The Catholic Church does not have a youth crisis. It has an adult crisis. We have lost touch with what mature discipleship looks like, what constitutes true life and what holiness means. Because we have, at best, a vague hope for what our children will become, our ways of forming them in the faith are dysfunctional.
In the run-up to the meeting in October of the Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith and Vocation Discernment,” Pope Francis has asked the whole church to recommit itself to accompanying young people. But before we can walk this road with young Catholics, we must know where we are taking them. Our goal will change the meaning of accompaniment.
An older friend of mine, a husband and a father of teenage and young adult children, once sent me an email that changed who I wanted to be. He told me that the family had been in and out of hospitals and counseling sessions dealing with their teenage son’s severe mental health issues. They had cried, prayed, held together and felt both suffocating frustration and gasps of hope. Near the end, he wrote: “I ask for your prayers for our son and for our family. This is not a path we would have chosen, but it is our path, and God says that it is holy. We are trying to do our part to make it so.”
Before we can walk the road of accompaniment with young Catholics, we must know where we are taking them.
This is the kind of person I hope to become, one who can bear the cost of love.
More than a decade later, I was leading a college seminar in which one of my students said, “I feel like we are taught to be ambitious, but we are not taught how to listen to the voice of God.” This student embodied the success we typically promote, yet he was lamenting something. His classmates agreed with him.
My student’s comment is not an indictment of himself or his peers; it is an indictment of me and those entrusted with the task of forming them. I was given the gift of a mentor who revealed holiness as the willingness to bear the cost of love. My students lament the absence of such a consistent witness in their own lives.
The first paragraph of the instrumentum laboris (working document) for the synod, states the aim of the gathering is to bring young people to the “joy of love.” This is the love to which my friend bore witness amid great suffering and the love that my students say they have not been taught to recognize or value.
The Way to Emmaus
The working document begins with an image of accompaniment, Jesus walking alongside the disciples on the way to Emmaus. In the first part of the narrative, Jesus asks basically the same question twice: “What’s going on with you?” The disciples reveal four things about themselves. They are disoriented (literally heading in the wrong direction), confused (they know a lot but do not know how to make sense of any of it), chatty (they talk a lot without much listening) and sad (they are uncertain of where to find hope). Once they stop talking, Jesus takes over, and he forms them. In fact, he re-forms them, even transforms them. Nothing about this is haphazard. He enacts a pattern established first in his own mother, Mary of Nazareth. She embodies what it means to be his disciple, to live truly, to be holy.
The aim of the gathering is to bring young people to the “joy of love.”
The entire synodal process has been dedicated to Mary, and what comes of it should not just be in her honor but should be keyed to what she embodies as the first and perfect disciple. If the church is to accompany young people as Jesus accompanied those two nascent disciples, the church must form young people according to the Marian pattern.
But first, we need to understand this pattern, which begins with the annunciation narrative in the Gospel of Luke. There are four marks of Marian discipleship, and these marks recommend pastoral priorities for the synodal process in light of the cultural conditions in which our young people are being raised.
On the way to Mary, the angel Gabriel first visits the priest Zechariah. The encounter is remarkably similar to Mary’s, except that Zechariah seems to end up punished, while Mary is exalted. It appears unfair at first blush. But the subtle differences between the narratives are decisive, especially against the backdrop of their similarities.
The story of the annunciation to Mary is divided into three parts, with the angel speaking three separate times and Mary responding three times. While we hear Mary’s question in her second response and her yes in the third, we may miss her first response, which is her silence. That silence is the first difference between Mary and Zechariah.
Fearful, Zechariah becomes defensive; Mary opens herself to this strange visitation.
Both of them are “troubled” when the angel appears to them. But while “fear fell upon” Zechariah, Mary “considers in her mind” the angel’s greeting. Fearful, Zechariah becomes defensive; Mary opens herself to this strange visitation. It is an issue of composure. One is uncomfortable in silence, while the other is poised and reflective.
This difference is reinforced in the second response from each. Zechariah asks, “How shall I know this?” while Mary asks, “How can this be?” Zechariah is the center of attention in his own question, as he wants proof to appease his curious and doubtful mind. He is struck mute by the angel not as punishment but as mercy. He who cannot speak well must learn to listen. Mary, by contrast, places the emphasis on what is happening: She gives the benefit of the doubt to the messenger and is trying to catch up to what has been proclaimed to her.
In the working document for the synod, the first dimension of the discernment of God’s call is “recognizing.” As my student confessed, he has not been “taught how to listen to the voice of God.” What are our young people taught to do? Oftentimes, they are taught to scan, browse, quickly consume and scurry along. That is not listening; that is frenetic movement.
