Part One: The Young Adult

Sons and Daughters of the Light: A Pastoral Plan for Ministry with Young Adults
November 12, 1996, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Who Are Young Adults?

As we mentioned in our dedication, young adulthood refers to people in their late teens, twenties, and thirties; single, married, divorced, or widowed; and with or without children.9 They are present in every trade and profession. They live in the many communities that make up our society—from rural areas to small towns to large metropolitan areas. They come from diverse cultural, ethnic, educational, vocational, social, political, and spiritual realities. This diversity is reflected in the large number of people from various nations coming to this  country whose median age is in the early to mid-twenties.10

Young adults were raised with music, television, and the rapid explosion of information and technology. they are a generation that some social scientists call the first truly multicultural and multimedia generation.11 They live in a society where access to technology can easily determine one's potential for success. More than previous generations, they feel the widening separation between those who have access to resources and those who are denied such resources because of poverty, lack of education, and discrimination.

Young adults undertake numerous developmental tasks as they continue to grow and mature.12 Many first experience autonomy and discover new roles in family, work, society, and the Church as they begin college, their first job, or marriage. Today many young adults spend longer periods in transition. Marriage is delayed; children come later in life; geographic and job mobility is high; and second and third careers are common. Some find themselves single again through separation, divorce, or the death of a spouse. Some may find themselves raising children alone. When we consider all these factors, it is easy to understand why many young adults believe that life today is different. An effective ministry pays attention to these issues.

Tasks of Young Adulthood

During our meetings, young adults spoke of many concerns, which can be grouped into four key areas: personal identity, relationships, work, and spiritual life. While these concerns are not new to young adults, life today is different in two ways: these tasks are undertaken over an extended period of time, for some, into their thirties; and there is a lack of family, civic, and pastoral institutions to support them.

1.  Developing Personal Identity

While individuals continue to mature throughout life, various new experiences influence the development of personal identity. These new experiences include employment, changing relationships with the family of origin, a continuous maturation or "ownership" of their faith, leaving the family home and possibly relocating to another area, affirmation of ethnic and cultural identity, and development of new relationships at work, at home, or on campus. Many young adults—some for the first time—meet people of different faiths, values, cultures, and sexual orientation. When they meet this broader mix of people, young adults can, at times, find their values and beliefs challenged.

During this time, young adults also learn how to  accomplish tasks and work independently, move toward interdependence and become comfortable asking others for help, and choose and act on personal values that give meaning to life.13

Today, exploring and developing one's ethnicity is particularly significant. While this self-identification is true for all people, it is especially important for recent immigrants and for those born in the United States who are now third and fourth generation. This involves becoming comfortable with one's culture of origin and understanding its history.14 It is achieving a balance between one's particular ethnic group and the culture at large.

As a single woman in my late twenties, I have found myself working and living in a society in which family and community are, for a variety of reasons, devalued.  Situations such as divorce, fear of strangers, economic hardship, violence, and the uncertainty of the job market, which often require movement and relocation, have combined to set the stage for a social atmosphere filled with separation and division.
Elizabeth Sheehan, Mumford, N.Y.

2.  Developing Relationships

Most young adults experience changes in their relationships. Existing friendships may deepen, and they may make new friends among a broader mix of people. At the same time, they are reordering the relationships within their family, integrating sexuality into their lives, and choosing a permanent lifestyle such as marriage or a vocation to the priesthood, diaconate, or religious life.

Making Friends and Developing Intimacy
During the young adult years, friendships that developed during adolescence often change. Some relationships deepen, others fade. At the same time, new relationships are formed within ethnic communities and around church activities, hobbies, sports, work, or school. Many young adults with small children become friends with parents of other small children through school or community activities, thereby forming small communities for support and information. Some single young adults make friends through the workplace, church, or the health club while others speak of the pain of being alone in a crowd. These young adults, who are not able to surround themselves with friends and family, struggle with much loneliness.

