21 giugno 2019
P. Alexandre Awi Mello, I.Sch.: Youth ministry that is synodal, people-oriented and missionary
Rev. Alexandre Awi
First of all, although many probably already know me, I would like to introduce myself. I am Brazilian, from Rio de Janeiro, a priest for almost 18 years, a member of the Secular Institute of Schoenstatt Fathers. For 16 years, that is, all the years of my priestly life prior to my arrival in Rome, I worked in youth ministry, first at the service of a parish and a diocese, and then as an advisor to the Youth of the Schoenstatt Apostolic Movement, to which I have belonged since 1991.
That is why my reflection now is not based on theory but on my experience of working with young people. However, I am absolutely aware that “every point of view is the view from one point”, that is to say, my experience will not be shared by everyone, and I will not claim to be categorically in the right since the realities for young people can be so different. It is precisely for this reason that in Latin America the choice was made to speak of “juventudes” [youth in the plural] and not only of “juventud” [youth in the singular] (cf. Synod 2018 Final Document 10).
The aim of my talk is to encourage each one of you to become involved in the implementation of the conclusions of the Synod on Youth, Faith and Vocation Discernment and of the suggestions given by Pope Francis in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit (ChV). That is why the theme that accompanies this last day of the Forum is “Youth in action in a synodal Church: our contribution”.
It is time to focus on the specific and go into action! What part can you play? Next Monday, what are you going to say to those at home, to the young people of your bishops’ conference or of your ecclesial movement? You will probably say that the Forum was interesting, you met people from many other countries, you will show photos, perhaps you will remember to repeat some of the Pope’s words in tomorrow’s audience... But, concretely, what do you plan to do, what are you going to propose to them regarding youth ministry in your country or your movement?
I now want to emphasise the dimension of youth ministry because that is a specific dimension of our dicastery and it is the reason why you ‒ and not other young people ‒ were invited to this Forum. Christus Vivit and the final document of the last Synod (DF) present the innumerable challenges facing the Church ‒ for example, in the area of family, parish, school education, seminaries, houses of religious training, etc. ‒, but we would now like to look at them from the perspective of youth ministry, which is where you and we work.
Without losing sight of the overall thrust of the Synod, it is now a question of examining ourselves by looking at some numbers of the DF, such as, for example, numbers 16, 138 to 146, and very especially chapter 7 of ChV (202 to 247). Pope Francis himself decided to dedicate one of the nine chapters of the exhortation to “Youth Ministry”.
In general, Pope Francis speaks of two main courses of action in youth ministry: “One is outreach, the way we attract new young people to an experience of the Lord. The other is growth, the way we help those who have already had that experience to mature in it” (ChV 209).
On the subject of outreach, the Pope is confident in the creativity of young people to attract other young people. They can sow the seeds of a first proclamation of the Gospel in the hearts of other young people. The Pope gives concrete examples (ChV 210) that include festivals, sports competitions, evangelising on social networks with messages, songs and videos, "impact retreats", conversations in a bar or in the university, etc. What is important is to approach young people “with
the grammar of love, not by being preached at”, and with the grammar of closeness and consistency (cf. ChV 211).
As for growth, Pope Francis urges us not to restrict ourselves to doctrinal and moral development1 because in this way “many young people get bored, they lose the fire of their encounter with Christ and the joy of following him” (ChV 212). What is important is “to awaken and consolidate the great experiences that sustain the Christian life”, to cultivate great love for God and neighbour, the encounter with God through kerygma and meeting others through service, building community and being close to the poor (cf. ChV 213-215).
The title of this reflection seeks to illustrate three dimensions of youth ministry on which the Pope places emphasis, namely, that it must be synodal, people-oriented and missionary. Let us look at each of them and try to give examples of how these ideas can be put into practice. In other words, the intention is to help you to respond creatively to the questions: “what is my contribution”, “what suggestion can I make that can actually be put into practice in my country or in my movement”, “how can we continue the synodal journey in our Church communities”. Our aim is that our youth ministry should become more and more synodal, people-oriented and missionary.
