In March 2019, Pope Francis issued his Exhortation to Young People, Christus Vivit—the fruit of last year’s Synod dealing with young people in the Church. Its hopeful tone reminds me of much of the work we see happening in the mission dioceses we serve. To use one example, the average age in the Diocese of Brownsville is 26. The average age of Hispanic Catholics across all U.S. dioceses is 27, and about 40% are under the age of 21. Across all mission dioceses, though, we see a strong desire to reach out to young people and to develop new ministries that serve where they are today. Here are five takeways from his document.
1. Jesus was young once, too
The pope invites young people to discern the ways that Jesus, himself a young person, lived. Young people can help keep the Church young; they can help her to move forward and be a better witness among the poor and outcast.
2. We must walk together
Those who minister to the young are called to accompany them in their encounter with others, so that they might engage generously in mission.
Still, as the pope acknowledges in his letter, there are many young people who experience harsh realities. He calls to mind those who are hungry, homeless, or mistreated. As I read these words, I called to mind ministries like those I visited recently in Puerto Rico during an immersion trip for pastoral ministers. One, the Hogar Infantil Santa Teresita del Niño Jesus, in the Diocese of Arecibo, is run by our 2016 Lumen Christi Award recipient, Melva Arbelo Mangual. Melva encounters many children who have experienced heartbreaking trauma and loss, but opens her arms and her doors to walk with them toward a more hopeful future.
Another ministry, the Animación Misionera Espiritual (AME) is run by Sisters Vicky Beaz Díaz and Brenda Ubiñas Lazzarini of the Missionaries of Christ the Savior, and serves middle-school age children living in an area where poverty and drug abuse are common.
3. Migrants matter
The pope pays special attention to the plight of migrants, many of whom are young, fleeing violence, poverty, and natural disasters. Since late 2017, many people from the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have had to leave home in order to find work on the mainland, becoming migrants within their own country. Further, over the last number of months, many young people fleeing violence in Central America have traveled north, applying for asylum in the United States. Many are families with children, seeking to reunite with relatives in different parts of the country. Still others are migrant farmworkers in places like Yakima, Washington, or Kalamazoo, Michigan. Catholic Extension has supported dioceses that have developed many forms of outreach to these vulnerable young populations: from shelters, to literacy programs, to door-to-door visits, to simply going to where migrants are to hear confessions or celebrate the Mass.
4. Young people are the leaders of tomorrow
The pope calls for the development of young leaders, a call that resonates well with the 87 dioceses that Catholic Extension supports. Over the past five years alone, Catholic Extension has granted nearly $10 million for youth-focused initiatives: campus ministries and Newman centers, training of youth ministers, summer camps, after school programs, youth conferences, and many social service programs addressing high-risk populations.
In addition, Catholic Extension has for many years had programs that invite young adult leaders, including many Hispanics, to study for advanced degrees that support their ministries. Finally, Catholic Extension regularly supports seminarian education, a critical part of the pipeline that brings young priests into pastoral work in mission dioceses.
5. Their time is now
The pope’s letter is hopeful, reminding young people that Christ is alive and that he wants us to be alive. Time and again, we see that life in the mission dioceses we serve. The young people who are carrying the Church into the future are those who work hard, raise families, build parishes, and carry the work of mercy into the community. The pope ends his letter on a similarly hopeful note: “the Church needs your momentum, your intuitions, your faith.” Catholic Extension is proud to support dioceses in their often pioneering work among the young, whom the pope describes as “the ‘now’ of God.”
Read more articles from Dr. Tim Muldoon in Catholic Extension's monthly column series, A Journey to America's Peripheries.