In the Baptism Rite, one of the Gospel options the celebrant can choose from is Matthew 19:14 “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
What a beautiful passage. It is Jesus showing a sensitivity to and a unique understanding of the mind of young people which is unparalleled.
In October 2016, Pope Francis said “Children, who have no problem in understanding God, have much to teach us: they tell us that He accomplishes great things in those who put up no resistance to Him, who are simple and sincere, without duplicity. The Gospel shows us how great wonders are accomplished with small things.”
Adults have squandered the greatest of all resources in the Church: our youth! We have a problem when we subordinate the young to obedience because we feel that the young have little or nothing to teach us and their only role is to follow our lead.
The fancy word used to describe this is “adultism”. Adultism is a bias that adults and institutions have against young people. As parents, we assume the role of teacher and person of authority. It is ingrained in us from our own upbringing. This attitude carries over to our institutions. It is evident in homes, schools and churches.
Conversely, young people assume the role of a person always being tested and evaluated by the adult(s) present. Remember what we were told as a young person: “children are to be seen and not heard?”
At a recent parish meeting, to discuss the closing of one of our churches, questions arose about low church attendance and the lack of young people coming to church. Many parishioners in attendance (primarily gray-haired) agreed that even in their own families their now adult children were not regular churchgoers and in some cases, their grandchildren were unbaptized and unchurched.
There have been 16 world youth conferences since 1984. Host cities around the world have welcomed youth from all nations for prayer and festive activities. A look at the agenda of these conferences shows that there are plenty of opportunities for prayer, Eucharistic Celebrations, parties and dances. Each host city establishes the details of the activities and arranges for the venues and the appearance of speakers and celebrities. What I see missing on the agenda is any opportunity for the youth to speak and the Church to listen.
Archbishop Thomas Luke Msusa of Blantyre, Malawi, said at a recent press briefing: “If we ignore the call of our young people today and continue with business as usual without recognizing them, without empowering them, it means that the [church] of tomorrow will not be very powerful.”
This year, following the Youth Synod, Pope Francis wrote in Christus Vivit: “Those of us who are no longer young need to find ways to stay close to the voices and concerns of young people. Drawing together creates the conditions for the Church to become a place of dialogue and a witness to life-giving fraternity. We need to make more room for the voices of young people to be heard: listening makes possible an exchange of gifts in a context of empathy… At the same time, it sets the conditions for a preaching of the Gospel that can touch the heart truly, decisively and fruitfully.”
Many dioceses around the country annually hold youth celebrations which bring together their youth for prayer, the Sacred Liturgy and fellowship. How many of these celebrations set time aside to listen to what the young people have to say; to listen to their thoughts and to their concerns?
Perhaps one suggestion might be that every parish in a diocese organize parish youth conferences to discuss with the youth their concerns and select from the group some of the young to gather at a diocesan youth conference.
We need to start a regular dialogue with our youth. We cannot continue to let the clergy and adults guess at what the problems are. We need to talk to the young people to engage them in meaningful and ongoing dialogue. These should not be a once a year event but an ongoing, interactive conversation, where thoughts and ideas can be voiced, developed and exchanged so that we can arrive at solutions where young people see a reason to become engaged in shaping the Church of the future.