Developing Multicultural Relationships
Young adults navigate another new challenge as they develop friendships among people of diverse cultures. Through these experiences, they seek to understand their own culture while becoming sensitive to the many cultures around them. Through these friendships, the barriers that separate culture from culture and create divisions among people can begin to break down. As a result, prejudice and discrimination lessen, and understanding and compassion increase. People can freely and consciously integrate elements of their culture of origin with the culture at large into a new vision that is founded on a coherent system of values and beliefs.15

As a mother of a son and a daughter entering adulthood, I know that love is much more than what I say to is what I do, and it is what I model...I know that a parent's love takes new shapes and a new presence during this time in their lives...
Carolyn Adrian, Victoria, Texas

Reordering of Relationships within the Family of Origin
The relationships that young adult men and women have with their parents change as they move into a more adult relationship with them. While these changes signal a reordering within the family, it will always be true that "the family and the home are where we learn who we are. It is the family that teaches us much about ourselves. It is the family that is the first school and the first laboratory for the transmission of culture, the passing on of values, the handing down of traditions, the planting of the seed of faith and the proclamation of the Good News."16   Many young adults who during their adolescence sought independence and a certain distance from parents begin to appreciate them in a new way—as role models, mentors, and friends. Others must come to terms with patterns of destructive family behavior that resulted from substance and other abuses during their childhood and adolescent years. A few young adults even become the economic and emotional support for their parents.

Many young adults struggle with the tension between differences in contemporary culture and the cultural heritage of their families. Young adults from diverse cultures have "distinct and unique perspectives, values and traditions relating to family and family life"17 that they wish to preserve. Because of the process of acculturation, this can result in struggles between generations over which traditions to keep and which to adapt or combine.18

One of my dreams is that both parents and children would become better friends, sharing more and communicating better within an atmosphere of trust, participating in the life of the Church, and creating a more Christian community.  We can all be witnesses of the living Christ.
Eduardo Pincena, Texas

Integrating Sexuality into Life
As they engage in and deepen their relationships with others, young adults seek to integrate sexuality into their lives. They seek to discern how their values and religious beliefs should inform their decisions around sexuality. Because of such pervasive practices as nonmarital intercourse, living together outside of marriage, and sexual abuse, many express concern about how to sustain a positive attitude and Christian wisdom regarding sexuality.

Choosing to Marry
During the young adult years, many men and women marry and begin a family. Many newly married couples speak of delaying the start of a family to deepen their relationship, to find work, or to become more financially stable. Some tell us that they value children but wonder about bringing children into a world marked with so much pain and evil. Couples from different cultures face challenges identifying which traditions and customs to follow and deciding how to raise their children.

Others are concerned with marital stability in a society where nearly one-half of the marriages end in separation or divorce. They know from the experiences of divorced parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends that this experience is very painful. They approach marriage seriously. Some speak of the challenge of raising children as a single parent. Others share the pain of being separated from full communion with the church community as a result of remarriage or being in relationships not recognized by the Church.

The Single Life
Another difference in the lives of young adults today is the number of men and women who remain single throughout their lifetime. For some, this is a conscious decision to focus their lives on their careers or work or to dedicate themselves to others through community service. Others remain single because they do not find compatible spouses. The experience can be very painful, but it can also lead the single person to a greater level of maturity.

Single young adults have very different needs and interests from those who are engaged or married, with or without children. These single men and women work to identify what gives meaning to their lives in a way that is different from those who are married or have a religious vocation. The quest for close friendships and participation in small groups or communities of like people is particularly important. Young adults form these relationships even while realizing that they may be temporary, due to the transient nature of young adult life.

3.  Developing a Meaning of Work

Young adulthood often signals a person's entrance into the world of work. "What do you do for a living?" is a constant topic of conversation because work is a major part of their lives. For young adults, this experience is highly fluid because they move from job to job and even from career to career. Work can dictate their use of time and can determine what they can afford to do or buy. It can also determine the quality and quantity of leisure time. Work defines and influences a young adult's identity and self-concept and is a prime place where friendships and other relationships develop because generally it is not done alone.

Young men and women speak of work as fulfilling a function and providing meaning. Work allows young adults to meet their practical needs but even more importantly to seek meaning and fulfillment of their dreams and visions. Although work may not help achieve their dreams, it is important for young adults to nurture a vision, learn how to work in a truly personal and life-giving way, and to continue to discern God's call.19 

The Christian, whether laborer or judge, doctor or farmer, business person or professor, is recognized by the way he or she practices the commandment of love for God and neighbor...whatever place you take in society, whatever profession you carry out, you are called to do as a service.
Papal Message to College Students at Villa Nazareth in Rome, June 8, 1996

Work as Functional
For many, work has a purely functional role; it is what puts food on the table, provides shelter, and takes care of the family.  today both husbands and wives often work. Some couples do so to survive economically; others to establish careers. This can greatly influence a couple's relationship with each other, family, friends, and the Church. Many young adults are concerned about unemployment, underemployment, and job-related stress during these years. Work can take on another dimension when young adults realize that they may remain single or be a single parent for life. This can lead to concerns about financial security and a focus on work over relationships.

