Pope Francis urged us in his apostolic exhortation “Christus Vivit” to “make more room for the voices of young people to be heard” (No. 38).
I find teaching to be a graced opportunity to heed this admonition, most recently with a group of 30 students in a course on Catholic history and pastoral practice in the United States.
This was not a typical group of college students. The summer course I taught was for our master’s program in theology, which forms Catholic pastoral leaders.
Three-fourths of the students are enrolled in the Echo graduate service program at the University of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life, a dynamic lay formation program that includes master’s studies and two years of full-time ministry in a parish or Catholic school.
Two other students are in a ministry-study program with Catholic Extension. The vast majority of students are in their 20s, with others pursuing a master’s degree as a means of pastoral and faith enrichment.
Topics the students chose for their group presentations revealed concerns of many active young Catholics today. Some examined liturgical and devotional practices, others discussed saints and canonization causes.
One group focused on the Church and disability, another on the history of Catholics and birth control. Groups also explored the public engagement of Catholics in ecumenism and in the wider U.S. society.
While class members are passionate about their faith and serving in the Church, they seemed far less polarized than many Catholics of my generation.
We had individual presentations on natural family planning and Catholic responses to the AIDS epidemic, the social outreach of Catholic Charities and contemporary Eucharistic adoration, the holiness of American saints and the history of our tepid institutional response to persons with disabilities. Several students addressed directly the polarization in Church and society.
Students evidenced deep commitment to the beauty and truth of Catholic teachings, yet they did not seem intent on winning arguments about controversial issues.
Rather, they wanted to know about prayer and holiness, contemplation and action, catechesis and evangelization. They were fascinated with saintly lives and what they teach us.
One highlight was the day we visited the Catholic archives at Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library, where we saw items such as the prayer book of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton with her handwritten marginal notes.
Three of the six group presentations encompassed explorations of Catholic lives, including St. Kateri Tekakwitha, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, St. Junípero Serra, converts such as Isaac Hecker, and Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement.
Students were particularly enthused to study how Catholics have transmitted the faith during the past and present of our history in the United States.
They spoke regularly of their ministries and their desire to enliven their faith and that of their fellow Catholics, especially their young adult peers.
One class presenter summarized the challenges young leaders face in their lives and ministries. He avowed that young people confront a mental health epidemic rooted in three primary causes.
One is the negative impact of social media. Despite its potential for good, the prevalence of social media exacerbates low self-esteem, bullying, the “fear of missing out” (FOMO) phenomenon, and in general a distorted sense of our humanity.
Ultimately social media forms young, and older, users in the dangerous presumption that our human value is based on what we project ourselves to be digitally, rather than our true identity as precious beings created in the image and likeness of God.
A second challenge is COVID-19, which has robbed young people of the person-to-person contact that is so essential for human formation.
A third is the generational divide, which of course always exists between succeeding generations, but appears to be even more impactful in our current reality.
Many Catholics of my generation concur that being young is as difficult as ever. Even the childhood world our sons and daughters experienced differs significantly from that of our grandchildren, the former generation before COVID and at the inception of social media, the latter in the midst of both.
We express alarm about disaffiliation from the church, especially among our family members. In doing so, we can easily succumb to relatively simplistic analyses of disaffiliation and its causes.
If only our church officials were more involved in social justice, more traditional, more focused on the protection of children, more adept at preaching — the list could go on and on.
Listening to the students I met this summer gave me hope in the face of today’s challenges. The students reminded me that we are all called — both the younger and the older alike — to pray for and accompany the young amid the pressures and the joys of daily life.
They also taught me that, now more than ever, the outreach of young leaders to their peers is our most effective means as a church to inspire healing and faith among our younger sisters and brothers.
If we desire a more vibrant and youthful church, we need to personally invite young people to leadership and prioritize our collective support for them in their formation.