Faith Alive

Catholic News Service

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    How is the church reaching young people? Pope Francis has chosen the theme "Young people, faith and vocational discernment" for the October 2018 world Synod of Bishops to find out.

    Young adult ministries offer a combination of social and catechetical events to attract youth, but what works?

    The church looks increasingly to social media, technology and the internet to evangelize and attract millennials.


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    Listening, not lecturing: Pope Francis and young people

    By Christopher White

    Catholic News Service

    Pope Francis hasn't shied away from talking about his own mortality in recent months -- and perhaps that's the reason he's increased his focus on young people over the past year.

    During April, his monthly prayer intention was for the young people of the world. That same month, at a prayer vigil in anticipation of World Youth Day 2019, he declared: "Every young person has something to say to others. He or she has something to say to adults, something to say to priests, sisters, bishops and even the pope. All of us need to listen to you!"

    And that's precisely why Pope Francis has chosen the theme of "Young people, faith and vocational discernment" for the next Synod of Bishops to take place in October 2018. This, however, will not be a time of lecturing. Instead, it will be an occasion for collaboration, motivated by the pope's conviction that "by listening to young people, the church will once again hear the Lord speaking in today's world."

    Much of what has driven this papacy has been an eye toward the future. In his encyclical "Laudato Si'," Pope Francis asked the world to consider creation as a whole and tasks us to steward the environment in a way that not only serves our present circumstances, but that of future generations.

    In naming cardinals from remote regions of the world, he has redirected our focus to areas where the church is growing and thriving, and he's invited the rest of the world to consider their example.

    So it should come as no surprise that Pope Francis is now concentrating on todays' youth -- the constituency of the church that will be tomorrow's future families, priests, religious men and women, and other members of the laity that will shape the church over the 21st century.

    Here at home in the United States, an honest assessment serves as a sobering reminder that there's much work to be done. A 2016 study from the Public Religion Research Institute revealed that young Catholics are leaving the church at a faster pace than any other religious group in this country, and according to the Pew Foundation, the vast majority of Catholics who leave the church do so before the age of 23.

    While some may see this as cause for despair, Pope Francis is seizing this as an opportunity and inviting the worldwide church to do the same. A primary theme of this papacy has been creating a "culture of encounter" -- one that is motivated by engagement and seeking understanding.

    That's why the preparatory document for this synod concludes by posing questions attempting to better understand the plight of young people today.

    Young people from around the world have been asked to consider both practical questions (such as how the language of today's world that's used in sports, arts, music and other arenas can be integrated into the church's outreach to young people) and pastoral ones (such as, "What does 'spiritual fatherhood' mean in places where a person grows without a father figure?").

    For Pope Francis, the church must be guided by the concrete realities that affect the faithful. This was true for the previous synod on the family, and it will prove equally true for this synod on young people. It's for this very reason that he so often uses the paradigm of accompaniment and the image of becoming neighbors and walking alongside those journeying in faith together.

    And just as neighbors and friends do in our everyday lives, the church will attempt to engage in the practical concerns of young people. The synod preparatory document, like the synod itself, will address matters of employment, immigration, sexual exploitation, drug trafficking and the growing tide of secularization that makes faith difficult.

    This is an approach that is rooted in an understanding of the importance of relationships and realizing that individuals must feel loved, known and cared for, before they can be challenged and changed.

    Or as the preparatory document declares: "In the task of accompanying the younger generation, the church accepts her call to collaborate in the joy of young people rather than be tempted to take control of their faith."

    In his first major papal document, "Evangelii Gaudium," ("The Joy of the Gospel") the pope tasked all of us to become "joyful messengers of challenging proposals." It's a recognition that the demands of Christian life are great -- but ultimately are the source of joy and salvation.

    It may seem countercultural to invite the youth of the world to re-evaluate their lives in light of the Gospel and consider a new way of living, but fortunately there's precedent for that.

    Two thousand years ago when a ragtag gang of young fishermen were approached and asked to do the same, their consequential yes changed their lives and that of the world. For a world that's looking for hope and a new way of living, Pope Francis is hoping that this invitation to young people might just have a similar outcome.

    (White is director of Catholic Voices USA and a columnist for Catholic News Service.)


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    Young adult ministry: What works?

    By Kurt Jensen

    Catholic News Service

    Attracting and building young adult ministries requires social skills, sometimes musical skills (Karaoke nights just don't organize themselves, you know), a strong knowledge of the basics of Christian faith and Catholic beliefs, and a warm appreciation of the unexpected.

    Which brings us to adult dodgeball.

    The fast-moving playground staple (once featured prominently in an episode of "30 Rock") is hugely popular in Manhattan, says Colin Nykaza, director of young adult outreach for the past six years at the Archdiocese of New York (

    "There's glow-in-the dark face paint under black lights. It's cool," he observes. There's a lengthening standby list for playing spots on 20-member teams, leading Nykaza to mull expansion possibilities. "It's competitive, so people get into it."

    Also, it sort of sums up young adult ministries. They have to stay in constant motion and offer a variety of ways for people to connect.

    Careful attention to faith fundamentals has worked well for John Johnson, coordinator of youth and young adult ministries at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Folsom, California, and also one of the organizers of the Veritas young adult ministry ( "If you're willing to bring young adults to Jesus, then the rest takes care of itself."

    This focus, both say, involves looking after those who have felt disenfranchised by the church since their confirmation or, as Johnson puts it, coming up with "something to draw them back." Always, Nykaza says, this type of ministry is event-driven, and "meets the young adult where they're at in their faith."

    Dan Ferrari, the young adult minister at St. Paul Inside the Walls (, an evangelization center in Madison, New Jersey, concluded, "We found that the initial seeds that were planted, either in Catholic school or a household, need to be watered again."

