In John 1: 35-42, the disciples ask Jesus where He is going. Jesus doesn’t reply with a complicated explanation. He simply says, “Come and see,” and the disciples spend the day with Him. In this morning’s biblical meditation we were led through a reflection on this passage. The importance of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ in our youth ministry was emphasised, but when we broke into small groups later in the day, I was struck by the comment of one my fellow delegates: “What happens when we don’t have anything attractive to show them?” she asked. “What happens if our churches, in fact, are places that turn our young people away?”
The key question, then, is how can the Church become more relevant to young people? It was agreed that relevance begins with a genuine understanding of the reality for young people and real engagement with contemporary social issues. Identity, employment and migration were the key issues that were discussed today, and the intersection of these issues with faith.
I was struck by the comment of one delegate who noted an increase in alternative economic models which put people before profits. However, many of the ground-breaking models we see are coming from outside the Church. She urged more Church-based organisations to live out Pope Francis’ concept of ‘integral ecology’. As a Church we talk a lot about ecology and sustainability, but a young Nigerian man put up his hand and asked why even the transcripts from this seminar were printed in Italian on one-sided paper. “Most of us don’t even speak in Italian,” he said, which drew some laughs, but which pointed to what many young people perceive as a disconnect between talk and action. Ultimately, young people are drawn to authenticity and desire a Church that lives out its teachings.
It is inspiring to be in the presence of such passionate, active, young Catholics. The 20 young people at this seminar have decided to take our contribution a step further, and we have arranged an impromptu, self-organised meeting tomorrow night. We will meet after dinner, and each of us will have one minute to answer the question, “Imagine you had one minute to talk to the Pope and Cardinals. What would you say?” We will compile our responses into a document of our own initiative, which we will present to Cardinal Baldisseri at the conclusion of the week. In the words of one of the youth delegates, “We have come so far from every corner of the globe. We want to make this week count.”
The day ended with a night of music and dance at a safe-house for refugees, run by Jesuit Refugee Services. We talked, ate, danced and sang with refugees our own age, witnessing first-hand some of the great pastoral work of the Church in Rome. There were many encounters today that filled me with a profound sense of hope and a deeper experience of the body of Christ.
“It is you who are to receive the torch from your elders,” Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri announced as he opened the seminar, “and you are to deliver it to the world that is in the midst of the greatest transformation in history.”
Today I attended day one of the International Seminar of Young People in Rome, in preparation for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment. Cardinal Baldisseri explained that this week’s seminar is not only international in nature, but also multidisciplinary. I am one of 20 young people from around the world who were invited to attend this seminar along with specialists in the field of sociology, psychology, economics, computer science, pastoral care and the environment. Over the week we will engage with specialists from the various fields, but Cardinal Baldisseri explained that the key word for today was “listening.”
In my presentation I was honest about the reality of the Church in Australia today, which I described as being in the midst of crisis and transition. I drew on the results of the National Youth Synod Survey and I used personal experiences to illustrate this reality. As the theme of today’s seminar was “listening”, it was fitting that I shared some data from our National Survey where young people in Australia scored the Church’s listening ability to be a 6 out of 10. I shared my experience that many young people give up on the Church before even giving it a go, out of fear that they cannot engage in open, honest discussion about the issues that matter to them. I spoke about my involvement in the “Synod video booth” in my Diocese. The booth travelled around to various youth events in the Diocese, and young people were invited to answer the question, “If you had one minute to say anything to Pope Francis, what would you say?” As a facilitator of this booth, I remember one young person who, upon being asked this question hesitated and told me, “I’d better not say what I really think. My views are too radical to share at Church.” After five minutes of encouraging this girl to openly share her thoughts, she went ahead and shared her experience of topics such as homosexuality and transgender issues being shut down at her Catholic School. I was really struck by this young person’s experience of the disconnect between Church and the rest of the world. It was as if there were some matters that were out of bounds in Church settings, yet these were the issues that she was most passionate about and which gave her life. I stated that as a Church, if we are to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, we need to be a Church that engages with those on the margins, and which includes young people who may feel ostracised for their views and identity.
One of the other youth respondents was a 25-year-old young man from Milan, Italy. He stated that his upbringing in a culture focused on image and power meant that he turned to crime. “I turned 18 in a jail cell,” he said. “I was not used to trusting adults but I got to know a chaplain whilst in jail.” After being released from prison the young man started living with the chaplain in his community. He spoke about how in previous communities, before anyone even asked his name, the leaders would read him the rules. In the Kairos Community, “my freedom was taken seriously,” he said. “If I wanted to go out late, the priest would say, ‘You know the answer. You know what to do.’ This was someone who believed in my capacity to choose and who had faith in me.” The young man shared his belief that if we want to educate young people in the faith we have to let them ask the questions… “I feel like I am one of the people who Jesus meets in Mark’s Gospel. I ask the Church not to forget those who like me were abandoned and suffered in jail. We, too, can be a gift to others. Give us a Gospel that is alive and comes to us through the faces that are happy and real.”
Another highlight of today was hearing from Fr Giulio Michelini who is the author of many New Testament studies and was chosen by Pope Francis to lead spiritual exercises for Roman Curia. He broke open 1 John 2:12-14, where young people are described as strong, as bearers of the Word and able to overcome evil.
We were encouraged, this week, to become a “thinking community” and to view our community as an orchestra with each of us playing a unique instrument.
My hope is that our discussions this week will break new ground. Now is the time to be creative, to dream and to listen to the voice of the Spirit. I wait in eager anticipation for the discussions that lay ahead, and for the gelato along the way!
Read Ashleigh’s presentation here: Presentation for International Seminar on Young People – Ashleigh Green
More about the General Synod and its connection to our Year of Youth in Australia here: http://youth.catholic.org.au/year-of-youth/synod