Bringing the energy from World Youth Day home
Millions of young Catholics are engaged and energized by World Youth Day. So why can’t they get excited about their own local church?
I traveled 5,375 miles to clap. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Clapping is more than just a routine motion—it needs purpose. We clap when we’re excited or proud. We clap to show appreciation or to join a communal rhythm. Purpose is what I found myself needing as I boarded a plane to Brazil for World Youth Day last summer. I needed the Catholic Church to give me reasons to clap.
It’s no secret that being a young Catholic today can be tough. I’ll admit that I developed a pretty jaded view of Catholicism during my college years, even while attending a Catholic university. In my circle, actions just didn’t seem to match up with teachings. If we’re called to be evangelists, then why are many of my peers so afraid to talk about Jesus? If we’re supposed to worship together as a community, then why don’t more students show up to Sunday Mass on campus? And elsewhere in the world, media headlines about scandals in the church and religious extremism only fuel more questions. What is going on with my church?
These questions swirled in my head as our plane landed in Brazil. Over the course of the pilgrimage, however, something changed. I heard shrieks of admiration for Pope Francis. I walked 80 miles with only a water bottle and a rosary. I prayed in four different languages. I cried some and laughed even more. I discovered beauty in the church during my time in Brazil—and I wasn’t alone in that discovery. The spirit of World Youth Day engaged 3 million young Catholics. It gave us all reasons to clap.
And it gave me reason to believe the church does have the ability to win over young adults. Parishes in the United States could learn some valuable lessons from World Youth Day when it comes to fostering enthusiasm and engagement to ignite a new generation of Catholics by focusing on three areas:
1. Active, joyful worship
The Mass is our lifeblood as Catholics; it affords us a really beautiful opportunity to praise God together. Going to Mass shouldn’t feel like a chore, but I know that it does for many of my friends. Their home parishes don’t offer a joyful experience at Mass. If all young adults see are stoic faces singing monotonous hymns, I wonder how long parishes can keep us in the pews. And I worry that many of my peers, if turned off by Mass at a young age, will never realize the rewards and joys that stem from the communal eucharistic celebration.
Each Mass in Brazil had one defining thing in common: movement. People—most of them strangers—naturally gravitated toward one another, so much so that when I looked around, it was hard to tell who came with whom. We were clumped together as one congregation. The joyful South American music encouraged us to move even more. As the congregation jumped and waved, dipped and swayed, I saw faces all around me light up. The movements brought an obvious joy to my young adult peers.
Upbeat music wins us over. Traditional organs are great, but parish music directors shouldn’t be afraid to throw in a tambourine or bongo drum to mix up the sounds once in a while. Vibrant communities win us over. Parishes could offer socials before or after Mass to cultivate community and encourage young adults to sit together. Dynamic and relatable homilies win us over. Parishioners could encourage priests to preach on current topics and use relevant, relatable examples from their own lives. I saw movement and music lead to joy at the World Youth Day Masses, and I think many of those aspects could be implemented at parishes in the United States.
2. Face-to-face communication
We may seem glued to our iPhones most of the time, but face-to-face chats and invitations go a long way toward engaging young adults. I survived 19 glorious days in Brazil without a phone or computer by relying on good, old-fashioned communication. Without mass texting available, when my pilgrimage group decided to host an impromptu liturgy for our host village, we had to go knocking door-to-door to inform people about the night’s festivities. No tweeting meant that when New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan opened up the floor during his World Youth Day catechesis session, we had to summon the courage to look him in the eye and ask him the questions stirring in our hearts.
During times without technology, something refreshing happens. In “disconnecting,” we can feel more connected. We’re able to give our full attention to the people in front of us. We can enter into prayer at a deeper level. We become more responsible for ourselves and our friends.
Social media sites are great tools, but they can become dangerous if used as a parish’s exclusive method of communication. Parishes can use social media to send event reminders and post other informational notices. Then get ministers out to the entryways after Masses and into the community to talk to young people. Engage us in conversation, develop relationships with us, and then intentionally invite us to join a group or attend an event that will best serve us individually.
But the effort has to be mutual. Young adults also have a responsibility to take advantage of these opportunities and get involved. The extra effort will be worth it, I promise you. People respond to people.
As a young adult, I find it easy to get wrapped up in my school, my friends, my work, and my parish. It can become difficult to see past my own little bubble and admit that my way (or my parish’s way) isn’t the only way. When we allow ourselves to expand our worldviews, especially during these formative years, we can learn so much.
Standing on Copacabana Beach with 3 million of my brothers and sisters, I experienced the universality of the Catholic Church in a profound way. Flags of all colors representing homes from around the world waved among the throngs of people. We spoke different languages. Our faces looked different. Our skin was different colors. We held different opinions.
Amazingly, these differences were not divisive. In fact, our diversity made the experience all the more fruitful. I am a better Catholic today because I conversed with Catholics from Poland, Uruguay, Mauritius, and Australia. I’m likewise a better Catholic because I conversed with Catholics who could be labeled as very “liberal” or very “conservative.”
The word catholic means “universal,” but I don’t always see that definition personified at home. Young adults today are used to diversity. Our college campuses, sports teams, and families are more diverse than ever. In order to grow, the Catholic Church in the United States needs to embrace the diversity its young adults are already embracing. Parishes in the United States can help with this by providing safe spaces for dialogue and bringing in educational speakers with a wide variety of opinions. Ministers can encourage us to ask the hard questions and provide us with the resources and people that can answer them.
Above all, young adults need support. We need ministers to be available, to understand that differences and changes can be uncomfortable, and to support us through our questions and processes of self-discovery.
My greatest hope for the church going forward is that it actively embraces young members with sincere love, hospitality, and a listening ear. With this support, we can more confidently embrace our Catholic discipleship and the joys and challenges that come with it.
Young Catholics are ready to move. And sing. And pray. And play. And clap.
This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 9, pages 37-38).