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Disaffiliated youth present challenge, opportunity

Men’s religious leaders discuss new study ahead of synod on young people

The title of a new study about youth and the Catholic Church — “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics” — might be interpreted as a harbinger for a bleak future.

However, the study represents an opportunity to meet the challenges of — and address the root causes of — disaffiliation.

“It’s ultimately hopeful,” said Father John Pavlik, OFM, the executive director of Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM) July 31 at the pre-assembly of the group’s national assembly at Sheraton Westport Chalet Hotel.

CMSM is the national organization for U.S. leaders of Roman Catholic men’s religious institutes, monastic communities, and societies of apostolic life. In addition to welcoming national leaders, the meetings Aug. 1-3 included young adults and vocation directors from around the nation, including leaders from the archdiocesan Catholic Youth Apostolate.

The assembly focused on strengthening engagement with young adults in advance of the Vatican’s Synod for Young People in October. The pre-assembly focused specifically on the “Going, Going, Gone” study by Saint Mary’s Press of Minnesota in collaboration with CARA, the Georgetown-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

John Vitek, president/CEO of Saint Mary’s Press, described the national report as “a gift to the Church” containing stories of young people. As such, the report was based on qualitative analysis as opposed to quantitative research based on numbers data.

“We wanted to hear the stories of young people, talking candidly, openly and honestly in their own words, (and) embrace these stories,” Vitek said at the pre-assembly. “The Spirit has not abandoned them, grace has not abandoned them. As best we can, we have to set aside our biases, to hear their stories with a non-judgmental mind and heart.”

In other words, “meet them where they are,” in the words of Pope Francis, and accompany them on their journey.

“Fundamentally, the Gospel and Christianity are relational; effective outreach and evangelization is forming a pastoral relationship,” said Brian Miller, executive director of the archdiocesan Catholic Youth Apostolate. “If you’re not willing to walk side-by-side with people, then you’re probably not going to reach them with the Gospel.”

But it’s more than simply meeting young people where they are.

“We also have to call them to something higher,” Miller said. “Meeting them where they are but not stay there … and keep moving ourselves.”

The study focused on young people aged 15-23, who formerly identified as Catholic but no longer do so. On average, the former Catholics decided by age 13 to leave the Church.

“I was really struck that the average to make a decision was 13,” Miller said. “For us as a diocese, we have to evaluate how we help people understand the core of the Gospel message at a younger age. We can’t wait until they’re in high school. … We have to help them have a real authentic encounter with Jesus before then.”

It’s more than just receiving the sacraments, too. For instance, some disaffected youth consider Confirmation as graduation from the faith.

“If they don’t know the message in the Gospel, the message of Jesus Christ, then the sacraments are just road marks to ‘graduation,’” said Shane Van Diest, who recently joined the Office of Young Adult Ministry as director, adding that the sacraments need “context. The life of Jesus Christ and the life of the Church, we have to do those two together.”

Parents and families also play the primary role in a young person’s faith formation; research has borne that out.

“We have a lot of work to do helping families understand how to share the faith with their kids,” Miller said.

Van Diest added, “Catholic education and young adult ministry (are) addendums to the faith being instilled by family; the primary source of faith has always been the family.”

A co-author of the study, Vitek views it as a starting point for “a national conversation,” with Catholic leaders and youth ministers listening to youths’ stories in a non-judgmental way, just listening.

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