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Accompaniment: Synod’s simple answer to complexity of youth

The Bishops attending the Synod assembly on “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment” have called the Church to accompany of all young people especially those who are excluded. 

As our ‘Complex Catholicism’ research demonstrates, there is a huge diversity among young Catholics in England and Wales, before we even think about other young people. So the challenge to provide a “constant presence” alongside them is not to be taken lightly. 

For example, within the 60% of 15-25 year old Catholics who actually call themselves ‘Catholic’, half place no importance on going to Mass and only 37% felt that Catholic guidelines have importance in their personal lives. However, of the 40% who don’t identify as Catholic, over half will go to Mass at least irregularly, with one in ten attending weekly.

There are, then, a whole range of identities among ‘Catholic’ young people, before we even consider others.As part of the research, we generated twelve different profiles of young people who you might meet in parishes, schools and Church organisations. These ‘young people’ help us understand the challenge posed by the Synod and the multiple responses that will be needed.

Take ‘Lucy’, for example. We are most familiar with Lucy, especially in our parishes. She believes in God, goes to Mass, and gets involved with church activities. She’s one of the 33% of young Catholics who is hopeful about the future of the Catholicism in this country.  It is likely that we design most of our youth ministry in the Church for young people like Lucy, even though she only represents 8% of young Catholics.

‘Caitlin’, however, is similar to 47% of young Catholics. She’s effectively outside of the visible Church, and only within our Catholic community because of family or school.  She’s not sure whether she believes in God, and she views the Church as ‘conservative’. However, she does go to Mass very occasionally, and is one of the 59% of young Catholics who are comfortable talking about religion with their friends. 

The Synod document, published at the conclusion of the month long assembly in Rome,invites us to value the “abilities and contributions” of young people and to accompany them to realise their dignity and their part in building “the common good”.However, the research shows that only 8% of young Catholics would seek support from someone at church when making important choices.

 So the Church needs to find meaningful ways to reconnect to young people. There is good news here as didn’t find evidence of a conscious rejection of the Church.  Instead we saw a drifting away at times of transition, or a general sense of ‘growing up’.  The Church, then, should consider creative initiatives to accompany these times of transition. Such initiatives should also consider the Synod’s broader challenge to reach out to young people beyond the walls of the Church. We are asking how do we reach not just ‘Lucy’ and ‘Caitlin’ but beyond them to their non-Catholic peers? 

There are some established solutions, as well as newer developments. First, to draw on two key elements in the synod document – peer relationships and intergenerational accompaniment – we can consider the Young Christian Workers. In the early twentieth century Cardinal Cardijn recognised a practical means to reach the ‘mass of young people’, is through forming ‘young apostles’. He created the YCW, still at the core of many national and diocesan youth strategies across the globe. It gives tools to accompany the whole of life, particularly in times of transition, with adults accompanying young people to become ‘the leaven in the bread ‘in their communities and places of work, equipping them to engage others who are not the familiar participants in Church life.

Secondly, an emerging new way of reaching out to the young people. The ‘Courtyard Project’ has developed tools to support parishes to accompany young people outside their visible parish communities, including those who are ‘on the edge’ or at risk of exclusion. Parishioners, both adults and young people, put the resources of their parish at the service of local young people, accompanying them to explore their mission and purpose in life.  The project caught the imagination and support of Cardinal Nichols and as a result a few parishes have said ‘yes’ and taken up Courtyard, and are patiently engaging and accompanying young people ‘outside’ the parish. 

It has, though, been a tough journey for Courtyard and most priests approached haven’t felt able to take on such a challenge. This is an example of perhaps the biggest obstacle in the task. The Synod Bishops themselves say that whilst we might be happy to speak about the challenge to reach out to young people it does not often find “real expression in our pastoral action” and instead “we dedicate ourselves to activities less demanding”.  Somehow the results of the Synod have to go beyond paying lip service to a vision for accompanying our young people and move to a practical approach as a matter of urgency. 

Danny Curtin