The Catholic Young Adult Landscape

Paul Jarzembowski is the lead staff for youth and young adult ministries within the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; he is very familiar with the Diocese of Joliet, having worked here from 2006 until 2013 as the Director of Young Adult Ministry. Carlos Briceño recently asked for his thoughts on the young adult landscape in a recent interview. [More Q and A with Paul is available in the May edition of Christ is our Hope magazine:]

 What do you find most compelling about young adult ministry? 

Paul Jarzembowski

The key thing I find compelling is the audience itself. It is an audience that often gets labeled as the future of the Church, but I see when young adults are on fire and when they are engaged in the faith, they are not only the future, but they are very much affecting the present reality of the Church.

In other areas of society, young adults are the protagonists: key leaders in business, entertainment and sports, technology, the medical profession, political movements, the hospitality and restaurant industry, charitable causes and global solidarity efforts, and so much more. Young adults are entrepreneurs, CEOs, and elected officials. So when they come to our Church, we should treat them in the same way, if not better. When we reduce them to only occupying our future, and ignore their contributions in the present age, we are doing a disservice to them, and even more so, to ourselves. When ministry with young adults is done well, the young adults become the protagonists of the Church here and now – and that is incredibly compelling because they can take us places previously unimaginable. That’s exciting!

What are some common misconceptions about young adult ministry?

One of the most common misconception I hear in my work is that young adult ministry is “youth ministry with beer and wine.” Developmentally, youth and young adult ministry are as far apart as you can get. Chronologically, as youth and adolescents move into young adulthood, there are radical transitions and developmental, spiritual, emotional, and cultural developments that happen when a person leaves high school and enters the next chapter in their lives. Things are very much different between how we engage a teenager and how we engage a 20-something.

Campus ministers will tell you that campus ministry on a college campus looks nothing like youth ministry at a parish, and, when we work with 20- and 30-somethings, it’s definitely not the same as youth ministry. Unfortunately, some Church leaders often lump the two together because, frankly, they are all younger than the age of 50. But, to do effective young adult ministry is to do adult faith formation in a creative, emerging, dynamic way to a younger generation of adults. But it’s not youth ministry.  Just because the two ministries are chronologically side by side does not mean they are anything alike.

One of the other big misconceptions is that a young adult ministry means a “young adult group.” Groups are certainly part of a larger comprehensive vision of ministry with young adults (as in developing small groups as part of young adult faith formation), but many millennials today are not necessarily joiners of groups like previous generations had been.

Instead, what they are seeking is accompaniment, sometimes one-by-one. They are seeking those who can journey with them. They are not necessarily looking for a “group” or “club”
to join. They may seek community and comradery with other young adults, but an exclusive group is not the best answer. Community can be built up without having to form a “young adult club” at their local church.

My advice is that parishes and dioceses avoid forming  young adult groups. That can be a component. But it should not be the whole vision of it. Even the title we ascribe to this work (“young adult ministry”) is a bit of a misnomer. What we should be about is developing ministry with young adults. Just changing the order of those words can be a way to better explain what we’re doing. Once this work becomes a “thing” instead of a movement within the Church, it loses its impact. Instead of forming young adult groups, let’s engage in ministry with young adults.

Pope Francis’ next Synod of Bishops, in October 2018, is called “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.” What is the purpose of it and why is it so important to young adults?

The Holy Father has called this Synod to give an opportunity to give the whole Church an opportunity to journey with and engage young people, and then, inspired by these conversations, develop new ideas for our ministry with youth and especially with young adults. The age range that Pope Francis outlined is young people 16 to 29, which means he is very interested in the lives of men and women beyond high school.

Some people might think that when we’re talking about “young people,” we are speaking about children (since that is one way we talk about “kids”), but in the international context, the notion of addressing the situation with young people is what we in the United States call “ministry with young adults.”

Depending on different circumstances around the world, the reality of young adults is different from continent to continent. In impoverished or third world countries, young adults are often faced with situations that propel them into adulthood really quickly, and yet they can be the ones struggling the most. In other countries with a greater access to education, youth and young adults of this age range are very involved in their studies or starting off in their careers. So we must be aware that “young people” is a term that can be unique for every nation, every culture, and every circumstance.  Our experience with youth and young adults in the U.S. is not the only way the Church is approaching this Synod. That is very important for us to know as we enter this dialogue process.

