Rome, 24-26 May 2017
“Youth, faith and vocational discernment”
First contribution of the USG to the Synod of Bishops
The spring Assembly of the Union of Superiors General, held at the Salesianum in Rome from 24 to 26 May 2017, discussed the preparatory document of the Ordinary Assembly of the Bishops’ Synod, which will take place in Rome in October 2018, on the theme “Youth, faith, and vocational discernment”. It focused especially on the attached questionnaire.
The USG Assembly feels that the theme chosen is of capital importance. It is in continuity with the pastoral vision of “Evangelii gaudium”. After the Synod on the family, and now with the upcoming Synod on the youth, the Church intends to promote these two subjects, the family and the youth that is, as agents of pastoral renewal for the Church and of social change for the world. The Church is to dedicate special care to the youth, as well as to the common house (“Laudato sii”) and to the family (“Amoris laetitia”).
Reflecting on the questionnaire attached to the preparatory document, the Assembly selected four questions that consecrated life can help to address, and added two of its own relating to vocations promotion. It provided an answer to six questions: three answers refer to the context, while other three to vocational pastoral ministry. In the answers, several aspects that apply to the consecrated life also apply to the Church.
In what manner does the Church listen to the lived situations of young people?
Listening to the youth is the starting point, not just to understand their reality, but also to show them we are close to them, to keep contacts with them, to express our affection. Genuine listening raises challenging questions for the Church and the consecrated life. Do we really pay attention to the youth? Do we understand their needs and expectations? Can we comprehend their need to have significant experiences rather than make life-long commitments? Are we open to their languages? Are we capable of bridging the distances that separate us from their world?
There is a fundamental question for us and especially for the Synod: what young people are we called to listen to? Only those who are interested in the Church and pay attention to the consecrated life? Only the more generous and sensitive ones? Only those who are on a faith journey and seek accompaniment? Only those who are searching for their Christian identity?
According to Pope Francis’ intentions, the Synod is to turn its attention to all young people and reflect on how the Church can listen to and be near to all young people, especially the poorest, migrants, outcasts, the vulnerable, those who are rejected. All must be approached, but then different options should be offered to individuals and groups, according to the logic of an actual pedagogical action, capable of respecting the journey of each individual without however failing to promote the Christian life. In order to listen to and understand young people, can the Church, at different levels, avail itself of a Youth Observatory?
In the consecrated life, there have not always been institutionalized spaces for listening to the youth, and this is a challenge especially for Institutes that do not have an educational charism. Listening cannot be left exclusively to the initiative of the individual religious. Religious communities are crucial in reaching out to young people. The community is the privileged and immediate place where young people can feel at home, experience fraternity in simple and genuine relationships, share spiritual experiences and engage in apostolic work for the poorest. An open and flexible religious community can adapt to the needs of young people. The community can make room for youth groups, introduce them to the Institute’s youth movements, offer missionary experiences and the possibility to do volunteer work; it will pay attention to each individual’s integral human development.
In places where the community has complex works, which employ the consecrated people especially in organization and management, it is important that these tasks be entrusted to lay co-workers, so that the consecrated persons can devote their time to listening to the youth, being with them and cultivating relationships. Simple works make it easier to have direct and simple contacts. When the works are at the service of the poorest they become attractive and create bridges also with young non-believers.
Contact and proximity with young people is a task for all religious Institutes and not just for the ones that have an educational charism. They can offer companionship and service to the youth. Companionship is more important than the service that is delivered to them; at any rate, the service that is carried out for them should always be conducted with them and with their contribution. Having confidence in young people, giving them the opportunity to participate, plan and implement together apostolic actions makes everyone grow: it makes young people grow and consecrated people grow.
In order to listen to the youth, consecrated people must be sensitive to the culture and languages of young people, in the digital world and in the social media, but also in the areas in which young people express themselves: sports, music, theater, tourism, leisure time, … If the Church and consecrated people show interest for the youth, they too will shoe interest for the Church and the consecrated life. Consecrated people must therefore create spaces for listening and participation of young people. In a religious community young consecrated persons represent the natural connection with the youth. So we must encourage them to approach young people, be with them, and go where they are; through them, young people should be invited to participate in community moments.
