ROME – At first blush, it might have seemed the Vatican was attempting the impossible this week: Bringing a wildly diverse group of 300 young people from all over the world to Rome, throwing them together, and expecting them to blend those contrasting experiences, outlooks and values into one harmonious set of inputs for an upcoming summit of Catholic bishops.
Even before the meeting started, the possible concerns those young people might voice about the Vatican’s various effort at outreach seemed almost endless: Limited sample size, one-sidedness, superficiality, censorship, Eurocentrism, and on and on. Further, a Q&A with Pope Francis on Monday might have suggested a lack of focus, with the pope weighing in on everything from tattoos to prostitution.
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Judging by day one of the March 19-24 gathering, however, not only did the Church succeed in bringing together a good cross-section of the fractured reality of young people today, but already relevant and recurring topics have begun to emerge – such as the real need felt by youth for guidance, the need for more effective engagement with secularism, and the toxic nature of clericalism.
The exercise is intended to help shape discussion during an October Synod of Bishops on youth and vocation discernment, called by Francis and to be held in the Vatican.
Without shying away from addressing the real issues young people face in a secular age, which make youth skeptical toward religious institutions, the 20-somethings all voiced the need for the Church’s guidance and mentorship in the murky waters of the modern world.
“It appears the Church’s guidance of youth is needed now more than ever,” said Nick López from San Antonio, and who currently serves as the director of campus ministry for the University of Dallas.
Speaking of the United States, López said “young people distrust religious leaders and are skeptical about religion in general,” and one-third of youth do not affiliate with any religion at all.
“I think it is important that there be Christians who testify to their faith, and who are willing to accompany and guide young people. These guides should be available for example at school or in a youth movement and ready to give meaning to the lives of young people,” said Belgian Annelien Boone, speaking on youth in Europe.
Boone painted what, from a Catholic perspective, could be perceived as a bleak picture of the religious status of youth on the Old Continent. She summarized a study in more than 35 European countries of people between the ages of 18 and 34, the so-called Millennials – or, as she called them, the “Generation What?”
The results show that nearly 50 percent of youth in Europe distrusts religious institutions, and that up to 94 percent believe that religious beliefs are not necessary to obtain happiness. In Belgium, only 2 percent of the population under 34 takes part in a religious service more than a few times a month.
The Vietnamese participant, Cao Huu Minh Tri, voiced the same concerns regarding the vast and multifaceted continent of Asia, where the Fourth Industrial Revolution, widespread atheism and hostile governments have contributed to making youth “not believe in God, or just consider Him as a normal philosopher.”
Tri also underscored how changing mindsets concerning reproductive rights, marriage, divorce and sexuality have contributed to creating a chasm between religion and youth, a point echoed by many other delegates from other parts of the world.
“As youth, we are in need of guidance,” said Australian representative Angela Markas, who’s a Chaldean, one of the 23 Eastern churches in communion with Rome, in this case concentrated in Iraq and Syria.
“Youth feel disconnected from the Church. Whether it is because they feel divided by an older clergy, unwelcomed for their different ideas and beliefs, or that they don’t feel listened to or approached with love and empathy. Youth do not always feel they have a place in Church,” she said.
“Young people are seeking depth,” she continued. “We want, and are able, to understand the complexity of it all and be able to have a voice. There is a tendency in the Church to avoid matters that are not-so-easy to talk about. This includes same-sex marriage, our sexuality, and also, the role of women in the Church.”
Markas said that as a young woman of Middle-Eastern descent she has felt “marginalized,” and understands the questions that might disenchant a younger crowd from the Church.
According to a delegate from Africa, Tendai Karombo, a young woman from Zimbabwe who is a chairperson at the National Catholic Youth Council, “there are little or no sustainable and comprehensive faith formation programs for the youth” and the Church fails at providing young people with an appropriate platform to engage with their religion.
“In many cases, the Church in Africa is led and run by the ‘seasoned Catholics’ who have all sacraments, all the experience and know it all,” she said.
On the topic of clericalism, Francis found a perfect crowd in addressing the youth on Monday, which cheered enthusiastically as he described it as a “terrible sickness” that must be eliminated.
“The community needs a father, a brother, and what they find is a doctor, a professor… a prince,” the pope said during the Q&A, where he answered a question by Ukrainian seminarian Julian Vendzilovyc, 29, asking how clergy can provide the guidance and formation youth need.
“We hope that our Church will change something,” he later told Crux in an interview. “There are some things in the Church that should be changed, because today we have a lot of changes and youth is one step ahead. We need to be with youth, we need to be in step with the world as it changes.”
Vendzilovyc, who is Eastern Orthodox, also asked the pope how to respond to customs and trends that don’t fall in line with the mainstream, such as tattoos. “Don’t be scared by tattoos,” the pope answered. “Tattoos are belonging,” he added, saying that they should ask the person covered in tattoos what it is they are looking for.
“One must never get scared with young people, because always behind things that are not so good, there is something hiding that can help us to better understand,” the pope said.
Looking beyond the surface and into the reality was a recurring point during the main presentations. López said that this generation is particularly involved in a spirit of activism and advocacy, despite the fact that certain convictions are in conflict with Christian values.
“Their zeal, though at times misguided, is a noble characteristic of our young people, and we cannot deny their passion, nor their seeking. They are looking for something true and fulfilling to live for. We must show them that what (and more importantly, who) they are seeking is Christ,” he said.
The delegate for the Americas also emphasized the importance of the World Youth Day gathering to give testimony “to the vibrancy of the young Church.” Boone also said that “it is important for the Church to provide youth experiences,” and that global gatherings and pilgrimages are “moments of conversion, for many young people, because they experience that they are not alone, that there is someone who accompanies them.”
While trends seem to point to a growing detachment between young people and religion, Boone said that this should be viewed as an opportunity.
“In my opinion, Belgium is a “peaceful areligious society,” where the Christian faith is unknown, but where the challenge is to discover something, to make sure that the Christian faith can surprise them!” she said.
In an interview with Crux, Tri said that this meeting of youth, with all its diversity and unity, represents an opportunity and not a challenge for participants to begin a dialogue with the Church.
“The challenge is the opportunity for us to be young, and stay youthful always,” he said.