For the Church, a 'millennial moment' arrives

Pope Francis affirmed at an April 8 prayer vigil at Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major that the October 2018 Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith and Discernment” would be for all young people — even agnostics, atheists, those of lukewarm faith and those who have fallen away from faith. He also appealed to young people to let faith leaders know what they need from the Church.

“This is the synod of young people and we all want to hear them,” he said. “Every young person has something to say to others, something to say to the adults, to the priests, sisters, bishops and the pope. We all need to hear you.”

In the United States, this appeal comes against a backdrop of, according to Pew Research, one-third of millennials (adults under age 35) self-identifying as “nones” or having no particular religious affiliation.

The timing of this appeal also raises possibilities. The Vatican released its customary questionnaire for the synod in January, the week Donald Trump was sworn in as U.S. president, which means that the Church is trying to reach young people at a time when the cultural and political conversation is drastically changing. While Church concerns under the Obama administration emphasized religious freedom, the legalization of same-sex marriage and the perennial issue of abortion, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in March alone, issued seven statements dealing with either health care, the environment or migrants and refugees.

Marginal appeal

The change in the conversation presents an opportunity for the Church to reach out to those who may not identify as religious, but who can agree with the Church in certain areas, opening the door to dialogue.

“This moment is an opportunity to reach out to young people and to say, ‘This is a major element of who we are,’” said Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego, who told Our Sunday Visitor that many young adults have great openness to serving the poor and suffering. He added that they face questions and choices with deep meaning for their lives. “The ‘nones’ would not classify those as religious questions, but they would understand, and do understand, there are spiritual dimensions to all of those questions,” said Bishop McElroy.

“Millennials are brought to the Faith in a different way, not merely through learning the prayers and learning the theology, but they need to have the experience of serving others, to see what is the basis of faith,” said Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. “Pope Francis, in a wonderful way, talks about accompaniment. And when we can accompany our young people ... to help them to ask those questions of faith, then I think in authenticity we can lead them to a deeper faith.”

Bishop John E. Stowe, OFM Conv., of Lexington, Kentucky, agreed with Bishop Rozanski that the Church is often one of many competing voices in the lives of young people today.

“If what they hear from the Church is impractical, unreasonable to their ears or simply out of touch, they simply move on to other sources of information,” Bishop Stowe told OSV. He cited the widespread rejection of Church teaching on issues of sexuality. However, he believes this dissonance can be overcome by young people’s thirst for models of authenticity in living out the Faith.

“I think young people see in Pope Francis a man of joy and mercy who radiates a kind of accessible holiness that is deeply in touch with the world,” Bishop Stowe said.

Young adults attend a conference in Rome on April 6 in preparation for next year’s Synod of Bishops and World Youth Day in 2019. CNS photo courtesy Dicastery for Laity

Coarse discourse

Bishop Stowe also cited the critical importance of engaging young people from a listening posture and learning where they are coming from. This isn’t always easy, but such engagement in dialogue is still an option explored by bishops, including Newark’s Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, CSSR, who held a Q&A session at Seton Hall University following a Mass there March 23. Cardinal Tobin cautioned young people against letting the polarization of culture seep into their lives as Christians.

Countering divisiveness in the culture is one area where other bishops see the Church possibly providing a real evangelical service to young people.

“The Church — and particularly in the way that we dialogue ecumenically and interfaith with our brothers and sisters — shows a different path,” Bishop Rozanski said. “We don’t agree on everything. But we can at least talk civilly and respectfully about our disagreements. … It does not have to be so acrimonious.”

To that point, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, chair of the recent USCCB task force to promote peace in U.S. communities, cautioned: “We cannot imitate the brutal exchange of anger and animosity that seem to be the ordinary way that people relate to each other in today’s environment. Such behavior becomes the very soil in which the violence so often explodes,” he told OSV.

“If we were looking at the signs of the times now, it’s almost as if there were a new Tower of Babel phenomenon going on, with everyone just scattering into their own little identities and cultures and religions and everything else,” noted Bishop John Michael Botean of the Romanian Catholic Eparchy of St. George in Canton, Ohio. “Unless the Gospel can be a voice bringing people together, and specifically bringing people together in the matter of at least not harming one another, we lose a certain amount of validity in terms of the needs of the world right now.” He noted that “response to the current world situation needs to be something that resembles Manila, 1986, more than Chicago, 1968.”

The increasing brutality of the cultural discourse also is reflective of growing secularism, said Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, Vermont.

“The greatest demand of monotheism is to love God and to love your neighbor,” he said, and “secularism does nothing to replace these ‘loving’ demands and instead leaves one morally adrift. On the left, it rises to unguided relativism based on a highly controlled definition of tolerance — ‘I am tolerant of you as long as you agree with me.’ On the right, it leads to a free license to angrily espouse hatred and bigotry. Neither serves the common good well.”

Shaped by events

As secular millennials seek to ground their views in something more enduring and persuasive, one option could be the Church’s framework of social teaching, which addresses issues including labor rights (Rerum Novarum, 1891), the dangers of totalitarianism and unchecked capitalism (Quadregessimo Anno, 1931), sustainable peace and justice at the global level (Pacem in Terris , 1963), the need for markets to serve all people (Populorum Progressio, 1967) and even climate change (Laudato Si’, 2015). It’s a cluster of convergences between young adults and the Church, even as the political climate has tacked in the other direction.

Bishop Rozanski observed: “What really fascinates me as we have progressed through the last few months, through the presidential election, and through the different decisions that have been made, is how countercultural our faith really is, and how much, sometimes, on the margins we are, in what we are teaching and how the Gospel can be such a challenge to so many people.”

Yet a poll released April 4 found that 70 percent of millennials disapproved of the Trump administration, while in January, Pew Research found that 70 percent of “nones” of any age held a favorable opinion of Pope Francis.

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As the Trump administration and the leaders of the Church wrangle over migrants and other issues, Chicago’s Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, who chairs the recently formed National Catholic-Muslim Dialogue, said that this is a time to work with others to build solidarity, particularly with communities such as Muslim Americans.

“Right now their community is very much afraid,” he told OSV. “They hear rhetoric sometimes that marginalizes them very easily and makes them suspect in the minds of a lot of folks.”

Cardinal Cupich sees a defining moment unfolding, with Pope Francis not only calling for solidarity with the marginalized, but challenging all people to live a mature spirituality. This is why he sees the role of discernment in life as a key dimension of next year’s synod.

“People have to take responsibility for their lives,” he said, “and I think young people are willing to go there.”

Don Clemmer is managing editor of OSV Newsweekly.