First of all, let us consider one general approach that is a kind of basic requirement in youth ministry ‒ accompaniment. If young people are not provided with accompaniment, be it by adults or by other young people, whatever we do runs the risk of becoming a beautiful construction that does not withstand the onslaughts of everyday life. This is because doubts, insecurities and difficulties multiply every day and need to be accompanied. Fr. Rossano Sala already spoke of this earlier, and the Pope refers to it when he speaks of youth ministry in Chapter 7 of ChV. So, let us begin there.
2. A key pastoral approach: accompaniment
During the synodal process, the importance of accompanying young people was one of the most evident concerns, always linked to the theme of listening and discernment. It calls for empathetic listening which does not abandon the young person who is searching, but rather guides and supports that person who is in the process of discerning God’s will. This accompaniment is an expression of the Church as a welcoming home, a manifestation of the universal motherhood of the Church (cf. DF 138).
Accompaniment is “being together”, and it is inconditional and respects the freedom of the young person. One’s family is clearly the primary place for accompaniment, but unfortunately, due to various factors, it does not always succeed in fulfilling its mission well. Youth ministry complements the family by presenting “the ideal of life in Christ” (ChV 242), a vocation-oriented pastoral ministry (cf. DF 139-140). Hence the importance of working in a coordinated and integrated way with family ministry and vocation ministry (cf. DF 141), or in a broader sense, the importance of the whole Christian community in this accompaniment (cf. ChV 243). However, there is a shortage of qualified people (even among parents, seminarians and religious) with the desire and time to dedicate
themselves to this kind of accompaniment. Little is invested in training them and there is still a lack of institutional recognition for this indispensable ecclesial service (cf. ChV 244; DF 9).
The young people themselves at the pre-synodal meeting asked for accompaniment and training, especially for the young people with leadership potential (cf. ChV 245). They described in detail the characteristics that they hope to find in a mentor ‒ authenticity, goodness, commitment to the Church and to the world, one who searches for holiness, does not judge others, knows how to listen, recognises one's own limits and sins, and so on. (cf. ChV 246).
These characteristics can be found not only in adults, but also in young people who accompany other young people. It is an experience that I am familiar with and that is a reality in many places. Adults can help a lot, but it is also very effective for young people who are more experienced in the journey of faith to be able to accompany other young people, whether in individual or group settings.
All this work of accompaniment should aim at making youth ministry more synodal, people-oriented and missionary, as the Pope describes it in ChV. Let us look at each of these dimensions.
3. Synodal youth ministry
Let us start with a key passage: “Youth ministry has to be synodal; it should involve a ‘journeying together’ […] ‘we can move towards a participatory and co-responsible Church, one capable of appreciating its own rich variety, gratefully accepting the contributions of the lay faithful, including young people and women, consecrated persons, as well as groups, associations and movements. No one should be excluded or exclude themselves’”. (ChV 206; DF 123).
The Pope believes that the Church attracts young people precisely because its unity “is not monolithic” but “a network of varied gifts” given by the Spirit. It is “multifaceted” (ChV 207; cf. EG 236) and interprets “the proliferation and growth of associations and movements associated with the young” as “the work of the Holy Spirit who constantly shows us new paths” (ChV 202). The Pope invites us to experience this in a synodal way and at two levels ‒ with the whole community (called “overall pastoral care”) and with the other youth movements and associations in “better coordination of their activities” (ChV 202). This does not mean that everything should always be done together, but it should be in a more coordinated way and in a spirit of communion.