What do young people really ask of the Church today?
In some contexts, young people appear to be quite indifferent towards the Church and the consecrated life. In other contexts they display curiosity and a thirst for strong experiences. Young people ask the Church and the consecrated life to be significant, to offer a life witness that is concrete, transparent and consistent, to propose authentic spiritual experiences, to live a sober life. Young people ask the religious to be happy, simple and humble persons, who do not flaunt strength, money and power, and who are willing to devote time to them. Young people ask the religious to be present among them; they ask them to step out of their “comfort zones”.
The needs of young people vary significantly, so it is crucial that each be heard individually. Young people want to be listened to and accepted. Many need a community, a sense of belonging, fraternal and authentic relations, often to overcome the feeling of loneliness and isolation. Others search for experiences of spiritual life, recollection and silence. Others still seek spaces where they can engage and participate in forms of service and volunteer work, especially in poor countries or peace and environmental movements. Most pursue culture, education, a profession, a job, social and political education.
The Church is an open house, where everyone can meet. In many multicultural and multireligious contexts, young people ask for experiences of encounter and fraternity; migrations and human mobility create these diversified and pluralistic contexts, which we have to respond to by educating people to respect and accept difference, by promoting integration and the exchange of the gifts of one’s culture while accepting the gifts of the other cultures; ultimately, the Church and consecrated life become a house in which one can experience interculturality.
Young people are searching for meaning and direction for their future. They look for authentic and significant reference persons. They struggle to understand their vocation and the meaning of their life. Group accompaniment is important, but today it is necessary to be able to personally accompany every young person towards human and spiritual maturity. Many young people have no hope for the future and need to be encouraged and accompanied.
What possibilities for participation exist for young people to take part in the life of the ecclesial community?
Young people call the Church and religious life to authenticity and consistency, the values of poverty and fraternal life in community. They bring consecrated life concretely and humbly into contact with reality, the needs of the territory, of the poorest. Young people bring enthusiasm and stir up a sound unrest in the consecrated life, leading it outside of its “comfort zone”; they raise questions, inspire creativity, demand that habits and repetitiveness be overcome, help to break up the rigid patterns of the past and of the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude.
Young people are a sign of hope, for they help the Church and consecrated people to engage in the present, with optimism for the future, without nostalgia for the past. If in the community there are young people who participate in fraternal life, prayer, apostolic action, the consecrated people feel more motivated and more committed. They bring cheerfulness and joy, especially to the older consecrated persons, they make the young consecrated people less isolated, bring new thrust to mature consecrated persons; they bring back exuberance, creativity, vitality and enthusiasm to everyone.
The consecrated life, in its own turn, offers young people spaces for prayer, fraternal relations, strong experiences in volunteering projects, missionary, spiritual and formative experiences. It helps young people to make a personal journey. It can offer them opportunities for temporary commitment, participation in charismatic youth moments, possible vocational prospects as lay persons committed or connected to the institute.
- YOUTH PASTORAL MINISTRY
How can the consecrated life foster a “vocational culture” that can overcome the “culture of narcissism and self-fulfilment”?
In the Western world, and progressively in the globalized world, an individualistic and narcissistic view of life is spreading among young people, based on personal success and self-fulfilment, the pursuit of one’s personal interests. According to this logic, the future depends on the choice of a profession, financial stability, romantic and emotional gratification, within given horizons that actually reduce the desire for freedom and the individual’s possibilities to limited projects.
Consecrated life intends to contribute towards building a vocational culture, that is a vision in which every young person sees that life is vocation, a calling to a task to be discovered, openness to transcendence and to the other, gift of self and gratuitousness, service, especially to the needy, recognition of gender difference and reciprocity. Such a culture is an anthropological concept that is addressed to all young people, believers and non-believers, Christians or belonging to other religions. This is a fundamental task for every young person: to know him/herself and his/her potential, in order to discover what he/she is called to in life.
The individualistic and self-referential culture is present also in the consecrated life; there are young religious who enter into religious life to fulfil personal projects. Consecrated life is about embarking on a journey that is based on self-giving and gratuitousness, fraternal life, the sharing of expectations and apostolic projects, deep communication, authentic interpersonal relationships, to offer young people a consistent witness. Consecrated life is also exposed to the risk of spiritual worldliness: careerism, power, influence … Young people are looking for models that may inspire and attract them. Through its witness, the consecrated life can offer a counter-cultural model in this sense.
