If the Church is to capture the attention of a new generation, it has to catch up with and invest in its faithful youth, Jason Osborne hears
The announcement of a national synod from the Irish bishops has piqued the interest of the Irish Catholic world, with more than a few people expressing deeply held hopes and fears about the direction the discussion could take the Church.
Bishops have told The Irish Catholic in recent weeks that the Church cannot shy away from controversial questions – “red button issues” as Bishop Paul Dempsey of Achonry puts it – as it prepares for the synod, and the disconnect with young people is one that is particularly likely to come up.
Speaking to this paper, a number of people at the forefront of youth ministry and missionary activity expressed the view that if this synod is to be a success, it has to put the young Faithful it already has front and centre.
“I suppose the most important thing is that the voices of the young people are heard because they, especially young Catholics today in Ireland and the ones I’m dealing with, students on campus, are extremely articulate, they’re well researched and well read,” Fr Eamonn Bourke of the University College Dublin chaplaincy tells me.
“They’re watching a lot of videos on YouTube and they’re reading up and they’re finding out a lot about their faith and why they believe what they believe. They hold their faith really quite dear to themselves. They really want to not just keep the Faith themselves, they want to share it among other young people and older people as well.”
For a young person to hold tightly to the Faith in today’s Ireland requires more than a nominal belief – it requires a deep understanding of the “pearl of great price” that they’ve found, as Fr Bourke put it. Not only are they holding fast to the Church they’ve gone against the grain to grow into – often on the frontlines amongst their peers and families – sowing the seeds that Christ has planted in their own hearts.
“I’d say it’s [the rejuvenation of the Irish Church] already happening among young people, you know? Hopefully the Church will catch up with what’s actually happening with young people now because in the past, you would have heard of parents trying to get their kids to go to Mass. I have students now who are trying to get their parents to go to Mass,” Fr Bourke says.
“It’s almost flipped on its head. They’re actually going out and they’re evangelising their own peers and that kind of stuff. I just hope that the Church will give them support in that.”
A group that understands evangelisation in modern Ireland perfectly well is NET Ministries. A staple at youth retreats around the country pre-pandemic, their efforts have continued online since lockdown. Despite the jarring shift from the real world to the virtual, their missionary approach could still be encapsulated by fellow youth organisation, Youth 2000’s, motto, ‘Youth leading youth to the heart of the Church’.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic, Executive Director of Net Ministries Ireland, Tony Foy, tells of the voices the synod needs to hear.
“Who’s making disciples? Who’s bringing people to the Faith? Who’s increasing the faith of those who already have a little modicum of faith?” he asks, continuing, “Those are the people that we need to listen to.”
Bringing the Faith
The young people that Mr Foy works with on a regular basis are bringing the Faith to their peers in a concrete, revivifying way that the “established Church” just isn’t matching at the moment. A young person may not encounter their parish priest or their diocesan bishop as they grow up, other than for their First Communion or Confirmation, but they are surely encountering the young missionaries visiting their schools and doing outreach on college campuses (in pre-pandemic times. This paper has previously reported on the virtual efforts of Net Ministries’ young missionaries).
It is this missionary spirit that the Irish Church must tap into during the synodal process if it is to reap a harvest among the youth.
“We [Net Ministries] hope that the focus of the Church is moved from maintenance to mission. The idea of the parish is brilliant and it’s still going to be there, but the parish must go out. The people must go out, and the priests and the people must go hand in hand. That’s our hope for the Church,” Mr Foy says.
“The Church is meant for mission. It’s not meant to be sitting at home. If there’s a change in emphasis at the synod, that will be a very, very welcome development.”
A potential danger that both Fr Bourke and Mr Foy have identified is that the synod will become bogged down in practicalities. While these are material realities that must be dealt with, the focus of the synod must be on its people – “the true infrastructure of the Church,” Fr Bourke says.
A fear people have, Fr Bourke insists, “is that too much emphasis would be put on structures and buildings and finances and that kind of stuff, how many churches will we keep open, what kind of buildings will we have, as opposed to saying, ‘Look, we need to start investing in people now’ and investing in young people and making sure that it’s not just all about the infrastructure”.
It’s easy to say what the synod shouldn’t look like, and what the Church of Ireland’s future shouldn’t look like, but how should it look? That’s a question that the chaplaincy at Queen’s University Belfast is trying to answer, Pastoral Manager Shannon Campbell says.
“Here at the chaplaincy, we’re working to develop a new model of campus ministry which is invitational, Christ-centred, formative, outward-looking, collaborative, and we’re very conscious that we’re forming young people as the agents of change for the future. Concern for things like social justice, the common good, so as we develop that new model of campus ministry here, we hope to develop and model the principles that will inform the synod, and this synodal path that Pope Francis has articulated, and that the Church in Ireland is embarking upon.