On the other hand, we should be aware of the reality of young people the USA. One of the misconceptions we have is that U.S. young adults are fluent and doing just fine after they graduate from high school or college. And yet only a third of all young adults of college age are actually in a two- or four-year university or college setting; two thirds either don’t have the funds, the access to education, or the necessary resources to attend college or can only take one class at a time around their work schedule. And some young people do not have a desire to go to college due to their vocational path. So even in our country, we must be more aware of a world beyond what we see in the suburbs or small towns around Chicago.

In fact, around the world, the one consistent thing that emerges from our global understanding of young adults is that so many are struggling, or that they need attention, or that they are often ignored, marginalized, or discarded for various reasons in different countries. When Pope Francis speaks about the Church being a “field hospital after battle,” he is thinking of young adults who are challenged by economic, cultural, and societal pressures, who have been wounded in one way or another – and yet the world does not tend their wounds, or tries to fix them in unhealthy ways.  He notices, and we are called to notice, that young adults in any country, even in our own backyard, are struggling, overwhelmed, overworked, or over-extended – and the Church can heal those wounds.

Saint John Paul II first drew the world’s attention to young people with the creation of World Youth Day in the 1980s.  As someone who journeyed with youth and young adults his whole life, from his days in Krakow to his pontificate in Rome, Saint John Paul II was keenly aware of young people and the need for the Church to accompany them. World Youth Day has been a phenomenal success, especially amongst those who are active in their faith. World Youth Day has served as a launching pad for vocations – to marriage, to the priesthood, to religious life, and to help young people more fully live out their baptismal call to holiness. It helped to bring youth and young adults to a greater awareness of the Church and their Catholic faith, of the global community of which they are part, and of the experience of encountering God in a “mountaintop moment” in solidarity with the world and the Holy Father.

Pope Francis is following in the footsteps of his predecessors by launching this Synod with that same thought in mind: Where are we leading our young adults? Where are they journeying next in their lives? To what is it that we are inviting them? And what can the Church learn from them, even those young people who are indifferent to faith? Through this Synod, which has a focus on the faith and vocational discernment, the Holy Father is asking young adults: What is the purpose of your life? How will you spend your time?  What are you willing to commit to? What state of life will you ultimately choose as part of your commitment and your response to God? Will it be as a married man or woman? Will it be as a priest or religious? What will you do as an active Catholic as you mature in your faith? How will you live out your baptismal call to holiness?

Pope Francis is asking that question of young adults to ask them what the future holds for them and, by extension, what the future is for the Church. So, the Synod is important because it’s really giving every facet of the Church an opportunity to wrestle with that question just as young people are wrestling with their own questions of identity, purpose, and direction.

The Synod is a consultation with the whole world and with all different aspects of the Church’s ministry. Pope Francis is not just asking this question of bishops and priests, or youth and young adults ministers. He’s asking this question of parishes, parents and families, and Catholics active in apostolates and ministries that are completely or seemingly different or removed from regular engagement with youth or young adults. He’s making this consultation as wide as possible in the hopes that everyone will start questioning what is it that we’re doing to ensure that young adults are able to find a home in the Church. Pope Francis also doesn’t just want active Catholics involved in the Synod process… he wants to make sure that agnostics, inactive Catholics, and those indifferent to faith or spirituality also have a voice. Because God does not ignore those who are disconnected from the community of the Church, we too must not ignore them in this Synod process. Otherwise, what we receive from the consultation would be incomplete.

In the Diocese of Joliet, one of the greatest things we were able to do [when I worked there] was to build a collaborative relationship between what we were doing with young adults and what we were doing with social justice, religious education, cultural diversity, vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and vocations to marriage and family life. The collaboration between our work and our ministries was and continues to be very strong in the Diocese of Joliet. So, in a way, the ground has already been set, the foundation already laid, in this diocese for what this Synod is really encouraging the whole Church to do: to think across those lines, to get out of our silos, and together, help young adults on this journey towards wherever God is leading them in society and in their faith.

