TORONTO (CCN) — What do you want to be when you grow up?
From the time we are children, adults ask this question as a way to start a conversation about the hopes and dreams of young people. In a way, that’s what the church is doing as it begins a consultation process prior to a special synod of bishops on youth.
Titled “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment,” the synod will be held in October 2018. It follows the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family and will focus on how the church can specifically accompany young people and help them “discover their life project and realize it with joy.” When the church speaks of vocational discernment, it is referring not just to religious vocations, but to marriage, living as singles and ordained life.
On Jan. 13 the Vatican released a preparatory document that invites youth around the world to start a discussion about youth ministry, about their hopes and dreams for the future church.
“As in the days of Samuel and Jeremiah, young people know how to discern the signs of our times, indicated by the Spirit,” the document states. “Listening to their aspirations, the church can glimpse the world which lies ahead and the paths the church is called to follow.”
In Canada, bishops and youth ministry leaders are already discussing how this synod and preparatory document can be applied to Canadian youth.
“I think it’s a must-read for every pastor, bishop, youth co-ordinator because it frames where young people are in today’s world,” said Joe Vogel, executive director of NET Ministries of Canada.
NET Canada is a missionary organization that provides youth programs for local schools and parishes across Canada. Vogel said he was blown away with how the document “hit the nail in the proverbial head.”
It is divided into three parts. The first chapter describes the world young people live in. The second chapter discusses the importance of discernment. The third chapter is a call to pastoral action for young people to shape church ministry in their community.
David Dayler, director of the Office for Discipleship and Parish Life in the Diocese of Hamilton, said the document, at its root, is about building young people into disciples. He said he was impressed at how the document integrates Scripture into the context of youth, “where the pope is taking the discussions.”
“In the (introduction), he really drew discipleship into the picture so that we’re looking at this as an ongoing process of building disciples,” Dayler said.
In some ways, youth ministry in the Canadian church is already undergoing a renewal. Last June the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops released a youth ministry resource called “You Give Them Something to Eat.” Antigonish Bishop Brian Dunn calls the 70-page guide a statement on the vision of youth ministry for Canada.
“The last statement came out about 25 years ago, and so this was an effort to update that,” said Dunn. “In light of other countries — U.S., Ireland, Australia — all of these have an updated vision of youth ministry and so this was an effort to have the Canadian bishops be on the same kind of line.”
Dunn hopes the guide will become a tool for discussion in the lead-up to next year’s youth synod.
In his own Nova Scotia diocese, Dunn said the biggest challenge is connecting with young people.
“Unlike Ontario, we don’t have Catholic schools so there’s no place where the church can say, ‘The young people are going to be here. Let’s go and meet them,’ ” said Dunn. “It also has to do with geography and parish resources.”
As the economy declines in the Atlantic provinces, so too does the youth population. It is becoming increasingly difficult to create gathering places for young people to share their faith.
Sister Susan Kidd of the Congregation of Notre Dame is a campus minister at University of Prince Edward Island. She said that the family unit is still strong in Charlottetown, but when it comes time for a young person to find a job, they have to leave the island.
There is a special need for ministry to young adults in Charlottetown, said Kidd. As students, they have the campus ministry centre. But after graduation, there is nothing.
“What’s interesting here in Charlottetown is I have a group of people after university who come to the (campus ministry centre) for Mass and Meal,” said Kidd. “They didn’t find a place in the parish, unless they were getting engaged and looking to be married.”
Victoria Archbishop Gary Gordon said in one sense young people around the world are seeking the same thing — to belong. But in his diocese, young people face many extraordinary challenges.
Victoria is home to nine First Nations communities. According to a 2014 federal study, the suicide rate among First Nations youth is about five to six times higher than that of the general population.
“Back in November, we had a professional development day for our school teachers and administrators,” said Gordon. “It was on anxiety, self-harm and suicidation. That’s the world our young people are in.”
Gordon said Aboriginal youth are intrinsically spiritual, more than most young people in Canada. Therefore, the church must accompany these youth through struggles with mental health, access to education, underfunded health care systems and the trans-generational trauma caused by the residential schools.
The upcoming synod, Gordon said, is an opportunity for the Holy Father to voice the issues and problems of marginalized youth, like the Aboriginal community, and bring youth hope.
“(The pope) wants to touch deeply their real hopes and the energy they have to rise above these anxieties,” said Gordon.
The preparatory document includes a 20-point questionnaire to assist bishops in understanding the experience of young people around the world. The Vatican intends to release the questionnaire on a website in March.
Responses will be collected until the end of October and a document on the questionnaire’s findings is expected to be published in early 2018.