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What young Catholics want – the answers may surprise you

Megan Cornwell - The Tablet - Mon, Jan 29th 2018

Contrary to popular belief, many young Catholics are in fact desperate for an opportunity to deepen their faith

Responses from young Catholics in East Africa and America to the survey published ahead of the Church’s Youth Synod give a fascinating insight into the concerns and hopes of a young generation of Christians.

One issue that has been raised in both contexts is the desire for Bible study groups in parishes, something young adults on the two radically different continents say they are currently lacking.

For young people living in East Africa, Bible study is seen as a vital tool for equipping them for apologetics debates with fellow Pentecostal Christians, and for those in North America, the research found young people hungered for faith-sharing opportunities connected to their daily life.

The details of the survey responses can be found here

This means that contrary to popular belief that youth are uninterested in matters of spirituality, many are in fact desperate for an opportunity for fellowship with other members of the body of Christ and to deepen their understanding of their faith.

It’s worth noting that many of those who responded to the survey were committed Catholics, so by nature have a certain level of interest in religion that you wouldn’t find in the general population. But one could argue that, with the rise in popularity of meditation, mindfulness and yoga, a connection with a higher power is in fact something the majority of young people are searching for, they’re simply looking outside of the Church for answers.

With few Catholic parishes running regular Bible study groups for young people at a local level, could we be missing a trick? Our Evangelical friends in the UK seem to be ahead of the game on this one, with most charismatic and Pentecostal churches organising weekly ‘small groups’ that meet in people’s homes to discuss Sunday sermons and to pray for one another. Small groups, home groups, connect groups, cell groups – they have many names – are a way for members of a particular church to connect outside of the Sunday service and to strengthen one another in faith, after all “Iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27). These groups ensure that new members to their congregation aren’t ‘lost’ in a big church, but instead are welcomed into the community and supported.

The benefits of adopting this approach in the Catholic Church are obvious: young people would be free to develop their faith by asking questions about scripture in a friendly environment. They would be encouraged to build lasting relationships with fellow Christians who could provide spiritual guidance and support during life’s more challenging seasons. It might even produce much-needed opportunities to meet a future like-minded spouse.

But if dioceses are to embed in the DNA of their parishes this new way of organising communities, it first requires a seismic cultural shift towards the empowerment of the laity. The clergy would need to invest in training leaders within their parishes who could host a small Bible study and then act as their point of contact should difficult issues or questions arise that they feel unable to respond to.

It seems to me that if Catholics are to accept Pope Francis’ challenge to be a ‘Listening Church’ first and a ‘Teaching Church’ second, encouraging the establishment of small Bible study groups for young people would be a good start. Just as the Alpha course in the Anglican tradition has been so successful in creating a safe space for non-Christians and agnostics to ask questions about faith, Bible study groups would nurture an environment in which committed Catholics could explore the topics that are pertinent to them.

The survey revealed that one of the main concerns for young adults includes, perhaps unsurprisingly, issues related to relationships, sex and dating. If the Church doesn’t provide spaces in which these discussions can take place, where guidance and wisdom from Catholic couples can be heard, young people will simply look elsewhere for answers, often to their detriment.

An extensive survey of the attitudes of young Catholics gives the Church a unique opportunity to hear from a demographic so often silenced within religious circles. I can’t help but think that a failure to address some of their fundamental concerns will accelerate the ageing process of the Church, leaving pews even more silver-haired than they already are.

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