By Jennifer Mauro | Associate Editor
Responding to a call from the Holy See, nearly three dozen people who work with youth and young adults gathered June 13 to discuss “young people, faith and vocational discernment,” the theme of the 2018 Synod of Bishops.
On behalf of Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., youth ministers and organizations that work with young people, clergy, diocesan staff, and Catholic school chaplains, counselors, teachers and personnel from around the Diocese were invited to the Chancery in Lawrenceville to help form the Diocese’s response to a Vatican questionnaire on how to better retain, attract and better meet the needs of young people in the Church.
Among the topics discussed were the main challenges and opportunities for young people today; the impact of technology and social media, and what those ages 16 to 29 are seeking from the Church.
“I’m excited that our Church is talking about youth and looking for ways to better engage them and form them and bring them to a greater relationship with Christ and the Church,” said Dan Waddington, associate director for youth ministry for the diocesan Department of Evangelization and Family Life.
“I’m incredibly grateful that our Bishop would include so many people in this conversation,” he said.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis called for the national conferences of bishops, Church bodies and young people to answer the questionnaire ahead of the synod. Bishop O’Connell will take the information from the meeting, along with information gleaned from an earlier consultation with young adults, and write the diocesan response to the questionnaire. The Bishop’s Diocese of Trenton response will go to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops by September to become part of the U.S. response to the Holy See.
“We thought we should get those who are working directly with youth, those who have insight into the hearts and minds of the young,” Bishop O’Connell said.
During the daylong meeting, which was facilitated by Terry Ginther, diocesan executive director of Pastoral Life and Mission, the Bishop offered encouraging words.
Describing how he meets young people during his visits to parishes and schools across the Diocese, Bishop O’Connell said, “I look in the faces of these youngsters … in hope and prayer that they will stay connected to the Church.”
“I’m grateful for your presence here. I depend on you to work with the young,” he continued. “I need to hear from you today. Let’s work together.”
In encouraging discussion, Ginther said, “This is about describing the situation as we see it. We’re trying to describe the circumstances of the young.”
To meet this goal, participants explained their individual roles working with youth and young adults and stated what they see as some of the biggest challenges facing young people today as well as significant opportunities in reaching them through ministry.
“Often, we rush to solve problems we haven’t even named,” Ginther said. “If we as a Church can’t name them, we can’t solve them.”
Among the list of challenges were time/busyness; anxiety about the future/college; truth and trust; no sense of self; fear of failure; acceptance; loneliness; isolation; lack of true intimacy with the Church; psychological issues such as depression; having no voice in the Church; and the fear of stigma for some young people whose parents immigrated to the United States and don’t have legal documents.
David Roman of St. Anthony Claret Parish, Lakewood, said those who come from families without papers often express a feeling of, “I don’t want you to look at me differently.”
“They want to be accepted,” he said.
The list of opportunities cited by attendees included peer-to-peer ministry; the fact that many are involved in Catholic parishes, schools and groups and greater self-awareness, leading many to seek answers.
One of the main topics discussed – technology – made both lists. Though many said they were reaching young people through websites and social media, others admitted there was room for improvement when using technology as an evangelization tool.
At the same time, there was a general consensus that technology and social media are leading more young people into a state of constant busyness and anxiety, leaving less time for self-reflection and one-on-one discussion with the Lord.
“It’s a challenge for young people to take ownership of their time,” said Father Michael A. Santangelo, diocesan Scouting chaplain and pastor of Epiphany Parish, Brick. “One of the biggest struggles is [them] finding sufficient time for what is important.
“As a Church, it’s imperative we help young people recognize that what is truly important is what comes after this world,” he added.
Discerning truth is of deep importance to young people today. The participants said they often hear the question, “What is truth?”
Kathy McBurnie, youth ministry coordinator in St. Catharine Parish, Holmdel, said that question ties directly into a lack of stillness in one’s life.
“They don’t have the time to build relationships with the people who could help them understand truth,” she said.
Other time roadblocks were tied to life pressures, such as sports events on Sundays, balancing work and educational responsibilities and planning for college. It was mentioned that balancing work responsibilities is also important in many cases where it is imperative young people have a job to help support the family income.
When Everyone’s a Winner
With these life pressures come the fear of failure, and there was much discussion on the ability of young people to handle failure in today’s “trophy” society, where children grow up being rewarded for less-than-stellar performances. Hearing all their lives that they have a purpose and mission, being rewarded at every turn makes it more difficult to establish the God-given abilities they do possess to accomplish that mission, some said.
“There’s this sense that everyone is just as good at something as everyone else, instead of giving young people a chance to explore what they are good at,” Father Santangelo said. “Their individual self-worth doesn’t come from what they can or can’t do, but the fact that they’re made in the image of God with their own, individual skills and talents.
“Unless we give them a chance to explore their gifts and talents, we do a disservice to them and what they can accomplish. We are depriving them the opportunity to excel because it breeds the attitude, ‘Why should we try?’
“We owe it to our young people to give them the opportunity to excel and acknowledge it when they do,” he said.
Making their Voices Heard
In doing its part to aid the Diocese’s response to the Vatican’s questionnaire, those gathered were also asked to work in groups. Questions included: “How does the Church listen to what young people are really experiencing in their daily lives?” and “What do young people really ask of the Church?”
When it comes to how the Church listens, answers ranged from empowering young people to become leaders in parishes, schools and social justice programs, to dialogue with youth ministers and giving young people activities and places where they can “be themselves.” That, it turns out, is what young people are looking for, too, said those who walk alongside them in their day-to-day journeys. One of the responses to what people are asking of the Church was “a place to belong.” Others included a foundation; a place for prayer; good homilies, to be taken seriously and be heard, and “a place to experience the sacred.”
Following the meeting, Ginther said she found the gathering successful on multiple fronts.
“I thought the meeting was a valuable sharing of experience and ideas. I was thrilled by hope-filled commitment of the people gathered to walk in faith with young people,” she said.
In addition to giving the Bishop the information he will need to write the diocesan response to the questionnaire, she said it will also help the Diocese’s new Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministries establish priorities for the future. Youth and young adults, which currently fall under the Department of Evangelization and Family Life, will have its own department effective July 1.
Waddington, who will serve as the department’s director, agreed, saying, “This not only supports the synod; it will support us.”
By the end of the afternoon, Catherine Werner, youth ministry coordinator in St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, was already experiencing that support.
“It’s good for us to know that as youth ministers, we are not alone. We are one diocesan family,” Werner said in having the different youth-serving personnel gathered together.
In addition, Werner said the synod sends a positive message to the Church’s next generation of Catholics.
“The meeting lets our young people know they’re important and that we want to encourage their vocation,” she said. “I would hope our young people would hear God’s call for them and respond with a joyful, ‘Yes.’”
Waddington agreed. “It’s a gift to our young people because it gives them a voice through those who are walking side by side with them. Kids’ voices were heard today.”