Earlier this year, more than 15,000 young Australian Catholics filled out a survey on their attitudes to the Church ahead of next year’s Youth Synod. Ashleigh Green was tasked with presenting some of the findings of that survey and consultations with young people from Broken Bay Diocese at a special gathering in Rome in September.
Last month I was on a bush walk with my grandmother in the Blue Mountains, an ancient, rugged region west of Sydney. My grandmother is active, both in body and in spirit and she has a special ability to find beauty and wisdom in the simplest things.
As we were walking in the bush near her house, we passed a fallen tree. The tree looked as if it had fallen some time ago, but was flourishing with new, green foliage along the length of the fallen trunk. As we passed the fallen trunk, my Nan said something that struck me: ‘New life has come from that fallen tree because it’s roots are still in the ground.’
I took a closer look at the tree and noticed that its roots were entrenched in the earth more firmly than even some of the trees nearby that were still standing. No wonder this tree was flourishing. It was fallen but it was alive. And significantly, new life was forming along the whole length of the tree trunk, in places perhaps where foliage doesn’t normally grow.
Our Church in Australia is in a time of crisis and transition. Amid scandal and confusion, many turn to anger or even reject the Church altogether. But like the fallen tree, now is the time to root ourselves even more firmly in Christ, to be patient and to maintain hope. My overarching desire is that as young people we maintain our roots firmly in Christ, while being open to new life in unexpected places.
Issues that affect young people
In our recent National Synod Survey, young people were very clear on the places and issues with which the Church needs to become more involved. At the top of the list of issues facing young people in Australia was mental health. In the survey comments, many young people indicated that the Church could assist them and their friends with mental health, along with some of the other major issues they face, such as school and study, body image and drugs and alcohol.
As a social worker with disadvantaged young people who have lived through trauma, I witness the effects of mental illness in young people on a daily basis. In Australia today, suicide is the leading cause of death in people aged 15–24, accounting for 31% of deaths in this age category.
It is no secret that mental health becomes more difficult to manage with isolation and loneliness. So, with the increasing number of young people spending evenings and weekends in front of phone screens behind closed doors, the mental health concerns that were raised in the survey come as no surprise.
Many respondents to our National Survey identified spaces such as ‘Theology in the Pub’, youth rallies and festival style events as places where their experience of community is nourished, alongside Mass and liturgical gatherings. There is also great scope for the Church to facilitate talks and social justice projects that deal specifically with the issues that young people identify as important.
In light of the stigma that is associated with mental health, if the Church is to meet the needs of the people, it is our responsibility to address issues such as mental health in the public arena.
Opening up the Church to challenging viewpoints
One of the biggest deterrents to young people’s full engagement in the Church is the perception that the Church is ‘closed’ to people who are different or who hold views that do not align with Church teaching. It is my experience that many young people give up on the Church before even giving it a go, out of fear that they cannot engage in open, honest discussion about the issues that matter to them.
This year I was involved in facilitating the ‘Synod video booth’ in my diocese. The booth travelled around to various youth events, and young people were invited to answer the question, ‘If you had one minute to say anything to Pope Francis, what would you say?’
I remember one young person who, upon being asked this question hesitated and told me, ‘I’d better not say what I really think. My views are too radical to share at Church.’ After five minutes of encouraging this girl to openly share her thoughts, she went ahead and shared her experience of topics such as homosexuality and trans gender issues being shut down at her Catholic school.
I was really struck by this young person’s experience of the disconnect between Church and the rest of the world. It was as if there were some matters that were out of bounds in Church settings, yet these were the issues that she was most passionate about and which gave her life. Similar sentiments were shared in the online survey, with comments such as: ‘We push aside [issues] pretending they’re not as important as they are. We need to focus on what is important in our society today…’
The Church can still maintain its stance on key issues, while welcoming young people whose views don’t necessarily align. If young people feel that Church is a place where they are loved and welcomed regardless of their background, their identity and their stance on social issues, our Church will become a much more vibrant place. As a Church, if we are to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, we need to be a Church that engages with those on the margins, and which includes young people who may feel ostracised for their views and identity.
Becoming a more listening Church
In our National Synod Survey, young people seemed to recognise the Church’s effort to listen but were at times frustrated by the Church’s ability to do so. Significantly, from the results of the online survey, on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being very positive, young people in Australia score the Church’s listening ability to be 6 out of 10.
My hope is that through the 2018 Synod on Youth (and the Year of Youth in Australia) young people feel listened to by the Church in a way that is unprecedented. My hope is that young people are empowered to speak boldly, to speak clearly and to speak their minds.
Our Church doesn’t look like it did 50 years ago. Now is the time to be creative. Now is the time to pay attention to where along the tree trunk new life is growing, and to respond with an open heart.
Ashleigh’s full presentation can be found here.
For more about the 2018 Youth Synod and the Australian Catholic Year of Youth, visit http://youth.catholic.org.au/year-of-youth/synod.