Young Adults: Partners in Renewal

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Chris Knowles, our coordinator, wrote an article about Christus Vivit and Synod fruits that was published in the Tablet on the 13th of April 2019, the text is reproduced below.

“They’ve let us down - it’s not much to ask: be good and go to Mass.” This from a recent conversation with a parish priest criticising the young people who attend the Catholic school in his London parish, but, much to his distress, do not appear to attend Mass regularly. In calling a Synod on ‘Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment’, it’s easy to think this is what Pope Francis was trying to address: that young people don’t turn up and don’t care anymore. But that’s not it. There are problems, yes, but Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation Christus vivit reflects a different conviction. The young are at the heart of the solution, not the problem.

InChristus vivitFrancis makes clear that young people are partners in his renewal of the Church: they have the energy, ideas, creativity and openness to new approaches that is too often lacking. It shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the approach of Francis that he looks to the peripheries to drive his renewal, but it may come as a surprise to some that he considers the young as being on the peripheries. In the same way as indigenous peoples and the poor –and hopefully, one day, women in the Church– Francis sees the young as a place to learn what God wants from us today. In the words of the Synod final document the young are a “theological loci”, or in Francis’ words, ‘each young person’s heart should thus be considered “holy ground”, a bearer of seeds of divine life, before which we must “take off our shoes” (67).

When I first read Christus vivitI was hoping for the charismatic Francis of Evangelii gaudiumor the punchy Francis of Laudato si’, but what I found instead was much softer. What Francis is doing in Christus vivitis inviting us into a rich journey of discernment that was his experience of the Synod process. Fr Clemens Blattert SJ, an expert during the Synod process, refers toChristus vivitas a ‘silent document’, one that should be kept by your bed or where you pray, a document that’s best appreciated over time. It’s a document born of listening, of accompaniment and discernment, and it’s this that Francis invites us into. So when you engage with the document itself, resist the temptation to skip over the sections directed especially at young people, because it’s Francis’ dialogue with the young, as well as what he learns from it, in which he wants you to be involved. In this exhortation he models the practice of synodality he calls us all to. He doesn’t tell us what to do to engage and empower young people: rather, he shows us where to focus our attention in order to discern how we do this for ourselves in our own contexts. It’s pastoral ministry for a living Church. If he suggested some really practical techniques they would only work in certain places, and only work for so long. Francis know you don’t ‘give a man a fish’, but rather teach him how.

For a few years I’ve been involved with a group of young adults who are committed to our faith and want to use the rich resources the Church has to respond to the problems of our world in a new and innovative ways. The main difficulty we found is that there didn’t seem to be space for us, opportunities or possibilities for us to try things out. It’s here that the Synod Fruits project started – we want to help share the thinking of the whole synod process, help further its implementation to help create spaces in the Church where young adults can be better welcomed, nourished, can take responsibility and help the whole Church remember the newness of the Gospel and preach with authenticity in our modern world. One of the key messages of Christus vivitis that the young are the presentof the Church – we’re not there to fill a gap in the future, but already helping it in its mission to preach the Gospel.

We have already developed resources to help people engage with the Synod and think about how they bring it to their own context, and we hope to create bespoke resources for parish groups, lessons and sessions for youth groups. We are also available to run workshops, and are looking to work in partnership with others. It’s been a bit of a slog getting here, and we’re running it on a shoestring and an overdraft, but what better way to share the fruits of the Synod and the Pope’s thinking in Christus vivitthan for young people ourselves to take the lead?

Pope Francis’ emphasis on the need to journey and discern with young people is important, but the one weak point of the exhortation is its reticence to acknowledge the structural problems that lie at the heart of the disengagement of so many young adults from the Church. While growing up I found places to be nourished in my faith, but the difficulty comes in the years that follow. You move to a new city for university or a job, rent short-term, then move somewhere else, then you move jobs, move again and try to be closer to a partner, or get a job in a new place. Life is transient. It’s not only (as the synod final document recognises) the parish that isn’t set up for a generation of “constant mobility” (129), but the diocese too. I’ve lived in eight different parishes, across three different dioceses in a total of only six and a half years of living in London. There is still more thinking and more experimenting to be done to work out how the Church’s pastoral structures can better serve young people. 

 There is a huge amount in the document that recognises the situation of young adults and even more to help the whole Church discern how to respond. So I encourage you to become part of the Synod: delve into Christus vivit, use our resources if it helps, and even though young adults may just be passing through your parish, engage with them, invite them to coffee after Mass, listen to them, involve them and make spaces where they can use their energy, insights skills to help us all do a better job of bringing the Gospel to our modern world.

 Chris Knowles is the co-founder of Synod Fruits (SynodFruits.org.uk) and has spent much of the past 13 years working formally and informally supporting Youth ministry, alongside studying CST and coordinating FMD (FormingMissionaryDisciples.org.uk).  He lives in East London with his wife and two cats. 

Chris Knowles