The Synod will be the third major movement for Pope Francis. His first major movement was with Evangelii Gaudium in the response to the Synod on Evangelization. In that document, “The Joy of the Gospel,” he laid out his vision for forming and engaging others as missionary disciples. Then, with the Synods on the Family, he laid out the foundation for how do we express that joy, the joy of the Gospel, within marriage and family life, and within our relationships with one another.

And then in this third movement, he is continuing the theme of “The Joy of the Gospel”: how do youth and young adults live out the joy of the Gospel in their daily lives and in their future (and our future as a society and as a Church)? In a way, the first Synod looked back at our foundation as missionary disciples, the second Synod looked around at our family structures, and this third Synod will look ahead at young people, the “protagonists” of our society now and well into the future.

In the preparatory document, he equates a young person’s response to what God is calling them to with their response of how are they going to live out the joy of the Gospel. He is pointing young people to say, “Your future should be a future of joy. It should be the joy of marriage. The joy of the priesthood. The joy of consecrated life. Even in the single life, how are you living that out joyfully?”

He is orienting us to look at these pathways of life with an eye toward joy. And young people today struggle with that. Many of them look at the world somewhat cynically, negatively, and certainly many are unsure that they’ll ever find much joy. They delay or sometimes avoid marriage or priesthood because they feel that committing to that life for life will not be a joyful one. They worry that such commitments will be a burden. Pope Francis, then, is re-orienting young people to think of commitment as an opportunity to live joy every day for the rest of their lives.

He’s trying to challenge the young people from seeing their current or future lives as a burden, as frustrations upon frustrations. He’s calling them out of fear and pointing them toward a sense of hope and optimism that is fully realized in the sacramental life of marriage or priesthood or consecrated life, and in living out one’s baptismal call to holiness. That’s quite exciting, and it’s important because this continues his vision which he laid out in Evangelii Gaudium, continued in Laudato Si and Amoris Laetitia and will find the next chapter in whatever comes forth from this Synod process.

For clarification about the Synod, this process that precedes the Synod is an opportunity for everyone in the Church to help Pope Francis and the Synod fathers wrestle with this. What will ultimately result from this Synod is most likely an apostolic exhortation, similar to Amoris Laetitia and Evangelii Guadium. We expect this exhortation when the Synod on Young People is wrapped up, perhaps just beyond the next international World Youth Day.

Such an exhortation will be a great watershed moment in the Church: it will be the realization of the dream of Saint John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – to help young people become the “protagonists” of the Church in the 21st century. But to get to that anticipated exhortation, we have to have a robust conversation before and during the Synod with the bishops, pastoral leaders, and the consultors in Rome. To get to that point, around the world, this consultation process will help let the Synod fathers and Pope Francis know what are the most pressing things that are happening with youth and young adults today, and creative ideas that are already working to engage them and help them on their pathway towards whatever God is calling them to.

The questions laid out in the Synod questionnaire will help Pope Francis and the leaders of the Church better understand what is actually happening on the ground when it comes to young people. People should be very honest and forthright about what they see, what they don’t see, what they struggle with, and what they’re hopeful for in the Church’s ministry with young people. Any way that people can be involved in that process and can share their input will be very helpful. And any way that we can hear the voice of the voiceless – the marginalized, indifferent, inactive, or underrepresented youth and young adults out there in our local communities – would make the process even more successful.

I hope that dioceses like Joliet will use the Synod as an opportunity to reawaken the call to engage young people as never before. In a way, the timing of this couldn’t be more perfect. That the whole Church is going to be turning its eyes toward this challenge and toward this opportunity of engaging young adults is in line with what Bishop Conlon, and Archbishop Sartain before him, have been doing for years with young people. Perhaps the Joliet Diocese can provide a great example to the rest of the country, and to the rest of the world through this Synod process, of what works, what doesn’t, and what direction needs to be taken towards the evangelization and pastoral accompaniment of youth and young adults.  I look forward to what comes next, from the Joliet Diocese, and from every diocese, as we journey with the Holy Father, with young people, and with one another on this pathway towards the Synod.