Introduction It is not an easy task to present a picture of pastoral work for vocations taking into account situations in different parts of the world, very different from each other, which would require knowledge and familiarity with very diverse contexts. However, last year we celebrated the synod for young people, a process that gathered information, reflected on the reality of youth and pastoral experiences throughout the world, and developed a reflection where everybody can find him or herself. Three texts in particular document this process: the preparatory document, the final document and the letter Christus vivit by Pope Francis.
In the last three years I have dedicated myself to youth vocations ministry in Italy, but also before that, in the 18 years I spent in mission in Kenya, I have been involved in ministries with young people: first in a context of urban suburbs in Nairobi, then at the Catholic University. I have always been part of a teamwork with which, in addition to carrying out activities with young people, I have sought out and reflected on both the reality of youth and youth ministry. I found a strong harmony and correspondence between the documents of the synod and our experience in the field. Drawing from both these sources, I propose a reflection divided into three parts: first, the presentation of some keys to understanding the reality of youth today; then the underlining of the current challenges of youth vocations ministry, and finally some guidelines for a renewed ministry of vocations.
The condition of the youth: a new world advancing The situation of young people in the world varies from country to country, taking on very different traits depending on the case. However, under the surface of these variations there are the same dynamics of globalization. This is a key to understanding the complexity of today’s youth world. Evangelii gaudium and Laudato denounce the mechanisms of exclusion of the dominant economic system that generate violence, impoverishment of the majority of the world’s population and environmental devastation. At the basis of all this, as Pope Francis points out, is an economy that kills, because it has lost its references to the values of humanity, social justice and the common good. A materialistic and consumerist culture, which in order to maintain itself generates a mechanism called the “globalization of indifference” and the “culture of waste”.
In practice, the experience of exclusion takes on the connotations of unemployment, of precariousness, of scarce access to opportunities and decision-making roles, of leadership. Exclusion can be seen in the strong social and economic inequalities, which tend to be wider and to privilege an increasingly restricted elite. Exclusion is also an effect of rampant corruption, which undermines trust in institutions and legitimises fatalism and disengagement. There are countries that are crushed by situations of war and severe poverty, or by the lack of recognition of fundamental freedoms, which push young people to migrate in search of a better future. It is from these mechanisms that we must start to understand the trends and dynamics of the youth world. Among the most significant consequences on the reality of young people emerges first of all the precariousness and insecurity, functional to the system as they push towards mobility and the reduction of production costs. The insecurity of working conditions and the social precariousness block every medium-long term project. The journey of young people is marked by the difficulty of planning the future. The study-work relationship is precarious, between professional success or
social recognition and economic stability. Hence the experience of vulnerability, that is, the combination of social malaise and economic difficulty that conditions the lives, feelings and decisions of young people. Some of the fragilities of young people interact negatively with the major objective difficulties they encounter in their lives.
All this has both a psychological and a cultural impact on young people. On the one hand, it undermines self-confidence, the possibility of “dreaming” and planning to make one’s dreams come true. In an increasingly “liquid” reality, it is difficult for young people to make definitive choices: they wonder how a definitive choice is possible in a world in which nothing seems to be stable. Moreover, rapid and radical changes, sometimes combined with a wide range of proposals, make it difficult to think about the possibility of irreversible choices. Many young people choose to live multi-belonging, a rational strategy in a context of sudden changes and great uncertainty (“do not put all the eggs in a single basket”), but then becomes a cultural feature, a way of feeling and moving in the world. Precariousness can also stimulate the desire to test one’s own qualities and ability to adapt; the need to change environment and opportunity to make useful comparisons, build relationships with various people; develop greater ductility.
Another issue is the growth of disenchantment with institutions, which young people feel increasingly distant, insignificant and based on a top-down or authoritarian power that suffers as a “lack of air”, of freedom. A disenchantment that grows with the experience of abuses of power, but also economic and sexual abuses. Instead, they appreciate values such as equality, the pluralism of differences that represents a given fact, with an original awareness of the existence of other ways of being in the world and a deliberate effort for their inclusion. To young people, diversity appears as a value and pluralism as an opportunity within an interconnected world: multiculturalism has the potential to foster an environment conducive to dialogue and tolerance.
