When older Catholics speak about the younger generation it is usually with an air of despondency. There is good reason for this: the statistics – in parts of the West, at least – are deflating. In the United States, for example, surveys suggest that just two thirds of baptised Catholics practise the faith as adults. Only 13 per cent of those who leave say they are ever likely to return. Thousands are disengaging from the faith each year.
But that is not the whole story. We are a global Church and in some countries – South Korea, for example, or the Democratic Republic of Congo – Catholicism is astonishingly youthful. And it’s easy to overlook our own successes. In Britain, we have the remarkably fruitful Youth 2000 movement, which has helped thousands to deepen their prayer lives and discover their vocations. The Syro-Malabar Church in this country has also been strikingly effective at retaining young people.
When the synod of bishops meets again in October 2018, it will examine this mixed picture. The official theme is “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment” – a vague title that cynics suggest is a smokescreen for a radical change such as married priests or women deacons. But there is no evidence of this in the synod’s preparatory document, released last week. The text suggests that synod discussions will focus on “vocational discernment”, that is, “the process by which a person makes fundamental choices, in dialogue with the Lord and listening to the voice of the Spirit, starting with the choice of one’s state in life”. In other words, the synod hopes to enable youngsters to practise Ignatian-style spirituality in daily life.
When the Church speaks about the young it sometimes sounds as if it is describing an alien life form. The preparatory document is anxious to avoid that, insisting that “young people are not objects but agents”. Pope Francis underlines this in his covering letter, inviting youngsters to take part in the worldwide consultation process launched last week.
We hope the synod will pay special attention to why young people leave the Church. In a pastoral letter last weekend, Bishop Philip Egan recalled a conversation with a parishioner who lamented that only two out of 40 newly confirmed youngsters practised their faith. The bishop replied: “You catechised them. You sacramentalised them. But did you convert them?”
The Church in the West is good at “sacramentalising” youngsters, less good at catechising them and even less successful at converting them – leading them to what Bishop Egan calls “a religious experience of meeting Jesus Christ and being called personally by Him with a transformed heart”.
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