In the past, the Catholic Church could count on its tradition being passed on from generation to generation. Today, fewer and fewer young people will continue to identify as Catholic even if they were raised in a Catholic family or they frequented mass or other church activities during their upbringing. Today’s young people often see identity as something that an individual “constructs piece by piece.” Furthermore, younger generations distrust religious institutions and most institutional structures in general. This new reality demonstrates that effective evangelization in contemporary settings urgently requires fundamental changes in our methods. It is necessary to find new ways to communicate timeless spiritual truths. We must discover and learn approaches to evangelization that can effectively respond to the spiritual needs and concerns of young Catholics.
Young Catholics are not just the future of the Church, they are part of the Church now. The Catholic Church has wisdom to share with every generation. Yet an important first step to evangelization is listening, something the Church has not always done effectively. The Church’s preparation process for the 2018 Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, however, does serve as a good model of a listening Church. In this process, young Catholics expressed their spiritual needs, desires, and concerns in light of the world in which they live.
During the pre-synodal process, the Church surveyed Millennial and Generation Z Catholics from around the world so that they could share their thoughts on issues such as their faith, life, values, hopes, and concerns. Later, the participants of a pre-synodal meeting in Rome, made up of Catholic young adults representing young Catholics from countries around the world, produced a pre-synodal document that reflects “the specific realities, personalities, beliefs and experiences of the young people of the world.” This document includes young Catholics’ reflections on various challenges they face within the Church and their relationship with religion and spirituality in general. If the Church intends to hold any meaningful place in the hearts of Catholics in the future, it must make a substantial effort to listen to young Catholics and address their concerns in concrete ways. The Catholic Church has the tools within its vast tradition to cultivate a spirituality that is attuned to the spiritual needs of young Catholics. We must begin to use them more effectively.
The insights young Catholics shared in this pre-synodal document were enlightening. For example, the document provided several reasons why young Catholics distrust the Church, and why some are leaving the Church. These reasons included the numerous scandals the Church has produced and excessive moralism, as well as encountering indifference, judgment, and rejection from their Church communities. These barriers suggest an apparent failure of integrity within the Church. It does not suggest that young Catholics are opposed to Christ.
The document indicates that young Catholics are “open to the spiritual” and seek to “encounter the mission of Christ.” But young people are seeking true spiritual experiences and need authentic guidance on becoming Christ’s disciples in the world.
This openness to spirituality and the mission of Christ while having an aversion to moralism and judgmentalism suggests that young people may be more open to spiritualities that involve social justice work and encounter with others. Effective evangelization should begin with an invitation to participate in the mission of Christ to bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth. As Pope Francis states, “Jesus’ mission is to inaugurate the kingdom of his Father; he commands his disciples to proclaim the good news.”
How can young Catholics do the work of inaugurating the kingdom of heaven on earth in the twenty-first century? For answers, we can look to their commitment to social and environmental justice. In the pre-synodal document, the young Catholics say they are “deeply vested in and concerned about … organized crime, human trafficking, violence, corruption, exploitation, femicide, all forms of persecution and the degradation of our natural environment.” Of all the concerns mentioned in this document, combating climate change was mentioned four times, more frequently than any of the others. Young Catholics see injustice in the world and want to do something about it. They want the Church to take action as well. Their desire to “work towards building a better world” echo God’s invitations to care for the least among all people (ref. Matt. 25:40) and be stewards of the planet. (ref. Gen. 1:28). Catholics are called to read the signs of the times, and to listen to the voices of her youngest members. Young Catholics who are reading the signs of the times and know that urgent action is needed to care for creation.
Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (On Care for our Common Home) is a prophetic call to the Catholic Church and the entire world to address the global climate crisis. Laudato Si’ shows that the leader of the Catholic Church shares the same concerns as young Catholics. Francis states, “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications … It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” Francis describes the need for a multifaceted approach to the climate crisis that also addresses connected issues such as poverty, loss of biodiversity, social and economic injustice, technology, and anthropocentrism. Young Catholics want the Church to “care for environmental issues, especially pollution,” and Pope Francis is calling on the Church to develop its social teaching to “develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage” done to the earth. Young Catholics are primed to answer Francis’s call because they are motivated to do this work.