Disenchantment with institutions can, however, be healthy if it opens up to paths of participation and assumption of responsibility without remaining prisoners of skepticism. Young people no longer bind themselves to institutions as such, but to people who, within them, communicate values through the testimony of their lives. Coherence and authenticity are fundamental factors of credibility at both the personal and institutional levels.
A very interesting picture of the world of youth emerges. It suggests that from young people, from their sensitivity, a new world can be born despite the prevalence of a culture inspired by individualism, consumerism, materialism and hedonism and in which appearances dominate. There is a cultural change underway that disrupts traditional cultures, rich in terms of solidarity, community ties and spirituality. And the acceleration of social and cultural processes increases the distance between generations (today there is not a real generational conflict as much as a mutual strangeness). But at the same time there are signs of a possible alternative: social commitment, participation and protagonism of young people, as well as the fundamental value of welcoming, friendship and mutual support.
Although in a different form from past generations, social commitment is a specific trait of today’s young people, who want to participate and play a leading role. Their sensitivity and commitment are a sign of a willingness to take responsibility and a desire to make use of gifts, skills and creativity available to them. They are committed to voluntary initiatives, active citizenship and social solidarity, to be accompanied and encouraged in order to bring out their talents, skills and creativity and to encourage the assumption of responsibility. Social commitment and direct
contact with the poor remain a fundamental opportunity to discover the faith and vocational discernment.
It is important to underline the generative themes in the world of youth, that is, those themes that arouse strong emotions, that shake consciences, that give motivation and energy to act and transform reality: we find social and environmental sustainability, indignation for discrimination and racism, social justice, a challenge that necessarily passes through the construction of just institutions, that place themselves at the service of human dignity in the integral sense. But also, the dimension of the body (therefore also those activities that bring it into play, such as theater, sports, dance), the affectivity and various channels that express it, such as music and other artistic expressions.
Compared to the past, the new generations tend to live these issues starting from everyday life, from small realities related to their own experience rather than big dreams of social transformation.
All these traits are reflected in the relationship of young people with faith. A part of the apathy and disinterest of young people in terms of faith is attributable to the difficulty of large religious institutions in tuning in with the questions of meaning and language of young people in the face of their experiences and insecurity that weighs on personal and collective life. The church does not actively listen to the situations experienced by young people, whose opinions are not taken seriously. They experience indifference and lack of listening, as well as the fact that the church often appears too severe and is often associated with excessive moralism. But dissatisfaction with a purely immanent view of the world, conveyed by consumerism and a materialistic view of reality, opens up the search for the meaning of one’s existence. Many young people claim to be in search of the meaning of life, to follow ideals, to seek a spirituality and their own personal faith, but only rarely turn to the church. Religion is no longer seen as the privileged way of access to the meaning of life. A new paradigm of religiosity emerges, little institutionalized and increasingly “liquid”, marked by a radical variety of individual paths. In their search, they require growing spaces of freedom, autonomy and expression. Indeed, in countries of more advanced secularisation, the new generations tend to distance themselves more and more from the church, finding it irrelevant or even uncomfortable with it.
As for young Catholics, they ask that the church be an institution that shines in exemplariness, competence, co-responsibility and cultural solidity. They want to see a church that shares their life situation in the light of the Gospel rather than preaching. And above all a prophetic presence: a presence of fraternity, really being for the poor, having the ecological question at heart, making visible choices of sobriety and transparency, being authentic and clear, bold in denouncing evil with radicality. They seek a community that is transparent, honest, attractive, communicative, accessible, joyful and interactive. A less institutional and more relational church, friendly and close, welcoming and merciful. They ask for proposals of prayer and sacramental moments capable of intercepting their daily life. They would like a liturgy that is alive and close to them, while often it does not allow them to experience any sense of community or family as the Body of Christ.
Four challenges of the Youth Ministry (YM) From today’s youth context some challenges emerge that must be faced for a renewed pastoral care of young vocations. Given the variety of situations, depending on the specific contexts, some
will be more urgent than others. However, these are general challenges recognized in the Synod for young people.
