If my math is correct, I believe November 2017 marked the seventh National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) that I attended during my years in vocation ministry. I truly enjoy spending three days with over 20,000 energetic teens who are excited about being at a church event and growing in their faith. What an exhilarating experience each and every time.
“Young people, the faith and vocational discernment” is the theme of the upcoming 15th general assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2018. As I read through the preparatory document several times, two ideas jumped out at me: invite and energize.
Regarding invitation, we first need to invite young people (defined in the document as ages 16-29) into full participation in the life of the church. Paragraph 23 of the preparatory document states, “Young people … wish to be an active part in the process of change taking place at this present time.” It goes on to say in paragraph 24 that young people “show a willingness and readiness to participate and commit themselves to concrete activities …” How can we best invite young people to be active in the church? Are they part of our parish councils, liturgy or finance committees, or any other groups? Do we go out of our way to make sure we extend an invitation to them to get involved?
A second aspect of invitation is to invite young people to make God part of their discernment in life choices. We often ask young kids, “What do you want to be when you’re older?” Maybe a better question is, “What does God want you to be?” This simple twist allows young people to prayerfully consider life choices and how they can best use their God-given gifts and talents.
After invitation, the idea of energizing young people jumped out at me. We now must energize, motivate and empower them to action—to go beyond what they thought they could do and inspire them to Christian missionary discipleship. In paragraph 26 of the synod’s preparatory document, we read, “… the role of parents and families is crucial yet sometimes problematic. The older generations often tend to underestimate young people’s potential.” In paragraph 27 it continues, young people “need opportunities for free interaction with (their peers), to be able to express their feelings and emotions, to learn in an informal manner and to experiment with roles and abilities without stress and anxiety.”
Finally, paragraph 32 quotes Pope Francis, “Take a risk. Whoever does not risk does not walk. ‘But what if I make a mistake?’ Blessed be the Lord! You will make more mistakes if you remain still.”
We must recognize “the signs of the time” and realize that what worked in the past may be obsolete for the present. We must be creative in allowing today’s youth to experience the Holy Spirit in their lives. To energize them means to empower them to take risks and discover new ways of relating with peers and everyone else in the world.
NCYC is one program that helps in this two-step process of inviting and energizing our young people. Three days set aside every other year for teens to gather, spend time with peers, grow in faith, learn from mentors, and discern God’s plan for them. Other programs exist for other age groups, like Theology on Tap. Watch for opportunities throughout the archdiocese, around the country and across the globe (World Youth Day is in Panama in 2019!).
Author: Len Uhal is the national vocation director for the Divine Word Missionaries and a member of the Dubuque Area Vocation Association (DAVA).