You are the ‘Now’ of God
A couple of weeks ago, Ed Sheeran came to Melbourne. Or rather, Melbourne came to Ed. Two concerts, 200,000 young fans, vast quantities of glitter, and the ubiquitous smartphone light to sway with. Two nights of joyful crowds and great music, spilling out across our city.
Earlier this year, Sr Nathalie Becquart came to Melbourne. Over three events, around 600 people heard from the highest-ranking woman in the Vatican speak on synodality, the great Church topic of our times. The number of attendees was pretty good for that time of year. But they were a much older cohort than at Ed’s shows, with barely anyone under the age of 40—and certainly no glitter!
At Sr Nathalie’s morning session, a question was posed that arises at nearly every Catholic gathering these days, this time asked by a grandfather: Where have all our young people gone?
Every time that question is asked in Church circles, there is a poignancy to it. Parents and grandparents, and older generations of Catholics, struggle with it, are perplexed by it, lament over it. Where are all our young people?
On the same night as Sr Nathalie’s visit to Melbourne, there was a memorial Mass for Pope Benedict at St Mary’s West Melbourne. Making use of the pre-conciliar Mass and singing Mozart’s Requiem, the Church was packed to overflowing with several hundred predominantly young adults and families with children, with barely anyone over 40.
Elsewhere in the city, every Saturday evening, 80–100 young adults from around Melbourne belonging to the PDKKI (an Indonesian Catholic Youth movement) gather for Mass, praise and worship, catechesis and social activities. Each month, they join up with the young-adults group of the Holy Trinity Community, from the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne.
For more than 20 years now, each Thursday night at 6.30pm, around 100 mostly young people gather at St Patrick’s Cathedral for a Holy Hour of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.
In our city’s universities, amongst the chaplaincies of Melbourne, Monash, La Trobe, Deakin, RMIT or ACU, or in the recently established John Paul II House on Gratton Street, there are groups of young Catholics gathering in faith and fellowship on a regular basis.
Then there’s the VCYAM (the Vietnamese Catholic Youth Archdiocese of Melbourne), probably the largest single youth movement in our local Church, with many groups within groups, over several locations, involving hundreds of young Vietnamese Aussies.
Scattered throughout our Archdiocese are many faith communities for school-agers and young adults, of all shapes and sizes and charisms: some small, some larger, some parish-based, others clustered in hubs.
There are also vibrant gatherings of ecclesial groups—the Emmanuel Community, Neocatechumenal Way, Couples for Christ, Mothers who Pray for their Children, just to name a few—all drawing a committed membership from younger faithful who wish to express their relationship with Christ in dynamic ways.
At the recent Rite of Election for those coming to faith in the Catholic Church at Easter, there were 136 catechumens and 63 candidates, from all corners of our Archdiocese—the majority in their 30s, 20s and teens.
In August this year, more than 600 young people from our Archdiocese and faith communities will go on pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal. Of those, 134 are students, 82 are young teachers, and 17 are seminarians.
And earlier today, more than 2000 student leaders from our schools came together in worship as part of Catholic Education Week, and in honour of the patron saint of our Cathedral.
My point? There is an answer—in fact many answers—to the question as to where some of our young people are. To be sure, they are not gathering in the numbers that Ed Sheeran can attract, but they are around. On any given day, you may be quietly surprised just how many are engaging earnestly and fruitfully with their faith. There are young Catholics searching for a relationship with Christ and a place in the Church.
It is true that our young adults might seem to be conspicuously absent from the conventional ways of being parish. However, there is nothing particularly new about this. Even the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council noted it. ‘The Church,’ they said, ‘is particularly anxious … that you [young people] will know how to affirm your faith in life and what gives meaning to it.’ (Message of the II Vatican Council to Youth, 7 December 1965).
Something of the longer-term pattern of the absence of young Catholics from active parish life can be seen data showing the trends of 18–35-year-olds within the territory of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, from 2001 to 2021. The raw number of young adult Catholics in the Archdiocese of Melbourne has dropped from 28 per cent in 2001 to 16.5 per cent in 2021.