“So, we do hope to model it here in, sort of, a smaller scale and in the coming months we’re hoping to engage a wide-ranging consultation process that ensures our engagement with young people is evidence-based, doctrinally sound, and responsive to the complex needs of the important demographic that is students,” Ms Campbell says.
Offering not just theory and conjecture, the chaplaincy at Queen’s University Belfast boasts a vibrant and active community, which sees plenty of engagement with the university’s young, Catholic population as Ms Campbell pointed out. The voices calling for youth engagement in the upcoming synod and throughout the entire process are united in sentiment: theorising and waxing lyrical about the youth without engaging those at the coalface is ultimately an exercise in futility.
e divide that has historically existed between the Church and the youth, both those of faith and those without, advising that these voices be brought into the discussion if the synod is to bear real fruit among young people.
“We’re certainly actively working to bridge that divide. As I mentioned, I think a lot of the time, the Church and a certain generation of the Church are out of sync with where young people actually are and what their quite complex needs are, whereas I think up here we are a little bit more in sync and in touch with that because we’re blessed to be right at the heart of a student campus.”
“I suppose my hope would be that faith communities are engaging with young people as we are – especially those not actively engaged in faith, to better understand how we can create conditions which make possible a relationship with the Church,” she says.
Again, easier said than done. Ms Campbell is keenly aware of the challenges that reaching out to such a rapidly-changing demographic entails, admitting that the Church hasn’t had much opportunity to keep abreast of the shifting cultural and moral concerns of the world’s youngest generations.
“I don’t think the Church knows much about the culture that they’re [18-24 year-olds] living in. There’s just a huge disconnect. I think things like social media…that is responsible for that divide, I think. Just constantly new issues emerging, like the whole ‘safety of women’ thing at the minute and Black Lives Matter – these are things that that generation take really seriously and I don’t think they know where the Church sits on those kinds of things, and they’re things that really matter to them.”
Overall, Ms Campbell says she sees the synod as an “opportunity for all of us”, “especially those who feel disaffected from Church or marginalised in society to be heard”. She hopes it will encourage those already actively engaged in the Church to make it a place of “welcome and belonging”. With regards to young people, she ultimately bases her advice to the hierarchy of the Irish Church upon her own experience of work with the young people of faith and no faith alike.
“As someone responsible for forming students and young adults here in Belfast in the Faith, my hope would be that we meaningfully engage our young people in the synod conversation. I think sometimes in youth ministry we find ourselves out of sync with where young people actually are and what their needs might be. So, I hope that the Church will lend its ear to both those young people and the people that work with them.”
A word of caution that she offered at the same time, though, was to avoid the ‘shouting match’ discourse that much of politics and culture has fallen into. If the synod is to effectively hear the voices of those “crying out in the wilderness”, it must listen attentively, offering an alternative to the feverish and pitched voices found elsewhere.
“My impression of public discourse at the minute is that it’s very much governed by this principle of ‘who can shout the loudest?’ There seems to be little room for reasoned, reflective argument and I think there might also be a perception among some that the synod is something akin to parliamentary democracy where majority rules, but my understanding of synodality is that the process should be concerned with meaningful discernment and that we should be open to conversion of our own opinion and we should seek to build consensus and just greater understanding. It should keep in conversation with the traditions of both the Church and contemporary culture.”
Also offering a cautionary word, in the hope that it’ll lead to a more fruitful conversation throughout the synodal journey, Fr Ger Dunne of the University College Cork chaplaincy says that “good catechetical instruction” is an essential resource to provide the young people, that the Church so aches to reach, with.
Speaking of his own interaction with young people in his role as chaplain in Cork, Fr Dunne said he admires them for “going out of their way to find out” the truth of the Church “of their own initiative and their own volition”, but that a fuller catechesis needs to be offered to supplement the information they come across online.
“It can be quite selective in some of the information that they would find online, for example,” he says.
“While some of it’s wonderful, some of it is without basis, with no catechetical or theological foundation to some of it. This can sometimes give a bit of a warped understanding of faith, so that certainly is a cause for concern. Things that they find online are often deemed to be the absolute truth, so that can cause difficulties.”
For Fr Dunne, as with the rest of the voices in youth ministry, the way forward must be forged through honest engagement, open dialogue and attentive listening. “Our younger generation really have to be central to this listening process, this synodal process. There’s no doubt about that,” Fr Dunne says, adding that it can’t only be those heavily engaged with their faith either, but those “marginalised or hanging on by their fingernails” too.
In the final analysis, all synodal conversation must take place with eternity in mind, with the great import of the Faith firmly lodged in the minds of those taking part.
“I think what young people realise now because they’ve actually been swimming against the tide is that the Faith costs people. It’s not easy to be a disciple today. It’s a difficult thing and it’s going to cost people. The truth is quite demanding, but yet rewarding,” Fr Bourke says, offering a reminder that the easy road is rarely the right one to take.