How do you make parish communities inviting to young people? In his address to Pope Francis and the bishops at Synod 2018, Jonathan Lewis asks them how many young people they know by name.
“We can’t love whom we don’t know,” he shares.
As the Church gathers to discuss our generation in this Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, the conversation unfolds through short speeches (called “interventions”), each limited to four minutes. Pope Francis has invited participants of the Synod, like Lewis, to offer “interventions” to expand on themes and offer perspectives and raise questions that will be reflected in a final document that will guide the Church as she grows in this area.
Lewis is one of five Americans whom Pope Francis invited to participate in the Synod, in addition to the dozen priests and bishops from the United States who will serve as official, voting members. He holds a masters degree in theology and spent five years in parish ministry before taking on his current role as Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington.
The full text of the address Lewis offered to Pope Francis and the Synod is included here:
Dear Holy Father, Synod Fathers, and fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I would like to begin with a question: how many young people do you know by name?
When I was in University there was a priest who knew everyone by name. My freshman year he learned my name and invited me to begin spiritual direction. We would meet in the evenings and spend an hour walking together. Like a modern day Road to Emmaus, Christ was made known to me in those late-night conversations.
This priest was one of many religious and lay mentors who knew me by name and empowered me to be a missionary disciple. Each one of us had spiritual mentors when we were young. Yet most young Catholics today do not.
Young people are leaving the Church for different reasons but the absence of spiritual friendships and mentors in our families, schools, and parishes lies at the heart of this crisis of faith.
Some young people, like my friend Sarah, leave the Church because they no longer trust the Church. This summer, the United States has again been scandalized by the sexual abuse of Church leaders. Young people are asking for mentors, not who scandalize the Church with sin, but who scandalize the world with holiness.
Some, like my friend Matthew, leave the Church because they have serious questions that have never been answered. Young people are asking for mentors who listen to their questions and provide serious answers that offer a coherent Christian worldview.
Others, like my friend Adam, leave the Church because they find the Church irrelevant. The Church does not speak about their interests and experience. Young people are asking for mentors to befriend them and inculturate the faith into their lives.
Spiritual friends and mentors are urgently needed today since young people trust personal relationships more than institutions. “Modern man [still] listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if it does listen to teachers it is because they are witnesses” (Pope Saint Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41).
Young people are not asking for a new event or ‘program’ but a relationship with “a Person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 1).
This is why our first task is to offer to young people an encounter with Jesus Christ through the witness of each baptized Christian. We must re-propose the pedagogy of Christ, calling young people by name, sharing the kerygma, and accompanying them on a journey of lifelong missionary discipleship in a spiritual family.
Our Church history shows this pedagogy in action. In every generation Christ raises up saints who make more saints. Paul helped Timothy, Ignatius helped Francis Xavier, and Louis and Zelie helped Therese. Still today, the missionary formation of young people must be built on a long-term apprenticeship in Christian living that no textbook or technology can replace.
Spiritual mentorship was the method of Jesus, the method of the saints, and should be our method today.
Investing in spiritual mentorship will renew our Church because in mentoring relationships, both mentor and apprentice grow together and learn from the gifts of the other.
I urge this Synod to propose practical ways for local churches to implement the call of Pope Francis to “initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this ‘art of accompaniment’” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 169).
Churches often ask parishioners about how they are being good stewards of their ‘time, talent, and treasure’. Local churches, too, must start with this examination of conscience:
-How many hours do clergy and laity spend each week mentoring young people?
-Do our Sacramental preparation programs provide long-term spiritual mentorship?
-Do we invest financially in the formation of lay mentors?
-How many young people do I know by name?
Saint Oscar Romero said: “you say you love the poor, name them”. I ask you today: “you say you love young people, name them”.
Jonathan Lewis: I’m going to ask the question to all the Synod fathers, like how many young do you know by name? Some parishes, they can only name ten people in their twenties and thirties by name. We can’t love whom we don’t know. I think the first task for us is, let’s get to know who they are and know them by name.
The Jesus method of evangelization was simply inviting — “Hey Peter, come follow me” — and engaging in a conversation and dialogue. So, I really want to encourage — not that we have (a) Synod in Rome, or that a document comes out which maybe some people will read — but more importantly, that each of our churches, each of our schools, all Church gatherings sort of become places where that friendship just happens.