To this I would add another expression of synodality (of “walking together”). It is the fruitful relationship between large events and everyday youth ministry (cf. DF 142). Massive events (such as WYD, huge festivals or pilgrimages) are very important for the joyful sharing of the faith among young people from different backgrounds and they help them grow in their understanding of Church. At the Synod they said that “the best fruits of these experiences are gathered in daily life. It is therefore important to plan and to experience these gatherings as significant stages of a broader virtuous process” (DF 142), which is to accompany the ecclesial life of young people and youth groups in parishes and movements.
In that sense, I would like to point out some “best practices” 2 that may be useful when proposing the application of the Synod to our bishops’ conferences and movements. In other words, how can we cultivate synodal youth ministry?
a) Each parish and/or diocese should coordinate the youth groups that are active in the territory. The coordination should not be a “superstructure” that “governs” the groups, but rather it should coordinate them in specific activities and represent youth ministry on the parish or diocesan pastoral council. This is a best practice followed in many places and one of the most concrete spaces for the synodal participation of our young people.
b) An example of how this can also be done at the bishops’ conference level is the national coordination of youth ministry of the CNBB (National Conference of the Bishops of Brazil), which includes representatives of all the apostolic entities that work with youth.
c) It is also a synodal exercise to work together with the other pastoral groups in the parish or diocese ‒ family ministry, vocational ministry, catechesis, etc. Number 141 of the Final Document speaks of working more for “projects” than for “offices”, and of going from “fragmentation” to “integration”.
d) Synodality ‒ “walking together” ‒ is most evident in the “structures of accompaniment” that exist in many dioceses. We must convince our bishops and those responsible for youth ministry about the importance of investing efforts, people and money on training young people and adults for “the ministry of listening” and for spiritual accompaniment, the making of a “life plan”, the training of mentors for youth ministry, etc.
e) Another area for the synodal leadership of young people can be the youth councils that exist in the public sphere (municipal, provincial and state), in which our young people can represent the interests of Christian youth as they work together with official authorities when they are devising public policies for youth (and also in other spheres).
f) Another expression of synodality, one that was suggested to bishops’ conferences in DF 140, is to have a clear “Directory of Youth Ministry” with a vocational perspective. This would help pastoral agents with their educational activities and engagement with and for young people. I know that CELAM, for example, has a directory that is very helpful to youth ministry in Latin American countries.
g) I cannot fail to mention the request of the Synod that the work of our dicastery be reinforced, especially by setting up a body of youth representation at the international level (cf. DF 123), about which we will speak this afternoon.
4. Popular (grassroots) youth ministry
It is striking that the Pope devoted nine paragraphs to this subject which, as such, does not appear in any of the preparatory documents for the Synod or in the Synod itself. I sincerely believe that it is one of the most creative reflections of Christus Vivit and that it came from the Pope’s heart and from his long experience of pastoral work in popular environments. It is almost necessary to “become Argentinian” or to have the experience of “pastoral incursion” in a Latin American village or favela in order to better understand what the Pope means. I did my novitiate in one of those
villages in the south of the Province of Buenos Aires and so, with your permission, I would like to be so bold as to give an explanation of this point which goes unnoticed by most readers.
The Pope clearly says that “in addition to the ordinary, well-planned pastoral ministry that parishes and movements carry out, it is also important to allow room for a ‘popular’ youth ministry, with a different style, schedule, pace and method” (ChV 230). It is, therefore, something that our traditional movements and groups are not accustomed to doing. It refers to the “real young people”, “natural leaders” present in the different kinds of milieu that we frequent, especially in the working class neighbourhoods [“barrios populares”] ‒ and from this we get “popular ministry”.
According to the Pope, these are young believers in whom the Spirit has sown gifts, but who are not in our parish groups and movements and do not fit easily into our frameworks. Pope Francis invites us to integrate them through ministry that is “broader and more flexible” and that “fosters their natural leadership qualities and charisms” (ChV 230).
Since they are not “our people” and do not normally live as “a Christian should live”, our tendency is to put “obstacles, rules, controls and obligatory structures” on these young people. The Pope invites us to simply “accompany and encourage them, trusting a little more in the genius of the Holy Spirit, who acts as he wills” (ChV 230).
