The Catholic Church is facing a crisis of faith among young people. In recent years, there has been a steady decline in the number of young people who identify as Catholic, and those who do remain often have a weak understanding of their faith.
If we want the Church to thrive in the years to come, we need to find ways to reach out to young people, help them to cultivate a better understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, and give them the tools for how to do it.
The conversation that we as a Church need to have with young people begins with listening to them. According to the Springtide Research Institute report, The State of Religion & Young People (2021), during the COVID-19 pandemic, only 6% of young Catholics ages 13 to 25 report that a faith leader personally reached out to them.
As that same age group reported extremely high levels of suicidal thoughts and loneliness (with suicide rates reaching a 20-year high among youths ages 10-24 in 2020-2021), we can see clearly how we failed to meet them in a distinct hour of need.
Pope Francis repeatedly has called for the Church to listen to young people. “Too often we talk about young people without asking what they think,” the pope said on the eve of the 2018 Synod of Bishops on the theme “youth, faith and vocational discernment.” We need to hear the concerns of young people and their questions, and we need to be willing to engage them authentically, where they actually are.
What it means to listen
Listening to young people will mean many things. First, it means that older generations have to be willing to set aside rather than hand on the weight of their experience with the Church. One generation might be attached to a mode of preaching, particular hymns or retreat models that don’t attract another. Similarly, aspects of Catholic social teaching resonate more or less easily depending on the day. Young people experience the Church as she is now, bearing today’s wounds and glories. The experience of previous generations is not the experience of young people today.
Second, it means taking seriously the desires young people actually have, not the desires we project upon them. It means we have to connect them with the traditions, teachings and truths of the Church, for which they often yearn.
Pope Francis has advised us to take full advantage of “various manifestations of popular piety, especially pilgrimages,” which “attract young people who do not readily feel at home in ecclesial structures, and represent a concrete sign of their trust in God.” We must help them worship the Lord in reverent, beautiful liturgies, taking full advantage of the joy many young people find in Eucharistic adoration and confession.
Listening to young people is a vital first step in nurturing their faith. However, the Catholic Church must go beyond listening to young people and embrace the responsibility to instruct and evangelize them. Listening opens a dialogue; that dialogue cannot terminate in a vague sense of affirmation or in relativizing the truth. Listening must grow to conversation, which, in turn, must lead to a genuine revealing of the truths of the Catholic faith.
This is the authentic accompaniment young people need: conversation that leads to the discovery of eternal principles. Those eternal principles will help young people discover the joy of faith, allowing them to flourish and build a lasting personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Young people need clear guidance to navigate the complexities of today’s world while remaining rooted in their Catholic identity. We must provide them with a solid foundation in Catholic moral thought. By offering instruction that addresses their unique challenges, we equip them to face societal pressures, temptations and moral dilemmas with confidence and wisdom.
We must not shy away from raw conversations about difficult topics, like human sexuality or abortion, which they readily discuss in any number of other forums. We owe them the full breadth and depth of Catholic teaching, including and especially on controversial topics, responding directly to their needs, curiosities and desires.
But catechesis reaches much deeper than instruction in Christian morality. Education in the faith must be an ongoing process, engaging both the mind and the heart. It should incorporate the broad range of teachings of the Church, the lives of the saints and an exploration of sacred Scripture. Encouraging young people to actively study and engage with these aspects of their faith leads them to encounter Christ and empower them to embrace the faith as their own. That’s how they will become effective ambassadors of Christ’s message in the world.
Following World Youth Day in Portugal and the Synod of Bishops preparing to meet in Rome in October, the Church must listen to young people, but that is only the beginning. The Church must also accompany young people by handing on, with humility and love, the faith that has been handed down to us.
As Pope Francis told young people, “The Church needs your momentum, your intuitions, your faith.” But that faith must be formed, shaped by authentic catechesis and instruction that takes seriously the heartfelt desires of young people today.
Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board includes Dominican Father Patrick Briscoe, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, Scott Warden, and York Young.