“Where are our youth… if not in church, then where?” Clare Vernon reflects on the changing nature of how our youth are exercising their faith.
By Clare Vernon
“Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.” – Pope Francis
I was recently asked a question that left me reflecting on the changing nature of what it means to be a ‘good Catholic’.
“Where are our youth… if not in church, then where?”
Many young adults engage in their Catholic faith through school, youth groups and ministry; however, for regular churchgoers, the number of young parishioners is noticeably falling. The questions we might ask are: Have these youth left not only the church as a building but the Church as an Institution? Is their faith still alive and how is it being exercised?
In my role of Youth Engagement and Programs at Catholic Earthcare, I often see young people who are passionate in the space of social justice and in recent times, climate change.
We, at Catholic Earthcare, recently took part in the October climate protests, where the ABC reported an estimated 80,000 people in attendance in the Sydney CBD and 100,000 people in Melbourne. I was astounded by the number of young adults passionately campaigning for what they believe in. These young adults held placards that called for social change at a global level, placards that addressed the plight of the Pacific Islands; on fossil fuel divestment; on the urgency with which we must start caring for our common home; and the disproportionate impact of climate change on the poor.
These young people collectively ‘get it’.
I have witnessed this same energy at Catholic Earthcare’s most recent Youth Summit. Over 100 students in Years 10–12 from Catholic secondary colleges – in six different dioceses – self-organised to support each other and develop their own forum for responding to climate issues, sustainability and environmental concerns with their peers. The articulate, organised and selfless leadership shown by these incredible young leaders and changemakers left me humbled and honoured to work with them.
The attendance at these campaigns is increasing; so why the empty seats at church?
A research report commissioned by the Christian Research Association in 2017, which looked at Young People, Youth Leaders and Parish Youth Activities, suggests the decrease in youth attendance is due to an increasingly secularised society coupled with more demanding social and work schedules.
I personally find this easy to relate to. University was a blur for me while juggling demanding honours research and coursework, long commutes, and the need to work 20-hour weeks to pay for living expenses. And the demands did not stop after Uni. Now at 26, I work two demanding professional jobs and volunteer for a state-based NGO. I, like many young people, am time poor.
The exceptionally competitive nature of the modern world and the reported cost of living in Sydney – being the second most expensive city in the world – means that with what little free time I do have, I try to connect with family or friends. My story is not unique; I frequently see the same pressures among my peers. I understand the temptation to fit those connections in and, in place of attending my local church.
Despite this, I continually witness the existence of spiritual awareness in young people who are engaging in the issues that have always been at the heart of the Church. I witness the moral, social and spiritual compass in them that aligns with Catholic social teachings.
Pope Francis’ Laudato Si has broken new ground, reinvigorating Catholic social teaching and urging us to care for our common home. His message inspires many young people I meet to attend global protests, join youth summits, or even just get involved in their local composting initiatives. These people are leading and living positive change spurred on from their desire for a better future.
Laudato Si’ calls for us to listen to young people demanding change. Pope Francis recently wrote in the publication Christus Vivit:
“A Church always on the defensive, which loses her humility and stops listening to others, which leaves no room for questions, loses her youth and turns into a museum.”
He recognises and responds to the shifting way in which young adults are engaging with their Catholic faith.
Pope Francis understands the desires for a future Church that is authentic and relevant to this generation, whilst retaining and renewing our youth’s ‘roots’ in their faith.
We now have a compelling opportunity to draw parallels between a belief system held by young adults that is deeply rooted in ecology, social justice and the values presented in Catholic social teaching.
We have the opportunity to open our ears and hearts to what our youth are saying and Pope Francis implies this may include revisiting the form in which we engage with them.
We, at Catholic Earthcare, are working to facilitate these connections through youth summits, retreats and engagement on social media.
A decline in church numbers does not denote a decline in faith. Spirituality is alive in our youth. They are still here.
It is time to rethink how we share our faith. Our youth need to be asked how they would like to be engaged and supported. And in response, we are all called to listen.