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Cover story - Essay

Church leaders must bless, empower the new generation

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

After working with thousands of young Catholics in the United States and Europe the last few years, the single most important lesson I have learned is not about young Catholics, but about their elders. It has become clear to me that Vatican II provided a definitive and empowering blessing--a de facto laying on of hands -- for an entire generation of lay and ordained Catholics.

Almost to a person, those over 50 today stake much of their Catholic identity on their relationship to the council and its reception in the past three decades -- whether pro, con or both. Vatican II uncorked a wellspring of generativity for a church that might otherwise have atrophied if the spirit and gifts of a generation had not been endorsed and challenged. With the aging of the Baby Boomers, we are again confronted with the need for a widespread endorsement of generativity in the church. It is time for church leaders to lay hands on a new generation of Catholics.

We can look to the council as inspiration for the “sending forth” of an entire generation to live a genuinely new day for the church, but we cannot hope to repeat or simply rehearse the council’s dynamism today, 35 years later. But in the absence of a Vatican III in the near future, how will we ritualize the transition of our church from the Vatican II to the post-Vatican II era? How will we mark this transition as an institution? By intention or by default?

Now is the time for Catholics in the United States and around the world to realize that the first fruits of the Jubilee may indeed be the Spirit’s gift of attending to the generativity of the church in the 21st century, the Spirit’s presence in intergenerational mentoring of the Catholic vision, the Spirit’s solace in intergenerational conversation and even reconciliation. Let Catholic leaders be bold to harvest these first fruits of the Jubilee, truly fostering (in the words of the U.S. bishops) “a passion for renewal in the ministry of adult faith formation.” Let us make 2001-02 a decisive time of regeneration, as we challenge ourselves and younger generations with the authentic invitation: “Young Catholics, claim your church!”

“Claim Your Church” would have three broad goals: (1) blessing and empowering young Catholics to take rightful, active responsibility for their faith and their church; (2) intergenerational dialogue and reconciliation among pre-Vatican II, Vatican II, and post-Vatican II Catholics; (3) embracing the fundamentals of a global Catholic Christian identity. All of these goals would serve the overarching purpose of the generativity of the church.

As this invitation is proclaimed to young Catholics around the globe, I imagine “Young Catholics, Claim Your Church!” taking many forms in the United States:

• The Catholic Common Ground Initiative would sponsor a major outreach toward and integration of young adults into the church, including inculturation of Vatican II teachings into the languages and forms of life of post-Vatican II generations.

• The National Conference of Catholic Bishops would facilitate a series of institutes in several major urban areas, consisting of workshops, speakers, and liturgies for thousands of young Catholics in their 20s and 30s across the United States. All young Catholics, practicing and nonpracticing, will be enthusiastically invited. Special invitation will be made to those young Catholics whose vocation is lay ministry or theology. Special sessions will be held to support and further educate those lay young adults called to church leadership positions, particularly in pastoral ministry. And groups of young theologians will be encouraged to meet together here, building solidarity with each other, enriching their theology from the concrete experiences of their peers, and beginning what we hope will be a career-long dialogue with church leaders. Bishops will be present to attend to the words and hearts of young adults in extended listening sessions, and to teach in their turn as well. With bishops present to listen and to instruct, this may be a genuinely new opportunity to offer what John Paul II (in Catechesi Tradendae), referencing Paul VI, has called not a monologue but a “‘dialogue of salvation’ in which each person feels respected in his or her most basic dignity, the dignity of one who is seeking God.” Or, in the words of the U.S. Bishops’ “Sons and Daughters of the Light,” “a dialogue that welcomes challenges from the young adult to the church and from the church to the young adult, so that each may grow in discipleship.”

During these institutes, American Catholic leaders would be present throughout, expressing solidarity, challenge and exhortation to young adults, and frank, respectful conversations would predominate. At the concluding Mass, a team of bishops, priests, religious and lay representatives of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the local diocese or the archdiocese would formally welcome a new generation to servant leadership in the American church. Not only are hands extended in blessing of the post-Vatican II generations, but opportunities to enroll for continued formation in leadership, Catholic identity and Catholic teachings are available. This could be the first major opportunity for catechists and religious educators to reach out to young adults since this cohort was in grade school.

• Shortly thereafter, parishes, campus ministries and military chaplaincies around the United States hold daylong “Claim Your Church” gatherings, inviting 20- and 30-somethings to pray, worship, work, find spiritual cohesion with each other and, in dialogue with local and national Catholic leaders, to teach the church and learn from it. The invitation to “Claim Your Church” will be made authentic by opportunities to join small faith communities, to enroll in new adult education offerings organized by catechists and religious educators, to sign up for spiritual direction from a list of directors provided by the local church, to declare one’s interest in contributing to various ministries, to explicitly renew one’s commitment to tithe a portion of time, talent and treasure, and perhaps even to help renew a young adult ministry at one’s local church.

• Aware that such reformation of the church’s attitudes toward young adult Catholics must be ongoing, churches, Catholic organizations and religious orders would assist in sponsoring days of renewal, recommitment, and continued conversion on the anniversaries of particular churches’ “Claim Your Church” celebration.

• Inspired by the renewed trust and spirit of goodwill between the generations, and sensing the spiritually persuasive power of an authentic blessing given to a new generation of stewards of Catholic Christianity, bishops’ conferences and local churches in other countries around the world would do the same. Thus, the first fruits of the Jubilee are realized worldwide.

• “Young Catholics, Claim Your Church!” would find its official endorsement by the entire Catholic church with the pope at World Youth Day 2002. Here, the words of John Paul II (in his 1994 Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente) will be recalled: “The future of the world and the church belongs to the younger generation. … Christ expects great things from young people.” Because of this, young adults “in every situation, in every region of the world, do not cease to put questions to Christ: They meet him and they keep searching for him in order to question him further.”

As the pope invites young Catholics to claim their church, to appropriate their faith more fully, to risk taking on all the riches and all the difficulties of the Catholic Christian tradition, more young adults than ever before are made aware that they may become Catholic Christians in a way fully faithful to the gospel and fully contemporary. Thousands consider Vatican II’s call to “full, conscious and active participation” for the first time. In this gathering, we may even be graced to hear an echo of the words with which John Paul II bequeathed a new generation to the church, in his “Homily on the Mount of the Beatitudes” (Origins, April 6). “Now, at the dawn of the third millenium,” he entreated, “it is your turn.”

“It is your turn,” he continued, “to go out into the world to preach the message of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes.

“O, Lord Jesus,” he prayed, “you have made these young people your friends: Keep them forever close to you!”

The first fruits of the Jubilee: To bless and be blessed, to empower and be emboldened, to invite and lay claim. To lay on hands. This is a dream for intergenerational reconciliation, a plea for the sense of the young faithful to be heard again, a prayer for the generativity of Roman Catholic Christianity.

Tom Beaudoin is a doctoral candidate at Boston College and the author of Virtual Faith. He gratefully acknowledges Fr. Patrick Brennan and Jeremy Langford for the conversational genesis of this article.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2000