Young people are taught to scan, consume and scurry along. That is not listening; that is frenetic movement.
This is one of the ways in which the digital world, for example, is not primarily about content but formation. Consider a social media feed, like Twitter. If you scroll down, the feed goes on and on. And while you are “down below,” more is coming over the top, endlessly. This flow prescribes a certain kind of formation. The way to survive or even thrive in an environment like this is to gobble up information and move along as more keeps coming. To stay in one place is to be plagued by the anxiety of not being elsewhere or everywhere.
The first pastoral priority for forming mature disciples, therefore, aims at Mary’s silence. How do we encourage listening? The task is to create conditions and environments where young people can develop the capacity for attentiveness. The landscape of the digital world is a lot like the multitasking demands of overstuffed schedules. The students in my seminar mastered that game, where achievement fuels ambition. In the process, they never learned how to listen.
Mary is listening, but what does she hear? What she hears is related to how she hears, and how she hears is connected to whom she hears.
The last thing the angel tells Mary is that her cousin Elizabeth is pregnant. It might seem like a little newsflash from the village over the hill, but to one whose memory is configured to Scripture, the living memory of Israel, Elizabeth’s pregnancy is a potent sign.
In the opening verses of his Gospel, Luke the Evangelist introduces Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, divulging some rather personal information: “They had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.” It is not usually a wise practice to comment on someone’s advanced age in public, and I cannot imagine calling attention to the fact that “this woman, right here: She’s barren.” Luke does—and for good reason. Both Elizabeth’s age and her infertility make her resemble Abraham’s wife, Sarah.
If we thought that Luke failed in upholding proper decorum, the author of Genesis commits an even more egregious lapse. In Genesis 18, we are told that “Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women.” That is pretty vivid. Those who know Genesis, though, know that this is highly significant. Why? Because the Lord’s covenantal promise to Abraham is that his descendants will be exceedingly numerous.
As Abraham laments their failure to conceive and cries aloud to God, the Lord doubles down on his promise. By the end, it seems that all hope is lost—except for the one hope that matters: hope in the Lord God, the giver of life. The amplification of God’s promise and the desolation of Abraham and Sarah’s infertility culminates in one critical question: “Is anything too marvelous for the Lord to do?” The answer: No, nothing is too marvelous. God gives life.
So when Mary learns that Elizabeth—who is old and barren—has conceived a child, she hears “Sarah.” How does she hear that? Through a memory alive with Scripture. Whose voice does she hear? She hears God’s voice—the one who was working then has announced that he is working now in her midst, and her own call is from him. “For with God nothing will be impossible.” What she hears is the God of Israel asking for her trust. And she says yes.
What Mary hears is the God of Israel asking for her trust. And she says yes.
Zechariah, in contrast, is overcome with fear and misses the meaning of his own wife’s pregnancy. He did not hear a continuous narrative of God at work. He was not free to listen.
What prevents young people from listening to the voice of God? Economic inequalities that generate violence, crime and drug trafficking, inducing fear and insecurity. Political systems dominated by corruption that corrode young people’s trust in institutions and authority. War and threats to life that spur migration and refugee crises. All manner of social exclusions and performance anxieties—of not measuring up, not achieving enough—that fuel a cycle of addictions and isolation and prop up the false comforts of narcotics, video games and pornography. And these are just the issues mentioned in Paragraph 7 of the working document.
The second pastoral priority aims at Mary’s memory. The task is to educate young people in the word of God, which means not just “knowing Scripture,” but developing biblical imaginations. Such a thing is the fruit of long-term formation, not periodic lessons. If we think of how much the narratives of violence, rivalry, commodification and the like surround and shape young people’s imaginations, we might glimpse how thoroughly the church has to wrap young people in the narrative of God’s salvific work. His ways are not our ways; we have to study his ways so we may hear aright.
Mary is poised in silence and receives the word of God through a scriptural memory. In receiving the word, she also remains a disciplined student of the way God moves.
The angel Gabriel describes Mary’s child in terms of power. He is a king, the son of the Most High, who will have an unending kingdom. And yet, when Mary herself speaks in the Magnificat, she proclaims the power of her son not as the world conceives of power but rather as the undoing of false, earthly power. In receiving the word of God, she acts according to the true measure of divine power: mercy.
In receiving the word of God, Mary acts according to the true measure of divine power: mercy.
The power of divine mercy reveals itself as the willingness to suffer the consequences of a power-hungry world rather than play its game. Her Magnificat proclaims the power of the God of Israel as the one who hears the cry of the poor and hastens to respond, in person. Abiding within the movement of mercy is how one interprets and begins to respond to the word of God.