All sorts of factors might account for the decline, especially the increase in migration among university students over that 20-year period. But it also reveals the shift in the faith life of families over that same period. (Those who were 30 in 2001 will be 52 today, with their kids counted in the statistics for 2021.)
A different picture emerges when you look at the percentage of Mass-going young adults in our Archdiocese over the same period. The figure in 2001 starts out very low (as you might expect), with only 6.8 per cent of the age group regularly attending Mass. But that percentage doesn’t shift a great deal over the ensuing 20 years, with 5.5 per cent still attending in 2021. There might be considerably fewer young Mass-going Catholics around today, but proportionally their presence in our parishes has not declined dramatically.
In fact, the greater drop in parish involvement has been among middle-aged and older Catholics. National Church Life Surveys show that the highest proportion of any age group regularly attending religious services (across different faiths) was found in young people. In 2021, 32 per cent of young adults aged 18–34 attended religious services at least once a month, compared with 11 per cent of those aged 50–64 years.
The question of young people in the Church has been, by far and wide, the most asked question in the life of the Church over the past half century. I’m about to enter my 60th year of life, and I cannot recall a time when parents and grandparents have not worried about the loss of faith practice among their children, nor when families have not wondered about what needs to be done to bring them to a religious faith.
It was also the most frequently posed question during the listening and dialogue sessions of the Plenary Council process which took place throughout Australia in 2018. Why are our young people not coming to Church anymore? How can we attract them back into parish life? What are our schools doing to pass on the faith?
Strikingly, and for me unsettlingly, the young people of our Church in Australia were not explicitly addressed in the final decrees of the Plenary Council. There was nothing much said to them, nothing much spoken of them, nothing much shared with them. There were one or two passing references to young people in the introductory statements, but the best we got to by way of decisions was to establish a national education forum to assist parish engagement with schools and young people, and to commit each diocese to developing strategic policies that will provide ongoing support for those who minister to young people.
In other words, those from the ages of 18–35, who presently make up 19.4 per cent of the Catholic population of the Church in Australia (and 18.6 per cent in the Archdiocese of Melbourne) received two tangential references, and were not explicitly engaged with in the key directions decided on for the life of our local Church into the future. (The Archdiocese did present specific questions about reigniting the faith of young people in both our Plenary Council and Synod on Synodality submissions.)
Why do questions about our young people seem to go unanswered? Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions, and looking in the wrong places for answers? Perhaps our focus is too much on ‘them’ and what is to be done about them, and not enough on ‘you’, our young people standing before us? Perhaps we are trying to fit our young people into old wineskins, rather than acknowledging the vitality, and seeing the possibilities that are among us?
Pope Francis names an uncomfortable ‘home truth’ when he says, ‘Youth is not something to be analysed in the abstract. Indeed, “youth” does not exist: there exists only young people, each with the reality of his or her own life’ (CV, §71). Our youth are not a ‘project’ to be dealt with. If we see only a problem to solve (born of a deep care for them), then we risk losing sight of where the young are finding Christ and a bit of energy for the Gospel, which is typically not where we are.
As the final document from the Synod on Young People in 2018 put it, ‘Young Catholics are not merely on the receiving end of pastoral activity: they are living members of the one ecclesial body, baptized persons in whom the Spirit of the Lord is alive and active’ (§54).
Here, then, is a different question to ask. Not, when did the young lose Christ? (because I don’t believe that they truly have); but, when did we lose being young in Christ? Cardinal Tagle recently observed at a faith assembly in Asia, ‘Everywhere people in the West say, “Oh, we are sooo tired.” And I look around at these followers of Jesus, and I say, “What is there to be tired of?”’ Is that a picture of us? Have we grown old and tired in our faith?
Maybe, we might benefit from hearing again the words of the Prophet Isaiah:
Young people stumble and fall,
But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength,
They will grow wings like eagles,
They will run and not grow weary,
Walk but never tire. (Isaiah 40.30–31)
Jesus’ entire earthly life fell within our measure of a young person. Being somewhere around 33 years old when he was crucified, Jesus was still young when he completed—accomplished, as John puts it in his Gospel—his life and mission. I suspect most of us over the age of 33 probably asked of ourselves the question of what we had achieved when we reached the age of Jesus. I certainly did.
