In his address at World Youth Day in 2013, Pope Francis urged young people to go out to the streets and “make some noise.” By that, he called to mind his desire that they be agents of the Church’s mission in the world, and not merely passive recipients.
That exhortation will occupy the Church’s attention this coming Fall, when the worldwide Synod of Bishops will address the theme “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.”
The recent March for Our Lives demonstrations have offered us a unique moment to consider what happens when adults give young people the opportunity for real leadership on consequential issues.
Ours is an age that shows troubling decline in both young people’s civic engagement and participation in the mission of the Church. By contrast, the march showed a unique opportunity for adults to support young people’s efforts, allowing them to express their fears and their hopes. And it has caught people’s attention.
What might it look like if the Church should be bold in letting young people lead? I suggest an image: a purple church.
To be exact, the color chart calls it “Wisteria,” but to most people who visit the church, it is an arresting and unusual sight, very different from what they are used to. The parish family of St. Charles Borromeo worships there, one of six parishes served by the St. Francis Mission on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in the Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota. Catholic Extension has supported the St. Francis Mission for over a century, thanks to generations of generous donors.
Fifteen years ago, the pastor, Jesuit Father John Hatcher, sent the color chart to the parish council and asked them for advice on what color to paint the exterior, which had over the years become worn and decayed. The council could not come to a decision, so the following year Father Hatcher brought the same question to the young people in the religious education programs sponsored by the mission.
Not everyone in the St. Francis community agreed with the young people’s choice of colors, but Father Hatcher reminded them how important their young people are, and how it is important to respect their decisions, even if sometimes we disagree with them.
Even now, Father Hatcher is quick to point out that the parish patron, St. Charles Borromeo, was a bishop, and that bishops wear purple as a historic reference to their authority. Still, purple strikes many as an odd color for a church.
But here’s the point: the fact that it is strange does not compromise its mission as a place where people encounter the living God. Similarly, when young people lead, they may do so in ways that seem strange, unusual, and even off-putting. Yet perhaps it is through those ways that we might discern the voice of God.
St. Benedict considered that possibility. In chapter three of his Rule—a guide to Christian community life for 15 centuries—he wrote that it was important to listen to the voice of even the youngest monk, because “the Lord often reveals to the youngest what is best.”
Today, too, as the world’s bishops prepare for the synod, they are consulting the young. The document disseminated in preparation for the synod identifies challenges facing young people today. Written by 300 young delegates from around the world, it articulates the hope of many: “We envision greater opportunities, of a society which is coherent and trusts us. We seek to be listened to and to not merely be spectators in society but active participants. We seek a Church that helps us find our vocation, in all of its senses.”
If the Church is rightly said to be a mission (and not merely to have one), then the implication is that all those who are part of the Church are part of that mission. In a world where so many young people discern little meaning in their lives—a point underscored by the young synod delegates—what could be more meaning-full than mentoring them for leadership in ways that build the Kingdom of God?
What if our parishes, youth ministries, campus ministries, and young adult ministries were given the resources to develop robust formation programs, both spiritual and practical, so that our young people might serve the mission?
My answer: many purple churches throughout the world, where the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are made real every day.