As I sit down to write a few lines for our weekly newsletter two things have caught my attention. I have just heard that the government has announced a large infusion of cash to help children and teenagers catch up with learning after the disruption caused by Covid 19. I have also been re-reading Pope Frances’ Apostolic Exhortation, Christus Vivit. Encouraged by both of these inspirations I would like to share some reflections gleaned from working with young people over many years.
Pope Francis addressed young people with these words:
The church needs to listen to your voice, your sensitivities, your faith, even your doubts and your criticism. Make your voice heard, let it resonate in communities.’ (13 June 2017)
As a Salesian Sister I have had the wonderful opportunity to work with many young people in various parts of the country. It has been a great privilege and a chance to learn from them. I do feel, on reflection, that they are sometimes misunderstood in church situations, for possibly two reasons. Quite a large proportion do not attend church very often; they also have many questions about church teaching which they either do not voice, or find the right place to air their views safely. The former may be due to the fact that, given how fast paced, interactive and socially linked they are, church may appear a bit of a mystery which they do not understand or feel attracted to. Obviously this does not apply to all, but certainly, if we are honest, to an ever increasing number.
In relation to the second aspect, it is wonderful when they care enough and are inquisitive enough to ask questions. It is always a sign of hope. However, when you are on the receiving end of some of their queries it can be quite daunting to answer adequately. I have been faced with the following serious concerns:
- How can I improve my relationship with God without praying as much?
- What does it mean to actually listen to God?
- How do I know God loves me really?
- Did Jesus say we have to go to Mass every week? Why?
When I asked a group of teenagers: What’s good about young people? I got a long list of things and include a few examples here which I feel show how they think about themselves in relation to family, society, and the church:
- We stand up for our beliefs.
- We are less judgemental than adults.
- We support diversity and equality, respectfully.
- We are ready to help when we see it is needed.
- We pray to God and realise that not everyone sees God the same way as we might do.
- We want to learn about God from people who know him, not just be told about him.
They are aware that they are not the finished article. And, given the chance, they had a multitude of things they saw they needed help with. Here is a flavour of their responses:
- We want guidance and support to avoid making mistakes.
- We want to learn how to appreciate people around us.
- We need help to know God is there.
- We need help to talk about difficulties, not be told what they are.
- We want to know love is real and how to express our feelings.
- We need reassurance about the future of the world.
- We want to know how to engage with adults.
These young people are obviously a hugely diverse group, but the things they are grateful for show an appreciation of society, of family, and the opportunities they have today. Some of their remarks:
- We are grateful for opportunities to learn, not just subjects, but in all areas such as church, sport, art, drama, music.
- We appreciate that we do not know everything.
- We are very aware of the environment and the dangers we humans are creating by the way we treat the earth.
- We think we are generous.
- We are thankful to our parents, teachers and friends, even though we forget to say it most of the time!
- We welcome people from other countries.
- We know violence is not always the answer.
- We don’t judge others, rather we accept people for who they are.’
I return to Pope Francis, who makes no apology for trusting the young people of our world. He says to them:
‘The church needs your momentum, your intuition, your faith.’
He sees the need for the church to reach out to them where they are, because ‘Christ is alive, he wants you to be alive.’
We are blessed in our parish to have so many wonderful young people in our midst. Maybe the question we need to ask ourselves is,
‘Are we really harnessing their gifts to help move us forward, so that Christ may be better known and loved in our area?’
Sr Patricia Devine FMA