Considerations Regarding the Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment
By: Catholic Christian Outreach
Young adults in today’s world face intense challenges: unemployment, addictions, distrust, poverty, isolation, sexualisation and crime. Some young people feel invincible as they face their future, but far too many are vulnerable and lack hope. For three decades Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO) has faced this reality with young adults in Canada. From soaring mental health crises to a relentless hookup culture of casual sex, we have walked alongside them on a daily basis. We have seen them struggle, and we have witnessed hope. The sure source of peace and healing has always come from the same place: an encounter and relationship with Jesus Christ.
The Preparatory Document for the Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment speaks of the Church wanting to examine herself, and asks young people to help her identify the most effective ways to announce the Good News today. CCO has been dedicated to evangelization of young people since 1988. These three decades of direct ministry relationships with young adults have convinced us that when we consider young people, faith and vocational discernment, effective evangelization is the foundation. We offer the following insights to the Synod discussion.
Our evangelization efforts on campus have shown us the power of an encounter with Jesus — we know he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and the fundamental answer to every problem faced by young people in this world. When young persons encounter Christ and orient their lives to follow him, they become heroic and generous missionary disciples. No obstacles, issues, or difficulties can cloud a heart that has been transformed by the working of the Holy Spirit.
“Jesus Christ is the way.” Every young person desires to know they are loved. The kerygma, presented clearly and simply, proclaims the person of Jesus and invites them to give their lives more fully to him. Giving themselves to Christ radically impacts how they live their lives in the Church and in the world.
“Jesus Christ is the truth.” Even the darkness of sin cannot extinguish the desire to be known and loved. The converted heart knows its identity in the love of the Father and in friendship with Jesus. Embracing the truth of this identity brings purpose and healing, comfort and freedom.
“Jesus Christ is the life.” Young people desire adventure and greatness which is rooted in their identity as children of God. It is only in this relationship with Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit that they can live for the greater glory of God. Living this mission transforms their life, their world, and their eternal destiny.
Thomas said to him, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:5-6
The rise of secularism and various contemporary challenges makes it, at times, seem nearly impossible for the Church to present Jesus Christ in a credible manner as “the way, the truth and the life.” This can lead to the temptation to think that the primary mission of the Church is to tackle difficult societal problems. We assume that young people, who seem to be motivated by social action and are ready to invest their lives in social causes, will inevitably discover the truth of Christ in the process of enacting social justice. Making this assumption is imprudent.
In our experience, in this highly secular postmodern world, many young people are not linking their desire for social action with the life of Christ in the Church. They are not looking to the Church to provide them with leadership in the moral issues that affect so many people and societies. They do not see the Church as having the answers. Instead, they often perceive the Church and religion as being a major cause of some of our grave social ills.
These past three decades of ministry with young adults have convinced us that when we consider young people, faith and vocational discernment, effective evangelization is the foundation. Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) and the fundamental answer to every yearning heart in this world. Thus we propose that the Church’s greatest opportunity is to show young people, in a clear and simple way, the narrow path that leads to an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ and his Church.
Through this encounter with Jesus Christ, they will become his disciples and ultimately his missionary disciples. Inspired by the Holy Spirit and encouraged and supported by the Christian community, these young people will be inspired to tackle the issues of the day and lay down their lives for the sake of others.
Jesus Christ is the way. We know from the Gospel that he is the way for all people, including the young, to find their way back to the Father and to the Church. Unfortunately, not unlike St. Thomas in John 14, the youth of the world are either unsure, confused or have difficulty accepting the truth about Jesus Christ. To reach their young hearts it is paramount that the Church strive with simplicity and clarity to communicate who Jesus is and what he has done for them so that they can follow him.
We need to begin telling people that, “we do not approach Jesus as ‘a new philosophy or a new form of morality’, but [as] an encounter with the person of Christ, an event that ignites a personal relationship with him.”[note]Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience September 3, 2008[/note] We are inviting young people to a personal relationship with God himself, a relationship they were created for and deeply desire even if they do not know it yet. The Church understands that after an encounter with Jesus “everything is different as a result of metanoia, that is, the state of conversion.”[note]Instrumentum Laboris, Synod on The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, 2012.[/note]
We have witnessed over the years the profound impact this encounter has had on countless students who now experience their relationship with God, his Church and the world in a radical new way.
As a Church we know we need to provide opportunities for youth to encounter Christ, but we lack means and methods to do so. Recognizing this deficiency the 2012 Synod Fathers said,
“We consider it necessary that there be a Pastoral Plan of Initial Proclamation, teaching a living encounter with Jesus Christ. This pastoral document would provide the first elements for the catechetical process, enabling its insertion into the lives of the parish communities.”