The advantage of integrating these "truly 'popular' leaders, not elitist or closed off in small groups of select individuals” is that they spontaneously identify with the mindset of the people and help us to be a people, thus generating authentic “popular ministry”. The Pope quotes a very important document in the history of the Church in Argentina, the Document of San Miguel (1969), which called for “popular ministry” that can “listen to the sentiments of the people and become their advocates and work for their empowerment” (X,1). He explains the concept of “people” as “all those persons who journey, not as individuals, but as a closely-bound community of all and for all, one that refuses to leave the poor and vulnerable behind”. He quotes a great Argentinean theologian, one of the founders of the Theology of the People, Rafael Tello.3 Pope Francis believes in the power of grassroots leaders to “make everyone, including the poor, the vulnerable, the frail and the wounded, part of the forward march of youth. They do not shun or fear those young people who have experienced hurt or borne the weight of the cross” (ChV 231).
This ‘popular’ youth ministry is also capable of integrating “young people who do not come from Christian families or institutions, and are slowly growing to maturity”, and can “encourage all the good that we can” (cf. ChV 232; EG 44-45). Bear in mind, for example, that in Buenos Aires Cardinal Bergoglio established a special seminary for the young people who came from the villages, in order to respect their distinct process to vocational maturity.
In this context, Pope Francis gives a serious warning against “the attempt to develop a pure and perfect youth ministry, marked by abstract ideas, protected from the world and free of every flaw” because we can turn the Gospel away from “youth cultures” and restrict it to “elite Christian youth that sees themselves as different, while living in an empty and unproductive isolation. In rejecting the weeds, we also uproot or choke any number of shoots trying to spring up in spite of their limitations” (ChV 232).
Therefore, ‘popular’ youth ministry is not limited to a set of narrow moralistic rules. It relies on the courage of young people and trains them “to take up their responsibilities, in the sure knowledge
that error, failure and crisis are experiences that can strengthen their humanity” (ChV 233; DF 70). It is inclusive youth ministry that opens its doors to all types of young people. It does not insist that everyone should “accept fully all the teachings of the Church to take part in certain of our activities for young people” (ChV 234). ‘Popular’ youth ministry “can open doors and make room for everyone, with their doubts and frustrations, their problems and their efforts to find themselves, their past errors, their experiences of sin and all their difficulties” (ChV 234), even those “who have other visions of life, who belong to other religions or who distance themselves from religion altogether” (ChV 235), because “all the young, without exception, are in God’s heart and thus in the Church’s heart” (ChV 235). In this sense, the Pope’s observations are applicable in any part of the world and not only in Argentina or in countries identified as having a disadvantaged populace.
Here the Pope is comparing ‘popular’ and ‘elitist’ youth ministry. ‘Popular’ youth ministry is “gradual, respectful, patient, hopeful, tireless and compassionate”, as Jesus was with the disciples of Emmaus (cf. ChV 236-237). This can be done in every one of our countries. However, it is important to make it clear that respecting a person where they are at that moment does not mean that you should leave them in that same situation. We must announce the kerygma and invite them to an encounter with Christ. We must give witness to the joy of being Christian and make way for the action of the Spirit, who transforms “chaos into cosmos”. A friend has always reminded me that “God loves me exactly as I am and loves me too much to leave me as I am”.
When speaking of popular grassroots pastoral ministry, Pope Francis emphasises the great evangelising power of popular piety, as he had already expressed in EG 122-126. In keeping with the Aparecida Document (n. 258-265) which he had helped to write, Pope Francis considers popular piety to be an authentic form of spirituality, a type of grassroots mysticism. The then Cardinal Bergoglio learned a lot from this kind of piety, especially from young people during the annual pilgrimages to Luján.4 This explains what we read in ChV 238: “Various manifestations of popular piety, especially pilgrimages, attract young people who do not readily feel at home in ecclesial structures, and represent a concrete sign of their trust in God. These ways of seeking God are seen particularly in young people who are poor, but also those in other sectors of society. They should not be looked down on, but encouraged and promoted. Popular piety ‘is a legitimate way of living the faith’ [EG 124] and ‘an expression of the spontaneous missionary activity of the People of God’ [EG 122]”.
