Young people are not a problem to be solved

Young people are not a problem to be solved

Today’s Catholic youth require “joyful accompaniment” says leading catechist.

*Please note the Engage Conference has been postponted until further notice*

Renowned Catholic speaker David Wells has said that the Irish Church must not view young people merely as “a problem to be solved”. Wells, a UK catechist and author who regularly talks at conferences around the world, was speaking ahead of the Engage Youth Ministry Conference in Dublin on 12th May. Churches throughout the Western world “are failing at a parish level and it’s just not working for young people”, he continued. What is needed, Wells said, “is a new theology of accompanying young people”, which requires “free and cheerful missionaries” who understand that “a joyful church will attract young people anyway”.

As part of his presentation at the Engage conference, Wells will be looking at recent research from both the UK and USA. “Increasingly, what we’re discovering in the UK, is that the issues raised in the US are the same as here. There is widespread disaffection in young Catholics in both countries, which has profound implications for parishes”, Wells said. “Surprisingly”, he continued, “the issues we’re encountering with young people are worldwide”, and not limited to any one nation.

What is becoming clear is that for young people throughout the Western culture, there is “an increasing disconnection with the notion of commitment, but still a desire to belong to things,” said Wells of the research. This dynamic invariably creates a strange situation for the Church. A key issue for the UK Church for example, in Wells’ eyes, has been that influential figures have “lacked imagination” when it comes to developing a relevant strategy for youth.

This lack of imagination is something that the Engage Youth Ministry Conference seeks to address, aiming to challenge, envision and equip those working with youth and young adults in the Catholic Church in Ireland today. “The key purpose of the Conference is to assist the further development of Catholic youth ministry in Ireland”, said Tim Nichols of Tine Network, the main organiser of the event. “It is a conference for bishops, priests, and laity, exploring how we evangelise and disciple young people,” he continued.

But this will require a firm commitment to going in a new direction, according to Wells, the conference’s main speaker. “What is needed is a huge cultural shift,” he said, “because young people today must belong before they believe. That’s the distinction between them and their grandparents”. A major area for renewal, therefore, is the whole approach to Confirmation. “It’s necessary to rethink the preparation that is given for Confirmation. There are increasing numbers of parents who tell their children to use the Sacrament as a moment to choose: make your Confirmation, and then you can decide if you want to be part of the faith. It’s a reverse of what it’s intended for. We need a complete rethink of this,” he said.

The best way of dealing with this is to start a process of accompanying young people on their faith journeys. The Church must “rethink what we’re actually asking in terms of parish. We must help clergy to get to grips with the whole idea of accompaniment. It’s not a new thing, it’s not a new initiative. This is exactly what Pope Francis is asking of us,” continued Wells.

Key to getting this right, though, is ensuring that “we get to grips with the notion that we’re not looking for fully fledged Catholics right from the beginning of the process. We must look to small signs of progress instead”. Invariably this means investment in better training and developing a more incisive strategy. Wells notes that “we’ve got to be more skillful in understanding what it means to accompany someone from their current position to where we’d like them to be, rather than just having them in that place first.” This process might well be pastorally exhausting and very much focused on the long-term, but it is undoubtedly a vital component of successfully engaging young people in the Catholic faith today. For Wells, the answer is simple, and it lies in the Christian virtues of joy and mercy.

“Most of all, young people want to know that they are loved and loveable, and that there is a role for them in the Church today. Those things can only come from encountering the Christian virtues. This is where true meaning comes from.”

The Engage Youth Ministry Conference takes place on Saturday 12th May in Dublin, and tickets are available by clicking here.