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Youth Ministry Congress emphasizes need to listen to young people

VATICAN CITY — As young delegates and the coordinators of youth and young adult ministry from the world’s bishops’ conferences gathered near Rome, an archbishop asked them: “How can we be a Church that young people come back to, not a Church they leave? How can our young people find hope and courage in the Church and transform their lives?”

The questions were posed by Archbishop Peter Chung Soon-taick of Seoul, South Korea, host of World Youth Day 2027, during the Vatican-sponsored International Youth Ministry Congress May 23 in Ciampino, just south of Rome.

The Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life convoked the three-day congress to consider answers to the archbishop’s questions as they marked the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ exhortation to young people, “Christus Vivit,” reviewed World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal, and looked forward to the Holy Year 2025 jubilee of young adults and, more remotely, to WYD in Seoul.

The theme for the gathering was “Synodal Youth Ministry: New Leadership Styles and Strategies.”

Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, prefect of the dicastery, said that since the 2018 Synod of Bishops on young people, many bishops’ conferences, dioceses and Catholic movements have worked with young adults to uncover new ways of communicating with them, to set up structures to listen to them and encourage their participation and to launch “programs of faith education, accompaniment and evangelization in both the digital and the non-digital spheres.”

“It is precisely young people who can be the main agents of renewal so that the Church can ‘unblock’ itself and become young again,” Cardinal Farrell said, adding a quote from “Christus Vivit”: “Let us ask the Lord to free the Church from those who would make it grow old, encase it in the past, hold it back or keep it at a standstill.”

Archbishop Chung told the group, “When the decision was made for Seoul to host WYD, I wondered, ‘Are our young people happy right now?’”

“They are connected to others 24 hours a day through social media and are more materially affluent than ever before,” he said, “but our young people today just don’t seem that happy.”

In many parts of the world, they struggle with “unemployment, low wages, endless competition, polarization and inequality, hatred, war, terrorism, the climate crisis,” he said. “Why do our precious youth, whose only job is to love, be loved and dream of a better world and future have to live in this reality?”

When celebrated as a pilgrimage of faith rather than an event, the archbishop said, World Youth Day can help people find a response. “It’s a pilgrimage, a time to share our stories, work through our concerns together and find answers in our faith,” he said.

Paul Jarzembowski, associate director for laity at the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, was attending the congress and said, “Listening is a foundation to so much of what we do in ministries with young people as our response and activities build upon what we have heard in the stories of youth and young adults.”

In response to “Christus Vivit,” the U.S. bishops launched “Journeying Together,” a process that brought together young adults, bishops, youth ministers and campus ministers “to engage in respectful yet honest dialogue in matters of faith, culture, racism, inclusion and the issues that affect them as young people,” according to the program’s web pages.

Although it formally concluded in 2023, Jarzembowski said the conversations are ongoing “as the young adults continue to convene together and engage us at the USCCB.”

The 1,500 young adults involved, who came from many cultural and ethnic groups, “included those who were active in their practice (of the faith) and those who are less engaged,” he said. The initiative was not about convincing them to return to church, “but about trying to understand the realities facing younger generations. Through this process, some did reconnect with active practice, but that was not its original goal. It was a pleasant surprise and the result of authentic listening.”

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