The Synod Fathers propose that guidelines of the initial proclamation of the kerygma be written. This compendium would include:
- Systematic teaching on the kerygma in Scripture and Tradition of the Catholic
- Teachings and quotations from the missionary saints and martyrs in our Catholic
history that would assist us in our pastoral challenges of today; and
- Qualities and guidelines for the formation of Catholic evangelizers today.[note]2012 Synod of Bishop’s Bulletin, Proposition 9[/note]
CCO is a movement focused on initial proclamation of the kerygma, teaching a living encounter with Jesus Christ. Over the past 30 years, we have found the approach outlined below to be very effective with young people. It is intended to be clear and simple so the hearer can understand what is being proposed and choose in fullness of understanding to respond to God’s invitation to relationship and receive his gift of salvation.
Creation: We first introduce students to an encounter with Christ by explaining how God, out of love for us, created us to be in a relationship with him that will last for eternity: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16). Every young person, regardless of their situation, is open to hearing that they are loved.
The Fall: In our experience we have found it important to touch on the topic of sin. Young people welcome a clear explanation of sin since it helps them understand the manner in which they are living in relation to a greater vocation to love. Sin is a failure to love perfectly in our own attitude and behaviours, both in relation to God as well as to ourselves and those around us. Young people know instinctively that failure to love and care for others– including God–has destructive consequences on a relationship. Certainly all young people, to some degree, carry within themselves pain and regret for the results of their own bad choices.
Incarnation: As students become aware of the reality of sin, the understanding that Jesus came to heal this wounded relationship and restore us to the Father, as well as offer us the hope of eternal life, is truly Good News. It is paramount that there is clarity on who Jesus is (God and Man) and what he has done for us (life, death and resurrection).
Redemption: Once we are clear on the above essentials we invite the student to take the initial step on the narrow way: we ask them if they would like to enter into relationship with God who is a person, Jesus Christ. This is an invitation to make the adult decision to receive the gift that Jesus offers. When this message is shared clearly by an authentic witness, through the prompting and power of the Holy Spirit and in such a way that there is an opportunity for the person to respond with a decision of faith and a heart of repentance, a life-changing encounter with Jesus
The words of the Synod Fathers describe the invitation to faith in Christ so beautifully,
“The ‘first proclamation’ is where the kerygma, the message of salvation of the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ, is proclaimed with great spiritual power to the point of bringing about repentance of sin, conversion of hearts and a decision of faith.”[note]2012 Synod of Bishop’s Bulletin, Proposition 9[/note]
The Church believes that Jesus is “the way” to confidently invite our young people to give their hearts to God, to be in a personal relationship with him that radically changes the way they live forever.
Jesus Christ is the truth. Young people today yearn deeply for truth. But so few realize that the truth they are seeking is not a complicated abstract concept or philosophy. Rather the truth is a person, Jesus. Through a living encounter with the person of Jesus, the truth of our human identity is revealed.
Truth Provides Identity
Young people today are restlessly searching for their identity. Education, work, relationships, hobbies, social action, and all manners of self-seeking – religious or otherwise – are all part of the attempt by young people to discover who they are, the meaning of their existence, and their purpose in life. Unfortunately, like Adam and Eve, humanity continues to doubt that only God can offer us the full truth of our existence.
A Christian who has encountered the truth in the kerygma knows their identity: they are loved infinitely by the Father, willed into existence for relationship with him, redeemed by the merciful love of the Son on the cross, and invited to respond to the invitation of that same life-giving relationship. Thus they can say: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 John 3:1).
Yet so many are unaware of the truth of their identity as children of God. The cry of their hearts to know who they are is manifested in every attempt of theirs to belong, to receive attention, to feel satisfaction, and to have a purpose. The disordered actions of young people who turn to substance abuse, violence, promiscuity, secularism, etc. point to a yearning to live the life of freedom and joy promised to them in Christ. Encountering the Truth, who is Jesus, restores one’s true identity.
“It is Jesus in fact that you seek when you dream of happiness; he is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is he who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle.”[note]St. Pope John Paul II, World Youth Day 2000[/note]
Truth Provides Healing
Further to the inherent yearning of identity that each person seeks to satisfy is the desire for healing. Young people seeking to know themselves are also seeking solace and comfort in response to the burden and guilt of their own failures, weakness, and sins and the casualties of others’ sins. Their hearts are dissatisfied by shallow materialism and careless desires. Whether they know it or not, they ache for the freedom that comes from knowing the truth of their lives. These hungry hearts are prepared to receive and respond to the burden and guilt of their own failures, weakness, and sins and the casualties of others’ sins. Their hearts are dissatisfied by shallow materialism and careless desires. Whether they know it or not, they ache for the freedom that comes from knowing the truth of their lives. These hungry hearts are prepared to receive and respond to the truth of their identity as fallen and sinful individuals, and more importantly, as individuals who are offered healing, redemption, and mercy by the God of infinite love.
Even in their shortcomings, compounded by the effect of secular culture that numbs and normalizes the destructive pain of sin (Romans 6:23), seeing the truth, no matter how difficult, reveals that mercy is “the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us.”[note]Misericordiae Vultus, 2[/note] As Pope Francis states, Jesus is the face of that Mercy.
