and focused on people 16-29 years of age, irrespective of religious belief.

The list of 53 mostly multiple-choice questions was divided into seven sections: general personal information; attitudes and opinions about oneself and the world; influences and relationships; life choices; religion, Faith and the Church; internet use; and two final, open-ended questions.

The write-in questions are an invitation to describe a positive example of how the Church can “accompany young people in their choices, which give value and fulfilment in life” and to say something about oneself that hasn’t been asked in the questionnaire.

Other questions ask about living arrangements; self-image; best age to leave home and have a family; opinions about education and work; measures of success; sources of positive influence; level of confidence in public and private institutions; and political or social activism.

This was followed by a pre-synodal meeting in March of this year in Rome attended by 300 young representatives from around the world. Approximately 15,300 young people from five continents took part in the meeting physically or virtually.

Receiving input from 20 language groups and six social media groups, the resultant document was sent to the Synodal Fathers and ultimately informed the Instrumentum Laboris.

The issues raised included a longing for an ‘authentic’ Church that is transparent, welcoming and communicative, one that has zero tolerance to sexual abuse and is sincere in admitting past and present wrongs.

This comes as the Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said he asked Pope Francis on August 30 to call off the synod, and instead to focus on the life of bishops.

“I have written to the Holy Father and called on him to cancel the upcoming synod on young people. Right now, the bishops would have absolutely no credibility in addressing this topic,” the archbishop said at a conference in Philadelphia’s St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.

In its place, the archbishop suggested that the Pope “begin making plans for a synod on the life of bishops”.

With revelations of several sex abuse scandals relating to high ranking prelates, hundreds of clergy and even allegations against Pope Francis himself of being involved in an abuse cover-up have come to light in recent months, it’s no wonder there are worries among young people and a desire for an authentic Church.

Many young people also said they feel disconnected from the Church, they could attend Mass but not feel a sense of community, with some saying their Church communities “seem dead”.


The youth representatives also touched on issues they felt were polarising many in their demographic, these include contraception, abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation, marriage and how the priesthood is perceived in different realities in the Church.

The document, which is a compilation of submissions during the pre-synod, states on this topic: “What is important to note is that irrespective of their level of understanding of Church teaching, there is still disagreement and ongoing discussion among young people on these polemical issues.

“As a result, they may want the Church to change her teaching or at least to have access to a better explanation and to more formation on these questions. “Even though there is internal debate, young Catholics whose convictions are in conflict with official teaching still desire to be part of the Church. Many young Catholics accept these teachings and find in them a source of joy. They desire the Church to not only hold fast to them amid unpopularity but to also proclaim them with greater depth of teaching.”

The final document, the  Instrumentum Laboris, is broken up into three parts and has been drawn up to mimic the method of discernment. Pope Francis describes the process of discernment in Evangelii Gaudium using three verbs: recognise, interpret and choose.

Commenting on the documents, Bishop Donal McKeown said: “I think the document is very much structured in an Ignatian way, you see, you recognise the reality, and that first section – those first five chapters of that document – were really trying to recognise the reality of where young people are in the society they live in. It begins with an analysis of the reality.”

In this section there is a large focus on the most marginalised young people “who are continually rejected by a world that understands itself starting from the paradigm of rejection, of ‘buy, use, and discard’”.

It states that when this culture is applied to human beings, consideration of their dignity is lost. This manifests itself in labour exploitation, discrimination and social exclusion to name a few.

“The second section that you can see is talking about trying to interpret all of that in the light of the Scriptures and then the third section leads up to choosing, making a choice, and deciding what are the priorities for us. The whole process of synodality is really going out to a much deeper level of trying to discern with the whole people of God, what our priorities are, what our ways forward are at the present time. I think it’s an interesting process even before we begin to look at the content,” Dr McKeown said.

He added that it builds on the approach of Pope Francis to the Synod on the Family, which took place in October 2015, when there was also a questionnaire sent out.

“I think there was a recognition that much of that initial questionnaire for the one on the family, was rather cumbersome in terms of the language and difficult to respond to. I think certainly they would have learnt from this in terms of trying to hear from young people, both Church going and non-Church going young people, to hear it from them, what is their reality, to enable us as Church to respond to their reality.”

The Instrumentum Laboris states it recognises that young men and women are often confronted by the challenge of cultural changes that sometimes disregards spirituality and Church teaching.


In Part I, Recognising: The Church Listens to Reality, it states that many sociological studies show many young Catholics don’t follow the Church’s teaching on sexual morals, while others call out for clarity on subjects such as homosexuality and gender issues “which young people are already freely discussing without taboo”.

With same-sex marriage and abortion becoming legal in Ireland after two referendums changed the constitution, more than ever young people in Ireland are becoming disillusioned with the widening gap between Church teaching and what are becoming societal norms.

Instrumentum Laboris, presented by the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, concludes that holiness is the most attractive face of the Church, and before suggesting it to young people, “we are called to experience it as witnesses, thus becoming a ‘likeable’ community, as the Acts of the Apostles shows us on various occasions”.

In a recent survey of Christian youth in Ireland called Finding Faith in Ireland published late last year, 33% said they attended Church in the last week. The figures also showed the number of young adults involved in religious practice decreased as they got older. Data collated by the European Social Survey from 2014-2016 found that 24% of young people are attending Mass weekly in Ireland.

This has led to a prominent Church number-cruncher, Prof. Stephen Bullivant, saying the decline of religion in Ireland is overstated.

In a previous interview with The Irish Catholic, he said: “It’s simply not the case in Ireland that we’ve got a kind of Catholic old generation who are dying off and this bright, new secular generation is taking over. Even among young adults we see that Ireland is extremely Catholic, other than Poland, by any other normal comparison.”

Prof. Bullivant, director of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, said the ESS found that the six ‘most Christian’ nations are all historically Catholic-majority countries, such as Ireland and Poland.

In tackling the issue of young people in the Church, the synod will be addressing the Church’s future, a sentiment that reflects St John Paul II’s when he visited Ireland almost 50 years ago and he spoke to Ireland’s youth in Galway.

He said: “When I look at you, I see the Ireland of the future. Tomorrow, you will be the living force of your country; you will decide what Ireland will be. Tomorrow, as technicians or teachers, nurses or secretaries, farmers or tradesmen, doctors or engineers, priests or religious – tomorrow you will have the power to make dreams come true.

“Tomorrow, Ireland will depend on you.

“When I look at you assembled around this altar and listen to your praying voices, your singing voices, I see the future of the Church. God has his plan for the Church in Ireland, but he needs you to carry it out. What the Church will be in the future depends on your free cooperation with God’s grace.”