First of all, there is the question of insertion in the world of youth and contact with young people. The growing distance of young people from the church recalls the need to “go out” towards them. Certainly, there is a great difference between countries with a strong demographic decline and a high rate of ageing – often in a context of advanced secularisation – and countries where three quarters of the population is under 35 years of age. However, it should be noted that even where young people are the majority, paradoxically they are generally in a situation of marginality or periphery. Being part of their world implies learning their languages, the cultural horizon in which they move, inhabiting their spaces – often characterized by their own rules of interaction – with an open, respectful, non-judgmental attitude, but capable of appreciating their values. It is true that in ecclesial structures, such as parishes and movements, there are also young people; however, these are small groups, while the great majority of young people are not intercepted. Nor do the traditional forms of youth ministry seem capable of attracting and involving them. That is why Pope Francis suggests that there is a need, in youth ministry, for two broad lines of action: “research”, that is, the invitation to attract new young people to the encounter with the Lord, and “growth”, that is, the development of a path of maturation for those who have already lived that experience (Christus vivit 209). In other words, in addition to ordinary youth ministry, there is a need for “popular youth ministry”, which “has another style, other times, another rhythm, another methodology” (CV 240). Far from the proselytistic approach, this pastoral ministry must “be broader and more flexible than it stimulates, in the different places in which young people concretely move, those natural guides and those charisms which the Holy Spirit has already sown among them. (…) We must limit ourselves to accompanying and stimulating them, trusting a little more in the imagination of the Holy Spirit who acts as he wishes”. (CV 240). At the heart of this approach is the relationship, listening and unconditional acceptance, the awakening of the hope and deep desires of the young people, entering into dialogue and sharing the Gospel through their language and life.
As far as the dimension of “growth” is concerned, it is not a question of practicing indoctrination, but of deepening the fundamental experience of the encounter with God through the dead and risen Christ, of growing in fraternity and service.
Secondly, the church will be significant, an attractive interlocutor for young people to the extent that it is prophetic. This means living the Gospel radically, embodying an alternative way of life – fraternal and supportive, sober, sustainable, consistent – and making common cause with the least, the excluded. A church, therefore, that does not hold itself in positions of power and is capable of overcoming clericalism, with its patriarchal mentality and structures, the search for prestige, fulfillment, return of image. Clericalism has a devastating impact on relations with young people and on consecrated life. It is a sub-culture that separates from the life of the people, that imposes hierarchies and relations of domination, that prevents the growth of the laity and of the people by taming them.
It is the exact opposite of a ministerial church, based on fraternity and service, of which the consecrated life is called to witness. In a world where insecurity and precariousness are growing, we see a return to clericalism in the church, with its symbols of identity and power. A ministerial church, instead, is a church that goes forth, dedicated to service rather than power, inserted
among the people rather than separated with aristocratic attitudes, poor and in solidarity with the poor rather than comfortable in privileges.
The third challenge is that of accompanying young people. First of all, taking the initiative (“going out”), getting involved and welcoming them as they are, understanding the difficulties they face because of the reality of uncertainty, confusion and violence. It is not easy for young people to live the hope and prophecy of a fraternal world in a world where corruption and injustice reign. Pluralism and multi-culturalism – as much as young people are willing to embrace them – require skills and a path in the direction of inter-cultural confrontation and integration of differences. Therefore, prepared companions are needed, credible witnesses who can communicate humanity, and who can also facilitate a critical reading of reality and its complexity. The synod for young people pointed out that this aspect is very deficient in the church.
Moreover, the accompaniment must be integral, that is, it must include both the dimension of human and social maturity, and the spiritual dimension, which helps young people to live according to a perspective of faith. Thus, one of the qualifying aspects of accompaniment is that of reading the signs of the times and places. It is a matter of helping young people to establish a dialogue with God, in prayer, starting from reality and from a critical reading of life through the Gospel, in order to respond in a personal way to the Lord’s call. Pastoral workers are called to be present, to support and accompany the journey towards authentic choices, a progressive assumption of responsibility in society, in the professional, social and political spheres. But the accompaniment goes beyond the personal aspect and includes a community and group dimension.
Finally, the fourth challenge of vocational youth ministry is that of vocational discernment. As the synod for young people noted, an important weakness of the YM is its narrow perspective, which tends to limit discernment to the priesthood and the consecrated life. The call to life invites young people to a response that can take very different forms and therefore an adequate service to young people requires a paradigm shift, from vocational promotion as “recruitment” to an approach aimed at facilitating awareness of one’s deepest and most authentic identity, to be cultivated according to the invitations of the Spirit. Another aspect of this passage lies in seeing the vocation (or identity before God) not as a fixed destiny, a script already written to be carried out, but rather as an open path, which does not propose a predefined form or path, but must be built step by step in listening to and obeying the Spirit. Discernment is therefore a continuous, fundamental process, in which there is not a map that from the beginning defines the paths, but a compass, the invitations of the Spirit to follow Jesus, responding with faith, creativity and availability, overcoming the planning mentality that, if exasperated, leads to narcissism and self- closure.
