Not a youth crisis but an adult crisis

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.

Oct 13, 2018

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 October meeting 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 counselling 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.”

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 that 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 recognise 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 reforms 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 entire synodal process has been dedicated to Mary, and what comes of it should not just be in her honour 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.

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