There is an eternal youthfulness about Christ, and it is this youthfulness that he has offered to us by his life, so that we might not grow weary. As I have noted elsewhere before, the image of Christ at the centre of the wall of the Sistine Chapel is a great visual reminder that the once crucified Lord now stands before all of creation as the young Bridegroom, striding out to meet his Bride, the Church.
Our Redeemer is young because he is alive. He radiates life, drawing all other lives into his. But if Jesus Christ is gloriously young, then his Body, the Church, is meant to be young. This is the Church our young people want to discover, one that is vital and alive in Christ. Our task is to rediscover this young Church, as a new gospel fire, not just for the young, but for us all. Our common task is to rediscover the young Church; not to remake the Church for the young. Our own faith needs to lead us out into the world.
For sure, the world in which we live, and the one in which our young people are swimming, is not an easy one in which to anchor our faith. In the contours of the present cultural landscape, many of our young are worldly beyond their years, yet struggle to find pathways to maturity. We are part of a society that lives off, and feeds to our young people what Pope Francis calls a diet of ‘spiritual worldliness’. Yet into this world young people are also seeking to discover a horizon within which to locate their lives and to live them well. In this light, our young people are without doubt a great grace to the Church.
A young person’s horizon looks to how he or she belongs, not where. Once family and stable residency comes about, people tend to ‘belong’ within a demographic and geographic framing. ‘My family is from Thomastown.’ ‘I live in Frankston.’ ‘Our parish is St Andrew’s Werribee.’ This is not how young people belong. Belonging, for them, is considerably more fluid and largely centred on culture. Young people find themselves, and their connections, by finding communities of common interest, often enough within digital locations. So, expecting young Catholics to go to our faith locations misses where they are at and how they get there.
Let me present one final set of figures, by way of then proposing an idea. In the Archdiocese, we have 31 Catholic secondary schools, teaching 36,724 students. Of those students, 68 per cent are Catholic. That means there are one in three, or around 11,850 individual young people, who have not yet met Christ in a personal way, and who have not been received into a horizon of faith. (That’s not to dismiss the 68 per cent, many of whom have not yet found friendship in Christ.)
Here’s the idea I think is worth pursuing. What if each of our schools sets up a kind of RCIA club—that is, a club of young Catholics, happy in their faith, introducing Jesus, and a life of faith, to their peers, and inviting them to incorporation into the Church. Call it the Acutis Club, after that young Italian teenager who liked using his devices to find Jesus in the Eucharist. Or call it the Lisieux Club, after that young French woman who couldn’t help herself loving the community she belonged to. Or perhaps call it the Glowrey Club, after the young Melburnian doctor who helped form the first Catholic women’s group in Australia.
Whatever it’s called, it matters that our young people find a sense of belonging that is meaningful to them. The best way to include is to invite. They’ll need support, perhaps from their principal, who might very well like to step away from all the administration, and from one of their local priests, willing to get away from the parish office. And would we be willing to pray with them, and for them?
There are a heap of resources available to help them along—they don’t need to do it by themselves. There’s Alpha Youth, or Sycamore, or Formed, or we can help them to custom design something. It’s about showing them a horizon worth pursuing, and inviting them to encounter their Creator and Redeemer. It’s about inviting as Jesus did: ‘Come and see.’
None of this is rocket science, yet we seem to hold back, waiting for a wind change from somewhere else. Only, that is not where the wind of the Holy Spirit comes from. Its source is in us. We received it at Baptism and Confirmation. We are renewed in it through forgiveness and Eucharist. It is why Pope Francis is so insistent on calling us to be a Church that goes out.
Young people yearn for a Church that is young with them, that can go out with them. Today, that is the Church we are meant to be. Each one of you is the now of God, and all of us are part of building trust which fosters faith in Christ, who is inviting us to walk his Way, to tell his Truth, and to live his Life. So, my friends, whatever your age, let us begin.
Melbourne Catholic30 November 2023
Melbourne Catholic29 November 2023