In today’s complex and pluralistic reality, it is not easy for young people to discover their vocation. The great contribution that consecrated life can give to the search for the meaning of life is personal accompaniment. This service is to be offered to all young people, not just Christians, and should be aimed towards integral growth as well as vocational discernment for one’s future. In order to accompany young people in their quest, to offer them the guidance they need in their life choices, to help them make sense of their experiences, consecrated life is called to listen to young people, learning to know their culture and language. The service to the poor, volunteering, and missionary work are also excellent instruments that consecrated life can offer to young people to overcome the culture of narcissism and help them to go out of themselves.
Presenting life as a gift to be received and to be grateful for, promoting an authentic vocational culture, not only among young people but also among adults, especially parents, teachers and educators, remains a priority task. The educational emergency is a problem of adults who are not generative, that is they are not capable of transmitting the values and sense of life to young people, because oftentimes they themselves do not live them. The consecrated life is called to educate individuals who are capable of living life as a vocation, that is as an answer to the different calls that come from circumstances, history, needs, signs of the times, God.
What courageous steps forward can the Church and consecrated life take in order to be ever more at the service of the new generations?
“Iuvenescit Ecclesia”: the Church rejuvenates by dint of the Spirit and the Gospel. The ongoing reform of the consecrated life helps the Church to rejuvenate itself, thus making room for young people, who will feel at a home in the Church. It is renewed through prophecy and radicalness. Rethinking consecrated life in these terms is strategic, so that it may be a credible and prophetic witness. Consecrated life is prophetic also in terms of being formed in view of being present among the youth.
The consecrated life needs rethinking in order to be able to welcome young people joyfully, openly, without rigidities, thereby resuming the paternal style that has been one of its distinctive features ever since its monastic origins. It should guarantee its paternal guidance especially to young people who are orphaned, because they have no father. That is why young people should be given space and time for discernment and accompaniment, and be encouraged to engage in spiritual reflection.
The journey of the consecrated life after the Council is centered on its prophetic, courageous, radical and attractive witness. Consecrated life must not be afraid to go to the peripheries, asking young people to become involved and to help it. If young people find space in the consecrated life, it is renewed; if the consecrated life is renewed, young people will feel at ease and at home in it. The same goes for the Church.
What kind of formation programs and figures of formators can the consecrated life offer to accompany young people who want to do vocational discernment?
Vocational programs for young Christians should involve three fundamental and gradual stages. They are three mandatory stages: first of all, creating a vocational culture that is open to life as a vocation and to all vocations; kindling apostolic vocations for the Church; proposing and helping to discern consecrated vocations.
The joyful witness of the community and prayer for vocations, involving young people themselves and their families, are always the starting point for any vocational pastoral ministry. The care of the spiritual life of young people based on the Eucharist, entrustment to Mary, prayer inspired by the Holy Scripture, together with spiritual accompaniment with a guide, are the sound foundations of any Christian vocation. Furthermore, openness to service and gratuitousness generate the sense of gift of self to God for others. Engagement in the apostolic mission helps to mature the passion of the Gospel to convey to all. Only where apostolic vocations have matured can consecrated vocations arise.
The consecrated life offers to young people communities where they can “come and see”, that is they are invited to come and stay with the community, taking part in every aspect of its life; this helps to get to know the consecrated life and do a discernment starting from the concrete knowledge of a charism. Vocational camps and meetings involving candidates and novices or young religious facilitate choices and discernment. Young people today are afraid of making mistakes when it comes to choosing the vocation. In situations of conflict or unemployment, young people have no hope for the future and find it hard to make free choices for their life.
The task of forming religious to spiritual accompaniment – not just during initial formation – remains crucial, that they may learn to guide young people in vocational choices. Young people must also be helped to recognize and heal their wounds; have experiences in order to learn to pray and be silent. Parents, educators and teachers must also be involved in the vocational journey of young people. It is important that the institute assign some young religious who have received specific formation to care for vocations.