We are facing a current crisis in the church. Only 14 percent of Catholic millennial young adults go to Mass every Sunday. Research indicates that most young people disaffiliate from the faith between the ages of 10 and 12. Young couples are not looking to get married in the church, nor are they bringing their children to be baptized (if they are having children at all). Many young people can articulate some of the church’s teachings but are not necessarily living passionate, faithfully Catholic lives.
We hear that term “crisis” today and immediately think about the current scandals concerning Archbishop McCarrick, the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the recent testimony from Archbishop Viganò. But we are also facing another crisis in the church today: the hemorrhaging of youth and young adults from our churches.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, a man I deeply respect, admire and have learned from for years, said on Aug. 30 that the Synod of Bishops on young people, scheduled to take place in Rome this October, should be canceled because “the bishops would have absolutely no credibility in addressing this topic.” I do not think he is entirely wrong. Some bishops have lost credibility because of the sexual abuse crisis, and the church as a whole is greatly suffering because of the lack of leadership and accountability. Frankly, some bishops right now cannot credibly speak on any subject, much less how to keep young people from leaving the church and how to serve the ones who have chosen to stay. I think Archbishop Chaput is articulating that idea very clearly.
A room full of bishops talking about themselves and what they need to do to govern effectively is not the right move at this time.
But I do not think canceling the synod on youth to instead hold a synod on the “life of the bishops,” as the good archbishop has proposed, is the answer. A room full of bishops talking about themselves and what they need to do to govern effectively is not the right move at this time. A synod on that subject should happen, but not at the expense of a critically important discussion on youth and young adults that is needed at this very moment.
To cancel the synod on youth would be to close the door, yet again, in the face of those who are standing at the door saying, “We have something for you, about the future of the church, and we need to tell you about it.” The synod on youth is needed now, more than ever, because the church needs to figure out how best to serve the young people who are watching the current crisis play out.
In June, when I had the chance to make a presentation to the general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—with the two other U.S. representatives to the “pre-synod,” which took place in Rome in March—we spent 90 minutes fielding questions, providing firsthand experiences and offering insight. The rest of the time I was there, I had the chance to talk with bishop after bishop about how to serve young people and what they could do to make sure the synod on youth was effective. Many of them frankly admitted that they did not know what they could do to serve the youth and young adults of their dioceses.
Too often, and for far too long, keeping young people in the church has been “the next thing” we need to tackle.
On the Thursday morning of that assembly, while the bishops were debating their document on voter guidelines, one of the bishops stood up and said, “I think we need to bring those young people we talked to yesterday back up and ask them what they think.” A U.S.C.C.B. staffer leaned over to me and whispered, “You know what y’all said made an impact when a bishop brings it back up in a debate the next day. Youth and young adults have never been talked about from the floor like that before. This is a game changer.”
Too often, and for far too long, keeping young people in the church has been “the next thing” we need to tackle. But if this issue is not addressed now, there will not be many young people left when it is. The synod on youth is needed now more than ever because the voices of youth and young adults can bring clarity, new ideas and hope.
I used to teach ninth-grade theology, and I was always struck by how bright-eyed and optimistic my students were. Their questions were simple but deep, their insights refreshing and their hunger for truth inspiring. Day after day in the classroom with 14-year-olds was the best reminder to me of how amazing our faith truly is: God loves us, wants a relationship with us and gives us the church to be able to live out that relationship with others.
In the current crisis, faithful and committed young adults have been among those at the forefront demanding answers.
In the current crisis, faithful and committed young adults have been among those at the forefront demanding answers, seeking truth and proclaiming proudly that they are going to remain faithful to the church. Youth and young adult ministers are holding listening sessions and helping their teens unpack how to remain faithful in the middle of the storm. Youth and young adults at this synod can be the breath of fresh air and renewal the church needs right now as she tries to break through the confusion and chaos caused by dishonesty and cover-ups.
Three hundred young adults were invited to attend the pre-synod gathering in March, and some young adults have been invited to participate in the synod itself. But perhaps a few more young lay men and women, and those who serve youth and young adults, should now be invited to contribute. If some bishops are saying they have no credibility to speak on these matters, then perhaps more lay men and women (who are still credible) can be brought to the table so bishops can listen. The answer is not to cancel the synod: The answer is to empower young people to be the leaders of a conversation that the church desperately needs.
If there is one thing I have learned about young people in my time as a teacher, youth minister and speaker, it is this: They can see straight through pretense. They know when something is fake. A synod designed to figure out how to serve a generation that hates inauthenticity is the perfect time for the church to stand in the open and come clean. This is a perfect moment to dispel darkness.
Some are eager for drama at the synod in Rome this October. But most want to see a good, fruitful, honest conversation about ways to minister to youth and young adults. And a gathering of bishops from around the world, with the pope at the front of the room, would be the perfect time for some honesty, frankness and a bold confrontation of the sexual abuse crisis.
The synod on youth is not just about what programs to support or initiatives to reinforce. It is the perfect chance for an introspective look at what the church is, especially to young people. What better opportunity to be open, transparent and accessible than at a gathering designed to serve generations of young people who are open, transparent and connected themselves?
My advocating for the synod on youth in no way means that I want any of us to stop seeking answers to important questions about allegations of cover-up and abuse. The truth must come out. But I do not think seeking the truth about those issues means we cannot also seek the truth about how to serve and support youth and young adults in the church. In fact, I believe that seeking the truth about the current crisis, and working to ensure it never happens again, fits perfectly into the idea of the synod as a place to answer important questions about the future of the church itself.