    Eucharistic adoration at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento, California, since taken over by the archdiocese, began as a Veritas gathering. "Would you believe you can get hundreds of young adults to come adore the Lord and the Blessed Sacrament on a Friday night?"

    Johnson calls that the "heart of the ministry," adding, "Christ himself turns out to be the most attractive element for young adults."

    The New York Archdiocese, working up its plan to submit to next year's world Synod of Bishops on "Young people, faith and vocational discernment," divides activities into four categories: "Disciple" events include monthly young adult Masses; "friend" events include speaker series and Bible studies; "acquaintance" events include a Mass followed by a dance at St. Malachy's, the famed Broadway "Actors' Chapel"; and the "seeker" events, which are mostly secular, include jazz and bowling nights as well as sporting events.

    Johnson, who has been active in young adult ministries for nearly 10 years, cautions against "campy, cheesy gimmicks that seem like something copied from baby boomers. Young people distrust anything that lacks authenticity."

    Trying to reconnect to adults in their 20s and 30s, "community is the most important thing," Ferrari says. "It's about getting young adults to connect to a point of excitement about the church." For some participants, "they haven't talked about Jesus in years."

    But, Johnson cautions, "You can't just create community. That's like going up to somebody and saying 'Let's be friends.'"

    Simplicity is effective. A monthly get-together at Monk's Cellar, a bar in Roseville, California, draws as many as 100. "It's always on Monday nights when business is slow, so the bar is happy to have us."

    Ferrari says Wednesday evening discussions dubbed "fireside chats" have been effective, but one of his most popular events are Wednesday night summer barbecues.

    When it comes to the faith message, Johnson says it's important to avoid heterodoxy.

    "People are attracted to what the church actually teaches without apology. They want the hard truths. Young people are attracted to this authenticity and fullness of the Gospel if they find it lacking in catechetical or liturgical settings."

    (Jensen is a freelance writer.)


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    Reaching young people on social media

    By Matt Palmer

    Catholic News Service

    The "greatest generation" had radio and television stars. Baby boomers and Generation X had movie and rock legends. For millennials and their younger brothers and sisters, celebrities come from places like YouTube, Facebook, Netflix, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Vine, the now-defunct quick clip video social network, lifted some people up to superstar status in less than seven seconds.

    Just as cable ended the "Big Three" television network model, the internet has opened the world of a la carte and streaming. People consume what they want, when they want.

    In the case of some young people, if they don't see or hear it, they go make it themselves with relatively inexpensive cameras, microphones and software.

    This is the landscape that the Catholic Church finds itself in right now.

    Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have all emphasized videos in recent years to big results and they all feature autoplay. Many people stopped scrolling in their social media feeds when they saw Pope Francis participate in a TED Talk April 25.

    Parishes could follow that lead and broadcast homilies on Facebook Live. Nothing is more inspirational or motivational than insights into the Gospel. It's an easy, tangible way to evangelize.

    Parishioners can share the parish broadcasts on their own social media. They become missionaries of evangelization in the process. You'll be surprised by the thousands you reach and engage with by simply going live.

    YouTube Christian "vloggers" (video bloggers) have gained millions of followers by sharing their lives with seven- to 10-minute daily entries. The videos frequently share the vlogger's personal and family adventures, but also feature insights to prayer life or scenes of trips to church.

    Imagine if a young Catholic family shared a window into their lives and casually articulated the Catholic faith by doing a vlog. Millions of previously unchurched people might want to learn more.

    Broadcasting life is natural for millennials. Podcasts have undergone a massive renaissance thanks in large part to iPhones, National Public Radio and thousands of upstart podcasters around the globe.  

    When I worked at The Catholic Review newspaper in Baltimore, I would often record my interviews, write a 500-word story and then have hours of unused audio. Editing and uploading that material as a podcast took the story further and allowed listeners to more closely identify with my subjects.

    Pope Francis' Twitter proves daily that the Gospel's message can be shared in less than 140 characters. Simple, inspired and creative messaging -- through text, video, images and memes -- changes hearts in secular culture all the time.

    The same holds true in the Catholic world. It's amazing how a meme featuring a quote from the pope or a bishop can reach and engage millions.

    That's the lesson learned. If we want to change the culture, we should let it change us as well. The call to evangelize is daunting, but our faith has endured for 2,000 years for a reason: Our ancestors evangelized by adapting to the times.

    Now is our time to accept that challenge. Our faith depends on it.

    (Palmer is social media strategist for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a former reporter and social media coordinator at The Catholic Review in Baltimore.)


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    Launching the preparation for the 2018 Synod of Bishops and for World Youth Day 2019 in Panama, Pope Francis spoke to youth and young adults at a prayer vigil on April 8.

    The October synod on "Young people, faith and vocation discernment," the pope said, "is meant to be the synod for and of all young people," including those whose faith is "lukewarm," or who no longer go to church, or those who consider themselves agnostics or atheists.

    "Some people say, 'Let's hold the synod for young Catholics for those belonging to the Catholic groups; that way it will be better.' No!" stressed Pope Francis. "Every young person has something to say to others. He or she has something to say to adults, something to say to priests, sisters, bishops and even the pope. All of us need to listen to you!"

    But the synod and World Youth Day, said Pope Francis, "will be not a chat room or a form of entertainment, or a nice happy experience from which you can then move on. ... We need concreteness, and concreteness is your vocation."

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About Faith Alive
Faith Alive is a service from Catholic News Service (CNS). CNS, the oldest and largest religious news service in the world, is a leading source of news for Catholic print and electronic media across the globe. With bureaus in Washington and Rome, as well as a global correspondent network, CNS since 1920 has set the standard in Catholic journalism.

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