U.S. delegates say young people want mentors, a voice, unity

IMAGE: CNS photo/Robert Duncan

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Young people want trusted guides as
they explore their faith and their vocation, said five young adults from the
United States attending the Vatican’s pre-synod meeting.

The U.S. delegates to the Vatican meeting March 19-25 also
said the 305 young adults from around the world want to see young people
consulted more often in their parishes and dioceses. And, one said, in conversations with other delegates, he
discovered that Catholics in other countries are not experiencing the sharp
divisions that U.S. Catholics are.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent three delegates
to the meeting: De La Salle Christian Brother Javier Hansen, who teaches at
Cathedral High School in El Paso, Texas; Nick Lopez, director of campus
ministry for the University of Dallas; and Katie Prejean-McGrady, a wife, new
mother, youth minister, and a popular speaker from the Diocese of Lake Charles,

Chris Russo, a 23-year-old working in Boston, represented
the Ruthenian Catholic Church. And Nicole Perone, director of adult faith
formation for the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut, represented Voices of
Faith, an international group that highlights the contributions of women in the

A topic that came up consistently at the meeting,
Prejean-McGrady said, was young people’s desire “to find companions on the
journey, to look for people to walk with them.”

“When you have personal relationships with people who
are vibrantly living their faith, then you yourself are inspired to live your
faith,” she said. And the relationship also provides a trusted source for
dealing with concerns about topics such as sexuality or church teachings that
may be difficult to understand, she said.

“‘Here’s a book; believe it’ — that doesn’t work with
young people anymore, and we know that because they are consuming far too much
media to where they are not going to read that book,” Prejean-McGrady
said. “You have to talk with them, you have to walk with them, you have to
love them and really spend time with them.”

Lopez noted that Pope Francis opened the meeting March 19 by
telling the delegates that the church wanted to hear their opinions and their
questions, even those they thought might make church leaders uncomfortable.

In ministry to young people, they need to know they can ask
those questions and that “we are going to discuss them. Nothing is too
radical. Nothing is out of left field,” he said. If a young person is
struggling with something, that is all the reason needed to discuss it.

“Human issues are church issues, and we aren’t going to
get anywhere unless we begin the conversation,” Lopez said.

“Young people seem to live in this age of anxiety,
meaning that in a world of seemingly endless possibilities, they are almost paralyzed
because they have all of these different options and they want to go forth, but
they want to make the right decision, and they want to do so without the fear of
failure,” Russo said. “My hope is that just as Christ walked with the
apostles, the church will walk with young people as they are discerning all
these different thoughts and considering different paths.”

The accompaniment discussion was key for Perone, who counts
herself blessed to have had the guidance and friendship of “a number of
people, but especially women, really bright, faithful women who love the church
and have dedicated their lives in service to the church.”

The preparatory document for the synod, which will be held
in October, talks about “role models, guides and mentors,” she said,
but a lot of young people do not know how to ask for such accompaniment, and
many people do not realize they can offer that to young people.

Faith mentors to young people, she said, first must be “faithful
Christians, people who are living their lives faithfully and are committed to
walking the journey of holiness.”

And, she said, “it has to be a person who is not afraid
to acknowledge they are human and make mistakes. The words ‘authenticity’ and ‘vulnerability’
have come up constantly this week. Those are the two characteristics young
people crave, desire and are drawn to” because they make a mentor both
trustworthy and approachable.

The young adults said their experience in Rome — meeting with
the pope and formulating suggestions for the bishops who will meet in October —
is an amazing, global example of what young people would like to see at least a
hint of in their parishes and dioceses.

“All young people within the Catholic Church want to be
heard,” Russo said. “They want to have their thoughts expressed as they
journey closer to Christ.”

In formulating suggestions for the bishops, Lopez said,
“one of the main ones was having things like this pre-synod gathering more
common in the parishes,” for example, by including young adults on the
parish or diocesan council or creating parish or diocesan advisory committees
of youth and young adults “and having those councils meet often.”

“In the U.S., we’re blessed to have very passionate
young adults who take the initiative to form independent Catholic groups for
young adults to meet, outside the church and outside the parish,” he said,
“but we need to integrate them into parish life to show we are not a
separate group, that we’re actually part of that community.”

The delegates spent most of the week in small groups, working
on their suggestions for the synod. Brother Hansen said he told his group that
“one of the characteristics of the American church is this extreme
polarization between liberal and conservative Catholics, and I was surprised
that one thing I found was that that is more or less uniquely American.”

The delegates from the wealthy Western nations would talk
about “church teaching on controversial issues” or the need to be
present on the digital platforms where young people spend their time, but “we
have to move beyond these First World problems,” Perone said, adding that
she was touched by the witness of delegates coming from places where Christians
experience violent persecution.

In the United States, she said, “it’s easy for us to
get bogged down in this division and discord and soundbites — all these things
that really drive us apart, and we don’t quite focus on the unity we really
should be focusing on: the beauty of our faith, the joy of the Gospel, the
beauty of the truth that unites us and not the nuances that divide us.”

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