On the whole, these challenges require a pastoral style that takes advantage of the four principles – set out in Evangelii gaudium (222-237) – that specifically guide the development of social coexistence and the construction of a people in which differences harmonize within a common project, in tune with the deepest expectations of the world of youth. = Time is greater than space: in the YM it is more important to begin processes than to obtain results in the short term, all the more so in a time of great transformation in which there is a need to find new ways, current and significant languages, to enter into dialogue with a youth culture that has evident signs of discontinuity with the past.
= Unity prevails over conflict: when processes are initiated, different people are involved, even those with different visions and orientations, and therefore it is normal for conflicts to arise, they are part of the process itself. The richness of the processes lies in transcending differences, rather than annulling them or letting oneself be trapped in the conflict, in order to explore together new possible worlds in which everyone can recognize himself, without having to renounce his own uniqueness and perspective.
= Reality is more important than the idea: we do not live in an age of change, but in an age of change. The mental patterns to which we are accustomed, the assumptions that we take for granted, the perspectives to which we are accustomed, most likely no longer hold in the face of the changes that are advancing. The patterns of the past end up forcing interpretations that do not include the new reality of youth. It is important, instead, to look at reality, to start from reality, to observe and listen, to allow oneself to be questioned rather than to take up ideological positions.
= The whole is superior to the part: if on the one hand the insertion in the context, the work in the local reality are the starting point, it is essential to maintain a broader perspective (“act locally thinking globally”). If we do not grasp the complexity, the nature of contradictions and social fragmentation, it will be difficult to help young people to find the answers they are looking for and to become protagonists in the construction of a more fraternal, sustainable and common good- oriented world.
Features of a renewed YM An open service of youth ministry, beyond the traditional perspective of vocational recruitment, is born from a vision of a YM at the service of the vocational search of young people, helping them to find their way in life, whatever it may be, making them know, however, also the area of religious consecration. Youth ministry is originally vocational inasmuch as it is by its nature oriented towards discerning God’s plan for one’s own life and history. In particular, the PGV will have to:
= It should aim at the integral growth of the person and educates to the personal encounter with Jesus, in the Word and in the excluded, which opens up to the mission;
= to propose a path of spirituality and critical reading of reality, to arrive at a discernment of a commitment in the world;
= to be an expression of fraternity, mission (according to the charism of those who bear witness to it) and collaborative ministry – YM begins with the witness of life and faith;
The aim will be the integral growth of the person and to educate to the personal encounter with Jesus, in the Word and in the excluded; an encounter that makes the youth passionate about Jesus, to the last and to the mission, with a path of strong missionary spirituality and critical reading of reality, to arrive at a vocational discernment for the mission and for a commitment in the world.
Crossing what we have learned from our experience in the field with the most recent studies and research on youth and youth ministry, the reflection has come to identify five fundamental characteristics for a ministry that is relevant and prophetic for young people today.
1. Testimony and consistency of life The pastoral proposals are significant for young people when they emanate from a sober lifestyle, close to the excluded. Coherence is important, that is to say, witnessing to the presence of the Kingdom of God in history in the acceptance, in the practical adherence to the values of fraternity, justice, social responsibility and sustainability. This also requires a commitment to critical information and consequent choices on the part of the community.
Moreover, young people also expect an authentic witness from pastoral agents: to live their mission fully, radically, according to their own charism. In other words, it is necessary to start again from one’s own mission, focusing it on the signs of the times and places, engaging in contexts that intercept young people. These young people have great expectations of seeing new ways of daring in both community life and ministerial service: attempting new paths, going out to situations of periphery, changing the structures whose injustice, unsustainability and emptiness they perceive.
2. Protagonism of young people The protagonism of young people and the new life that comes out of it are the creative element that today the YM has a great need for. In concrete terms, it means freeing the initiative, creativity and autonomy of young people in the activities and paths along which they are accompanied, leaving room for their sensitivity, perspective and themes. Whatever initiative we undertake with young people, we focus on the dimension of personal and group involvement: participation in groups and paths; activities of youth communities; personal testimonies and meetings; common moments of reflection and prayer. To the need to belong and be accepted, the group responds with relationships and interpersonal relationships; to the need to build its own identity, the group offers experiences that promote responsibility, initiative, creativity and working together.