The synod’s working document describes the second dimension of discernment as “interpreting.” There is no such thing as a position without presupposition—every way of interpreting requires a guiding narrative. The key question is which narrative or narratives are operative. The movement of mercy—of God’s way—is the interpretive key for deciding how to be creative and bold in response to the word of God.
Today, the strongest alternative to this divine narrative is, quite honestly, “whatever happens to be going on in life.” For young people who enjoy the privileges of opportunity and quality education, we tend to encourage or even demand that they stuff their schedules full of résumé-building activities. For young people burdened by economic or social poverties, we do too little to lift the weight of daily needs or counteract the messages of powerlessness or fatalism. To discover the “joy of love,” young people need to be free to really see each other and be empowered—and taught and urged—to respond to other human beings with compassion, in person.
The way to teach the ways of mercy is to practice the works of mercy, not sporadically but regularly.
The third pastoral priority aims at Mary’s mercy. The way to teach the ways of mercy is to practice the works of mercy, not sporadically but regularly. In parishes, mission trips serve a role but the more powerful formation is in weekly commitments. In schools, the highly manicured college preparatory culture, on the one hand, and under-resourced educational environments, on the other, prevent young people from being truly present and engaged not only with material but with each other. In homes, the ways of parents are the most formative factor for the ways of young people. Practicing mercy habitually, both in the home and outside of it, is the key to forming young people to see the world within the possibilities of mercy.
Once Mary hears well, she acts. We see this first when she rushes off to her cousin Elizabeth right after the angel departs from her. We are told that she went “with haste.” She is ready to respond to the word of God. She is free.
If we move into John’s Gospel for a moment, we are given an image of just how much freedom Mary exercises when she has everything to lose. Here, those who are closest to Jesus, including the beloved disciple and Jesus’ mother, are next to him while he is on the cross. Upon that cross is the child Mary was promised, the one whom she received when she trusted in God’s word, the one for whom she had sacrificed control of her life. He is the one she was promised—and he tells her to take another as her son. In this most urgent moment, when the temptation to grasp her son is at its greatest, she exercises the power to let him go and to receive the one he gives her.
The heart of vocational discernment is declaring a definitive yes with your life to a particular path.
In hearing the word of God, Mary displayed freedom from fear, presumption and pride. In acting on the word, Mary displays freedom for making a sacrifice, taking responsibility and bearing the cost of love. When she said, “Let it be to me according to your word,” she followed through on that yes all the way to the end. Power like that borders on the divine.
The third dimension of discernment in the working document is choosing. That definitive form of choosing involved in vocational discernment, which has to do with making fundamental commitments with one’s life, is the hardest thing of all and the narrow path to the “joy of love.” It is a choice to be someone in response to God’s call and to accept the sacrifices entailed in living out that commitment. We live today in a culture of indecision, where the plethora of possibilities paralyzes us. But the heart of vocational discernment is declaring a definitive yes with your life to a particular path. As my friend wrote to me: “God says this way is holy…. We are doing our part to make it so.”
The fourth and ultimate pastoral priority is oriented to Mary’s sacrifice. The fortitude and courage to make big life commitments are built up over time by prudently making and following through on smaller commitments. My students tell me that plans for a typical Friday night are not firm until right before something happens. They are experts at keeping potential options open. That is a form of training, and it cuts against what is necessary for vocational commitments. Forming our young people through fidelity to fewer but stronger commitments over the long run will prepare them better for the more meaningful and sacrificial commitments that are the purchase price of the “joy of love.”
The Cost of Love
When Jesus draws near to those two wanderers on the way to Emmaus, he finds them disoriented, confused, chatty and sad. He does not leave them as he found them. Instead, he transforms them into disciples according to the pattern already established in his blessed mother. He silences them: “O foolish men.” He reconfigures their memories by teaching them the Scriptures: “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets.” He teaches them how true power—divine power—comes as mercy by schooling them in his own suffering: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things.” Finally, he feeds them with himself—the Word made flesh—and frees them to take on a new mission of great joy, with haste: “And they rose at once.”
They become what Mary is: people who hear the word of God and act on it.
The church does not have a youth crisis; it has an adult crisis. We lack clarity when it comes to what we are forming people to become. Mary herself shows that the duty of the church is to form young people to become the kind of adults who bear the cost of love. This means that the horizon for our pastoral priorities should not be set on what it means to form faith-filled, joyful, free and brave young people, but rather faith-filled, joyful, free and brave adults. The sweet duty of the church is to form young people to be generators of culture—cultures of holiness and joyful love—that will feed the generation after them. The church must prepare them to make that sacrifice.