International News

Official: Youth Called to be Leaders and Protagonists in the Church

Pope Francis waves to the crowd during a departure ceremony at Tocumen International Airport after attending World Youth Day in Panama City Jan. 27, 2019. (Photo: CNS)

By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent

NEW YORK — More than 100 Catholic theologians and young people will gather this week beginning on July 31 for the first U.S. summit focused on Pope Francis’s major letter on young people released last spring.

The event is taking place at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.

Paul Jarzembowski, who oversees Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops believes the gathering, known as the National Dialogue, will be an occasion to follow in Francis’s footsteps and “mobilize the Church towards greater unity and engagement of youth and young adults.”

Ahead of the gathering, he spoke with The Tablet about how the event builds on last year’s Encuentro and the Synod on Young People and how he believes the Church can move forward on these issues in the shadow of the clergy abuse scandals.

The Tablet: For starters, what’s the history of the National Dialogue and why should your average Catholic care about it?

The National Dialogue is a response to polarization, disengagement, and indifference present in society and in the Church and in particular among youth and young adults. It actually originated from the observations of everyday Catholics and ministry leaders who noticed these realities playing out in their local communities and churches. These voices and the concerns raised were heard by national leaders several years ago, who started this ball rolling.

Since then, this initiative, taken up by the key national organizations focused on youth and young adults and affirmed by the USCCB, was echoed internationally when Pope Francis called a synod to respond to similar experiences on a global scale. The Holy Spirit was truly at work as the National Dialogue organizers were able to connect their ideas with the Synod and the Fifth National Encuentro processes.

The National Dialogue then, unfolded over three phases, corresponding to the realities being addressed and inspired by Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium(in particular, #222-#237): 1) unity; 2) engagement; and 3) mobilization.  The project was launched at the USCCB Convocation of Catholic Leaders in July 2017 and has continued through leadership network gatherings, local conversations and listening, and laying out plans for implementation – based on what was heard. This initiative will continue through 2020, but the mobilization begun in this final phase will last well beyond that.

The final result is ultimately how to impact local Catholic communities: To foster collaboration, to more intentionally encounter, accompany, and listen to the realities of youth and young adults, and to invest in building community, ministry, and missionary discipleship among youth, collegians, and young adults of all cultural families. When that is being done in more and more parishes and local apostolates, then this initiative will have been a success.

How do you take dialogue between young people and theologians and turn it into action?

The Voice + Vision conference will be a dialogue moment between ministry leaders, theologians, and young people.  While there will be some presentations and conversations, the end goal of the event is to start crafting action plans. After this event, the theologians and academics will study this more, and explore ways to train leaders more effectively for ministry, while the pastoral ministers and young people will focus on implementation strategies and mobilizing all levels of Church leadership. There is a process, and the National Dialogue core team will help both groups through that journey.

In his final words in Christus Vivit, Pope Francis said, “And when you arrive where we have not yet reached, have the patience to wait for us.” (299). In other words, the process to turn ideas into realities takes time, effort, and collaboration – so this won’t happen overnight. However, working together with a common goal can yield bold steps.

Christus Vivit, and in many respects last October’s Synod, have been overshadowed by the clergy abuse scandals. How do you envision moving beyond that and actually advancing both the document and Pope Francis’s call for accompanying young people?

Now more than ever, the Church needs positive, safe, and healthy examples of encounter, accompaniment, and community with young people.  Now more than ever, it needs healing and accountability. The National Dialogue does not seek to move beyond the realities facing us today, but to mobilize the Church towards greater unity and engagement of youth and young adults.

We need to be attentive to both repairing the damage and building a healthy, safe, and innovative space where young people can encounter Christ and the community of the Church, can find healing and renewal, and can become disciples on mission to transform the world in light of the Gospel. That is what Evangelii Gaudium and Christus Vivit are calling for. To do this, we need collaboration and support across generational, cultural, and ministerial lines.

You were recently in Rome leading a delegation of young adults who were participating in a Synod follow-up event. What was the purpose of that gathering and what were your major takeaways?

Pope Francis wrote Christus Vivit as a summons to young people to step up and become missionary disciples. It was addressed first to them. The gathering in Rome this summer, then, was a chance to ask them: how do you understand Christus Vivit, and how should we together – young and young-at-heart alike – take the initial steps it calls for?  This was also a chance to come full circle with the synodal process.  It was modeling what synodality looks like on a global scale: the Synod had preparatory consultations leading up to it, and this was the follow-up consultations coming from it. The Synod last October was a mountaintop moment, but the implementation will need to take place in the valleys – in the local communities around the world.

One of the key takeaways was that the Church is global and intercultural, and I was amazed to hear stories and the lived realities in Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, and Latin America.  It reminded me that, in the United States, we have a bit of a microcosm of the world in our intercultural context, as we are – at heart – an immigrant nation. At the Forum and at any of these international gatherings related to Christus Vivit, including the ever-popular World Youth Day, there has been a peace between peoples, a love and compassion that is often lost in a divided society. Can we bring that spirit not only into our local Catholic communities, but also into our civil discourse and our everyday, lived experiences? Perhaps this is the wisdom in a Synod and a National Dialogue focusing on youth and young adults, who can help us see beyond our differences and see Christ reflected in one another.

Another takeaway was the leadership and protagonism that youth and especially young adults are being called to take up. Young people are not just the “next” generation who will take up the mantle one day in the future. Rather, they are, as Pope Francis says, “the now of God” and can step into those leadership roles in our churches right now. In fact, it is important to remember that “young people” includes adults. The individuals whom the Vatican brought together in Rome were between the ages of 18 and 30. These are young adults – in college, in the working world, in military service, those who are single and those getting married and those discerning religious life. In many of our churches in the United States, there is often very little taking place for young adults. This needs to change, and I hope this process leads to that.

Lastly, last year’s Encuentro will also be a part of these discussions. How so? 

The Fifth Encuentro process is part of the National Dialogue, and a part of the Voice + Vision gathering. Most of the speakers and facilitators, including the bishops present, were part of the synodal journey and the Encuentro experience. Cardinal Cupich and Bishop Caggiano were Synod Fathers present in Rome last fall, and Bishop Cepeda was and continues to be a key leader for the Encuentro process. The results of the V Encuentro will be assessed during the Voice + Vision event and factor into the National Dialogue implementation strategies.