“But no darkness of error or of sin can totally take away from man the light of God the Creator. In the depths of his heart there always remains a yearning for absolute truth and a thirst to attain full knowledge of it.”[note]Veritatis Splendor, 1[/note]
Jesus Christ is the life. Life with Christ is the great adventure longed for by every young person. He is the call to boldness and pursuit of greatness that young hearts burn for. He is the destination that every heart finds rest in. Life with Christ is simultaneously the journey of walking with Christ in this life, as well as the destination of eternal intimacy with Christ in Heaven. To begin a journey without knowing the destination is foolish, and will soon leave one disheartened and lacking zeal. That is why it is vital that young people are not only equipped with a knowledge of their destination, but are also fostered to hunger for that intimacy with Christ through continual witness and accompaniment from those who are further down the path of Christian maturity.
A Life of Abundance
Saying “yes” to Christ’s invitation to “come and see” (John 1:39), leads to the adventure of a life in relationship with Christ. In fact, we lose nothing in following him, and gain everything:
“If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed… Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.”[note]Pope Benedict XVI, Mass for the Inauguration of the Pontificate 2005[/note]
A longing for true life with Christ burns at the depths of every youth’s heart. We in turn must go and provide them the opportunity for this relationship by proclaiming to them the kerygma and inviting them to respond to further the call of salvation.
Their ‘yes’ would allow a greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit, unlocking in their lives the richness and depths of the Church in the Sacraments and the Mystical Body of Christ. The hunger of their hearts would be satisfied as they experience the fulfillment of Christ’s promise when he said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
Truly, it is only through the complete acceptance of Christ and his saving work that young people can experience true fulfillment, meaning, and purpose. Their personal relationship with Jesus Christ makes it possible to have open hearts and minds and discern the vocation of love God is calling them to embrace.
A Life of Leadership
Young people’s unique distinctiveness, the gift they bring to the Church, is their youthful zeal–a desire to make one’s mark upon the world. St. John Paul II is clear on the important role that young people play today in the Church:
“Youth must not simply be considered as an object of pastoral concern for the Church: in fact, young people are and ought to be encouraged to be active on behalf of the Church as leading characters in evangelization and participants in the renewal of society.”[note]Christifideles Laici, 46.[/note]
Our expectation for our young people must match their idealism. We are calling young people to do more than stay in the Church, we are inviting them to change the world and help fulfill Jesus’ command to go and make disciples of all the nations. We have witnessed how courageously young missionary disciples embrace such an expansive vision for the world. Anything less would lose their attention.
As a Church we must see that it is not simply youthful idealism that we want to be expressed, but a zeal for evangelical mission. This zeal is the outflow or the fruit of an encounter, a relationship, with Jesus Christ.
“It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.”[note]St. John Paul II, WYD 2000.[/note]
In Jesus, we find true life – a life of abundance and a life of leadership. It is only through this ‘yes’ to Jesus that we find hope for the future of the Church. And it is through this ‘yes’ that each young person can experience true faith and accept the greatest gift of all: eternal life.
It is commonly perceived that young people are asking the Church to listen to what they have to say. And while they appreciate having their voice heard, we believe that what young people want even more is for the Church to speak to them in meaningful and transformative ways.
Young people long to hear the Church speak soothing truths about the value of their lives, that they are loved and created to bring great glory to God in service to him. Young people are spiritually hungry, whether they realize it fully or not. If the Church is not there to speak these truths clearly and simply to them, they will continue to turn to what is most accessible and alluring to appease the aches of their hunger for meaning.
As the Church, we must speak to young people about Jesus Christ. Jesus is the answer to their questions, their concerns, their issues. He is “the way, the truth and the life.” No one comes to the Father except by him:
“Jesus Christ is the way.” Every young person desires to know they are loved. The kerygma, presented clearly and simply, proclaims the person of Jesus and invites the young person to claim their role in salvation history. It gives them a foundation on which to build their life.
“Jesus Christ is the truth.” Even darkness and sin cannot extinguish the desire to be known and loved. The converted heart knows its identity in the love of the Father and in friendship with Jesus. Embracing the truth of this identity brings purpose and healing, comfort and freedom.
“Jesus Christ is the life.” Young people desire adventure and greatness which is rooted in their identity as children of God. It is only in this relationship with Christ that they can live for the greater glory of God. Living this mission transforms their lives, their world, and their eternal destiny.
As each young heart is brought back to the Father through the life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ, they will live in the freedom of being children of God. The power of the evils of secularism and immorality will fade through the power of the Holy Spirit alive in them, empowering them to discern good from evil and follow God’s calling in their life. The daunting mountain of worldliness, sin, addiction and pain that threatens young people is circumvented and subdued by inviting them to the narrow path of our victorious King and mighty Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Therefore, when we consider young people, faith, and vocational discernment, let us ensure that as a fundamental first step we invite young people into an encounter with Jesus. Only then will they be able to orient their lives to follow him. Only then will they be able to become the heroic and generous missionary disciples God has called them to be.