Catholic young adults share ideas for Church of the future

| Susan Klemond | July 26, 2017 | 0 Comments

From left, Mark Elfstrom, Steven Eichler and Michael Johnson, all of St. Peter in North St. Paul, talk with Megan Meyer, Caroline Hutcheson, Brittany Majeski and Sarah Trenkamp, all of whom graduated in May from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, at a Theology on Tap event at O’Gara’s Bar and Grill in St. Paul July 19. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Pope Francis recently asked young adults like Ellie Jensen to share with him what’s on their minds, so the 27-year-old is telling him that she thinks the Church should recast — though not change — its vision of marriage for young people. Many young adults don’t understand it or are afraid of it, she said, because of divorce, cohabitation and a culture that generally devalues marriage.

“I think there’s a lot of fear that young people face regardless of which vocation they may be discerning or considering, but — particularly when we look at marriage — there aren’t a lot of great examples,” said Jensen, who attends Holy Family in St. Louis Park. She shared her ideas with about 100 other Catholic young adults July 19 at Theology on Tap at O’Gara’s Bar and Grill in St. Paul, which hosted a listening session ahead of next year’s Synod of Bishops on youth and young adults.

“There’s a lot of brokenness within family life,” Jensen later told The Catholic Spirit. “One thing that would be helpful from the Church is really encouraging married couples to engage with young people.”

Other young adults who spoke at the event echoed Jensen’s concerns, saying they’d like to see new ways of making Church teaching more relevant and understandable, especially to the majority of their peers who neither practice the faith nor understand why the Church doesn’t change to fit the times.

The public forum-style listening session broke format with typical Theology on Tap events, which are organized by Cathedral Young Adults and normally feature a speaker followed by a Q&A. Because Theology on Tap events are aimed at the demographic from which Pope Francis is seeking feedback, Jean Stolpestad, director of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ Office for Marriage, Family and Life, turned the tables, asking the attendees to speak to her. Other themes that emerged that evening included young adults’ desire for authenticity, their wish that the Church would do more to make young people feel part of its community, and a yearning for Catholic orthodoxy that is not prudish.

The listening session was one of several Stolpestad has been holding around the archdiocese to gather feedback from youth and young adults ages 16-29 in advance of the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment, which will be held at the Vatican in October 2018.

The purpose of the Synod, which follows the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family, is to look at ways the Church can lead young people, and help them recognize and accept the call to fullness of life and love, according to a Synod preparatory document. It also asks youth and young adults to help the Church identify the most effective ways to announce the Gospel in the modern world. On Palm Sunday, Pope Francis said he wanted young people to share their needs with their bishops and himself, ahead of the Synod and World Youth Day 2019 in Panama.

Theology on Tap attendees answered questions taken from a survey developed by Synod organizers for youth and young adults. The survey is also available online to individuals or groups. It takes about 15 minutes to complete and includes questions such as, “What are the main challenges and most significant opportunities for young adults in the USA today?” and “How do young adults take part in the life of the Church community? What are the possibilities you see?” It ends with, “If you could tell Pope Francis one thing, what would it be?”

After Aug. 15, responses will be sent to the Vatican through the office of U.S. Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre.

Recasting Church teaching on marriage for younger generations takes on more importance given a 2015 Pew Research Center poll revealing that 67 percent of Catholics ages 18-29 say cohabitation is “acceptable and as good as any other way of life,” despite Church teaching on premarital sex. The poll showed similar support for changing Church teaching on controversial issues including contraception, women’s ordination and Church recognition of same-sex marriages.

Pew research has also revealed a rise in “nones,” men and women who claim no religion, and who were the focus of much discussion at the National Catholic Convocation in Orlando last month.

A 2016 interview-based survey by the Georgetown-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate focused on people ages 15-25 who had been raised Catholic but had left the Church. Of the sample, most had made the decision to leave by age 13. One in five said they no longer believed in God or religion, many citing a perceived incompatibility between faith and reason, according to an OSV Newsweekly analysis.

Still, an informal poll taken from December 2016 shows that some young Catholics are earnestly practicing the faith and accepting Church teaching and tradition. Buzzfeed.com, a website popular with millennials, asked Catholic readers to respond to questions mostly related to Mass attendance, preferences and habits. Of the roughly 65,000 respondents, 24 percent said they attend Mass weekly. About the same number said they listen intently during the liturgy.

Rather than change its teaching, the Church should “double down and stick to her convictions,” said Douglas Hildebrandt, 28, at Theology on Tap. Meanwhile, the Church should become invigorated and work harder at “mainstreaming” her message of truth, he added.

“You’re not changing the message, but rather you’re improving the manner in which you’re delivering it to people,” he said, adding that many of his Protestant friends ask him why the Church doesn’t change with the culture. While some change is inevitable, he said he thinks the Church is facing more pressure now, and he wonders if the Church will be able to successfully maintain its teaching authority over the next 10 to 20 years.

The Church doesn’t need new teaching, but it should reveal its beauty by giving the world more beautiful art, said Sara Heselton, 24, a parishioner at Divine Mercy in Faribault, who explained that aesthetics matter more to younger generations who are used to higher quality digital media, film and artwork.

Catholics and others would benefit from meaningful and vibrant music, art and architecture that convey the richness of tradition and cultivates a true sense of objective beauty, she said.

“For myself and for my friends, we want to be ‘all in’ and want to live entirely for Christ,” she said. “We’re all for the challenge of discovering what that means in society today, and we need help in that.”

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