We see young people not only as the recipients of the proposals, but also as the protagonists. From young people come the new, the challenges and the creative responses to the demands of life and reality. It is about helping young people to discover God’s dream about them, to embrace a renewed relationship with Jesus and their neighbor, and to discover the strength and life of the Spirit in them that urges them to live their vocation to the full. It means making choices in life, finding authentic personal fulfilment in following one’s own election with freedom at the service of life and the common good.
To do this we allow ourselves to be questioned by young people, not to assume that it is they who have to adapt to our culture, our perception of priorities and ways of carrying out activities and programs. We are called to make a “common cause” with young people, an attitude that opens up to the new, to the new opportunities and paths that inspire and move the young people of today: new models of meaningful aggregation, youth spaces of encounter and solidarity open to the values of the mission and to the service of the last. The young people ask to rethink together proposals and group directions, calibrated on new times, methods and paths that cross their questions and challenge their lives, supported by significant adults.
There is a need to seek out and approach new forms of youth aggregation and expression, to understand their dynamics and potential, to grasp and let ourselves be involved in the “hour of God” that is manifested there. The activities and programs of YM are always attentive to the presence and action of the Spirit in history. This is possible through constant dialogue and
discernment with young people, the local church and civil society. The relevance and significance of the educational proposals in a time that requires great dynamism and creativity depends on it.
3. Collaborative Ministry YM, like any other ministry, is the expression of a community commitment; it is the result of collaboration and teamwork. First of all, in the ecclesial sphere and with the young people themselves, invited to be part of YM teams; but then also at the level of civil society, carrying out together themes and thematic tracks of mission.
As a community, we create the conditions for an attractive YM for young people by creating an environment of fraternal relations and an incarnate spirituality, attentive to history, to life and to the presence of the Spirit in it.
We do not operate as communities isolated from the context, but we collaborate and network with the territory, with the local church in specific areas (schools, youth groups, etc..), open to exchange and interaction with other communities.
The Word is the central element in the ministry with young people, with which they can better understand their experience, to orient it and make it mature, to find a clearer and more precise language to express and communicate it and to try to make it interact with the perspectives of the Christian faith.
Particular attention should also be paid to the liturgy, with its symbolic charge and the significance of gestures and rites, a space for personal encounter with the Lord and fraternity, the foundation of warm, shared, meaningful and light relationships.
The proposals of YM are addressed to “all the young”, offering paths that are at the same time of human growth, community, faith and social/civic commitment, to discover and develop their gifts and ability to love.
4. Welcoming spaces Young people feel the need for a warm climate of welcome and esteem, where they can meet with joy and experience fraternity; where they can call each other by name, where they take care of each other, where they listen without judging, where new people are approached. They need to rediscover the sense of community and the encounter with the other, as places where one meets Jesus personally.
They are welcoming spaces where there is appreciation of people, even in their fragility and vulnerability; protected spaces where one can take the risk of opening up, manifesting oneself for what one is, expressing one’s inner self knowing that one is always respected, listened to and understood. They are spaces that bring out the questions that young people bring in and that push them to high goals within their reach.
On this horizon young people find help to open themselves to the dream of God for them and to grow in the human and Christian journey. A particular “free space”, in which young people can reflect, pray, experience themselves in a community dimension without pressure, are the communities where we can offer a proposal “Come – See – Live”, in which young people in
vocational discernment can live with a community, in a flexible way, without pressure, with the freedom to participate or not in different community and ministerial moments.
5. Social communication and young people There is an urgent need for a new language that is understandable to young people and prophetic. It is not only a question of semantics, but also of corresponding to the experiential dimension and live of young people. The challenge is to grasp the experience and expressions of youth and to put them in dialogue with the experience of faith and ministry, for an inculturation of the charism.
Given the growing distance of young people from the church, it is important to find ways to give visibility to their mission and lifestyle with this new language, visual and verbal, to enter into a transparent and empathetic communication with the world of the youth. In this regard, particular attention also goes to the channels of communication frequented by young people, such as social media. It goes without saying that young people themselves need to be involved in communication processes, especially in this area.