In Christus Vivit the Pope praises the missionary example of a young person who invites another to go on pilgrimage to ask Our Lady for help and who “by that single gesture is being a good missionary”. That is why he reminds us that “Inseparable from ‘popular’ youth ministry is an irrepressible ‘popular’ missionary activity that breaks through our customary models and ways of thinking. Let us accompany and encourage it, but not presume to overly regulate it” (ChV 239).
The passage just quoted brings us to the last part of the presentation which is about missionary pastoral ministry. However, here again, before moving forward, I would like to point out some “best practices” that can be useful when proposing “popular youth ministry” to our bishops’ conferences and movements. In other words, what can we do to cultivate youth ministry that is ‘popular’ and inclusive?
a) Encourage and facilitate encounters and activities with young people who live in the most deprived areas and are not necessarily in contact with the conventional structures of the
Church. They may not study in Catholic schools, nor necessarily live according to Catholic morality, but they have faith (a seed sometimes culturally received) and they exercise leadership in their local community.
b) Work with young people in cultivating the most varied expressions of popular piety, in particular processions and pilgrimages to shrines. During the ad limina visit of the bishops of Belarus to our dicastery they told us of how youth pilgrimages continue to be a strong expression of the popular faith of young people in their country. As I said before, another good example is the annual pilgrimage of one million young people from the diocese of Buenos Aires to the Shrine of Our Lady of Luján, patroness of Argentina.
c) Organise cultural, sporting, political or interreligious activities which attract young people from disadvantaged environments (or young people normally excluded from Church circles) and encourage them to have closer contact with the Church. This is done by, for example, so many Don Bosco oratories scattered throughout the world. In this type of activity, Catholic doctrine or morals are not given the spotlight, but emphasis is on companionship, the joy of sharing, and the search for the common good based on what unites us and not on what differentiates us.
5. Missionary youth ministry
One last dimension of youth ministry that I would like to highlight is its missionary nature. “If we can hear what the Spirit is saying to us, we have to realize that youth ministry is always missionary”, says the Pope in ChV 240. In consonance with what he has always been saying, Pope Francis insists on a Church that is outward-looking where young people are ready and wearing their walking shoes (and are not “couch potatoes”, as he said at WYD in Krakow). It is a Church that goes out to meet people who are estranged and most in need of our attention as “Mother Church”. A “revolution of tenderness” is possible because the Church “goes out to meet” and does not remain on the balcony looking down at life rather than becoming involved (as the Pope said at WYD in Rio).
Youth ministry must “always be missionary”, and it cannot wait for young people to be highly prepared in order to go out on mission. They learn out on the field notwithstanding their shortcomings and flaws. “Even those who are most frail, limited and troubled can be missionaries in their own way, for goodness can always be shared, even if it exists alongside many limitations” (ChV 239).
The major beneficiaries of missionary outreach are the young missionaries themselves. As we usually say when we carry out popular missions, "we come to evangelise and end up being evangelised” by the people. The benefits are manifold because the young people overcome shyness, make contact with the reality of life for other people, appreciate their own family and group more highly, see life in a more complete way, are strengthened in their faith and sense of belonging to the Church and may even have serious thoughts about a vocation (cf. ChV 240).
The Pope specifically mentions two types of experience. These are visits to homes (we can think of homes for the elderly, children's homes, or family homes) and youth missions. He also encourages young people to be creative in inventing new types of mission, as for example in social networks. He gives the example of Carlos Acutis (ChV 104-106), and says “… since they are already so familiar with social networks, they should be encouraged to fill them with God, fraternity and commitment (ChV 241).