Laudato Si’ invites Catholics to broaden our understanding of the Church’s mission in bringing about the kingdom of heaven on earth. Young Catholics, who care deeply about our environment, must be invited to carry it out. Young people live in a complex world with many competing voices. Laudato Si’ is the voice of the Church calling us to enter into fruitful dialogue about finding ways to remedy the environmental challenges faced by the global community.
One path forward that Francis proposes is embracing an integral ecology. Integral ecology is the idea that the entire world and all of its systems, whether natural or societal, as interconnected. Francis expresses the interrelatedness of all things when he states in Laudato Si’, “It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected … Today, the analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related and urban contexts, nor from how individuals relate to themselves, which leads in turn to how they relate to others and to the environment.” The young Catholics at the pre-synod meeting agree that this is an important way to be good stewards of the world. They wrote, “We seek the opportunity to work towards building a better world … We want a world of peace, one that harmonizes integral ecology.” Young Catholics and Francis share the same resolve on the importance of integral ecology. Both recognize the interrelatedness of everything and that the solution to the climate crisis requires a multi-disciplinary approach. Yet, Francis takes integral ecology a step further and shows how it is fruitful ground for spiritual reflection.
Young Catholics are seeking a spirituality—specifically a spirituality that connects them to Christ’s mission. As the young Catholics state, “Young people need to encounter the mission of Christ … However, they feel uncertain about how to do so. This encounter needs to be fostered in young people, which needs to be addressed by the Church.” Pope Francis’s invitation to adopt an ecological spirituality is an opportunity to participate in Christ’s mission through advocacy for social and environmental justice. Francis further invites them to understand their encounters with the natural world as encounters with the divine. According to Francis fully addressing the climate crisis as Christians requires “an ‘ecological conversion,’ whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.” Francis further believes that an ecological conversion “can inspire us to greater creativity and enthusiasm in resolving the world’s problems.” Young people want to know the mission of Christ, and they want to make the world a better place. In Laudato Si’, Francis shows them that these desires can be united, primarily through adopting an ecological spirituality.
Laudato Si’ offers young Catholics a vision of the Church with a mission of advocating for the poor and vulnerable while protecting God’s creation. Francis sees both of these as part of the mission of Christ. God cares for the birds of the air, (ref. Mt 6:26), Jesus is one with creation as the wind and sea obey him (Mk 4:41), and all things come to be through Christ (ref. Jn 1:3). Everything in the entire universe is intrinsically connected through Christ. The whole cosmos reflects Christ’s mission.
Laudato Si’ addresses both the spiritual and temporal needs of young Catholics and helps show them where they can have a place and purpose in the present and future Church. By putting these ideas into action, young people will find a meaningful way to take part in the Mission of Christ. To help them in this mission, we must develop catechetical programs for young Catholics that consider the theological developments of the past century, offering them a more robust and adult understanding of their experiences of God. This is tremendously important because young people are the Church, and they deserve a Church that knows Christ intimately and is prepared to go out into the world and join him in his mission of inaugurating the kingdom of heaven on earth.
(Learn about ways to get involved by checking out the Laudato Si’ Movement.)
Springtide Research Institute, Relational Authority: The State of Religion and Young People (Bloomington, MN: Springtide Research Institute, 2020), 22.
 Springtide, Relational Authority, 28.
 Synod of Bishops, Young People, the Faith and vocational Discernment: Pre-synodal Meeting Final Document (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 2018), Introduction.
 Synod, Young People Document, no. 1, 5, 7, 11.
 Synod, Young People Document, no. 5, 6.
 Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 2013), no. 180.
 Synod, Young People Document, no. 1.
 Synod, Young People Document, no. 3.
 Francis, Laudato Si’ (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 2015), no. 25.
 Synod, Young People Document, no. 11.
 Francis, Laudato Si’, no. 63.
 Francis, Laudato Si’, no. 139, 141.
 Synod, Young People Document, no. 3.
 Synod, Young People Document, no. 6.
 Francis, Laudato Si’, no. 217.
 Francis, Laudato Si’, no. 220.
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J.D. Combs has a Master's Degree in Theological Studies from the Franciscan School of Theology where he wrote his thesis on the evangelization of young people. He is currently a parish director of catechetical ministries, and is beginning his Ph.D. in Spirituality at Oblate School of Theology in the Fall of 2021.