As in the previous point, here too I would like to suggest some “best practices” that may be useful when proposing “missionary youth ministry” to our bishops’ conferences and ecclesial movements.
In other words, how can we manage to make our youth ministry really missionary and outward looking?
a) Youth missions – mentioned in ChV 240 and DF 160 – are a very concrete form of exercising youth leadership that attracts thousands of young people every year. These missions have very different formats, but all of them are tremendously successful. I can mention some experiences such as, for example, the Mission in the Amazon, organized by the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference, or those that the youth of various movements carry out, like Regnum Christi, Schoenstatt, Salesians, Charismatic Renewal on the beach (“Jesus on the seashore”) and many others. I would like to highlight one of these that uses a format that conquered Chile and Portugal. It is the “Country Mission” which is a type of mission for university students that mobilises more than 3,000 young people every year. It is worth finding out about this experience and considering the possibility of doing something similar in your country.
b) The most diverse types of social action can be ways of channeling the missionary spirit of youth. The Pope often speaks of visits to homes for the elderly. Here, in addition to helping out, much is learned through very enriching “intergenerational exchange”. Young people need more than conferences. They need experiences of love of God and neighbour that will not be erased from their lives. This is living faith that is concrete and “pé no chão” [feet on the ground].
c) Another powerful youth missionary experience can be had through music festivals because young people in general love music. There are festivals of many types, but probably one of the biggest is the Hallelujah Festival, organised by the Shalom Catholic Community, which attracts up to one million young people every time. Another example is Nightfever.
d) Social networks are a tremendous field for youth missionary work. The Final Document (DF 145-146) says “Young Christians, who like their contemporaries are digital natives, find here an authentic mission, in which many are already engaged”. The Synod suggested that the local Churches establish offices for digital culture and evangelisation that would make good use of the contribution of young people.
e) At the conclusion of the final document of the pre-synodal meeting (n. 14), the young people themselves pointed out some areas where they could play a central role in the mission of the Church. “Some fruitful initiatives are events such as World Youth Day; courses and programs that provide answers and formation, especially for those new to the faith; outreach ministries; youth catechisms; weekend retreats and spiritual exercises; Charismatic events, choirs and worship groups; pilgrimages; Christian sports leagues; parish or diocesan youth groups; Bible study groups; university Christian groups; different faith apps, and the immense variety of movements and associations within the Church”. They also point out some instruments that can be used (n. 15) like multimedia, gap year experiences, the arts and beauty, Eucharistic adoration, testimony and the synodal process itself.
f) I will just mention a few fields of youth mission in the public fora of today known as the “modern areopagi” (a reference to the experience of St. Paul in the areopagus of Athens). We are referring to the world of culture, sport, politics, economy, education, etc. I will just say a quick word about universities. Good university pastoral ministry is unfortunately not easy to find, but where it does exist, they have masses, missions, discussion forums on current topics, counselling services, confessions and spiritual accompaniment, etc.
To conclude: your mision after the Forum
After hearing all of these examples and incentives to go into action, do not think that now your mission when you arrive home is to oblige people there to do any of these things. Certainly there
are already many other activities there. My intention was simply to show how youth ministry can be dynamic, and that it begins by actually accompanying and incorporating the synodal, ‘popular’ grassroots and missionary dimensions, as the Pope asks of us.
However, your mission is to help the leaders of the bishops’ conference or the movement to which you belong to ask themselves the question about the type of youth ministry that is being built. Your mission is to help them be challenged by the final document of the Synod and the Christus Vivit exhortation, so that the Synod does not simply remain “on paper” and in the “good intentions” of the Synod fathers and young people. Do not wait for your bishops to take the initiative. Go and speak with them and with your episcopal conference and priests and, above all, with your contemporaries, the young leaders, who are – like you – the “now of God” (ChV 64).