Work as Meaningful
In Christian theology, work is directed to bringing the Gospel to the world. It can give meaning to our lives and can provide an opportunity to collaborate with God in building a culture of life within society. Meaning in work comes through choosing a career, volunteering, and discerning a vocation.

Finding a fulfilling career and a good job is a principal reason why many young adults go to college, attend a trade school, or immigrate to this country. More than in the past, young men and women must work hard at finding a job that is meaningful, fits their career goal, and is financially rewarding. Many young adults end up accepting work that is less fulfilling but is able to sustain them economically. Others choose work that pays less in order to find employment in a chosen field. Many people who work for the Church or in service/social justice agencies are living examples of this willingness to forgo economic benefits in order to fulfill a dream.

Work includes not only what one does to earn a living and support a family but also countless hours and energy spent volunteering one's time and talent within the social, civic, and church community. Today, more people of all ages seek volunteer work as a way of meeting people and contributing to the community.

Young adults participate in volunteer work for a number of reasons, sometimes because of the difficulty of getting a job but more often out of the desire to be of service. Volunteering is an avenue where people can achieve their dream of contributing to the common good—of making a difference in the world today and embracing an enlarged vision of the world and their role as    citizens.  This leads some to join service organizations and to serve as locally elected officials or as members of civic review boards and homeowner associations. Sometimes this participation is to effect social change, including the transformation of unjust situations. volunteering touches the experiential side of life where it can be most helpful to men and women who are in the process of discerning God's calling.

The ultimate search for a meaning and a spirituality of work in a Christian context is a response to God's call, which is our vocation. This response reflects the spiritual dimension of work. God calls each of us to spread the Gospel through a particular vocation. An important decision for young adults is the discernment of this call. In the past, young people made a vocation choice typically during late adolescence or their early twenties. Today many men and women undertake this discernment in their twenties and thirties, often leading to a decision to marry, remain single, or embrace a vocation to the priesthood, diaconate, religious life, or lay ministry.

4.  Developing a Spiritual Life

What does it mean for young adults to be a "spiritual" person? Our listening sessions with young adults paint a picture of four characteristics.

  1. Grappling with questions about the purpose of life and what it means to be a good person.

  2. Appropriating and internalizing the gift of faith and a religious tradition.

  3. Finding an adult faith community in which to live.

  4. Developing an "inner life" to correspond to an "outer life."

As a young boy growing up in the Catholic Church, I was taught to seek out the truth about life, to find those things that exemplified the highest ideals in life, and let my life, in turn, be characterized by those high ideals.
Robert J. Dougherty, Oklahoma

These characteristics can be expressed as a desire of young adults to root their lives in something that gives them hope and conveys meaning. Their search for a personal identity, pursued in relationships and work, partially satisfies this hunger for meaning. However, time and time again they told us of their thirst for a relationship with God. They ask, "What is the purpose of my life? What do I live for?"

Young adult men and women experience a spiritual tension arising from the contrast between contemporary society and the desire to live according to the will of God. They speak at times of a wariness toward organized religion. Although they desire a deeper spiritual life, this attitude and other influences from contemporary society push them to question and doubt what has been part of their lives. The Church needs to respond to this doubting and questioning by encouraging a dialogue that welcomes challenges from the young adult to the Church and from the Church to the young adult, so that each may grow in discipleship.

Young adults gradually come to understand this searching as a dynamic between faith and life. Each person internalizes this according to his or her own family history and cultural roots. Asians, Hispanics, and Latinos see their spirituality springing from their relationship with God, community, faith, and culture. African American men and women see spirituality as "rooted in the African tradition and in the historical and cultural experience of black Americans."20 A common thread is the understanding of spirituality as a "way of life of a people, a movement by the Spirit of God, and the grounding of one's identity as a Christian in every circumstance of life."21

Some experience this searching as a quiet inner questioning, a thoughtful reexamination of traditional beliefs. Others accomplish this by learning more about their faith or by participating in prayer groups and small communities. For still others, this searching can lead to a functional
atheism, a rejection of organized religion, or a distancing from church activities and worship. This questioning should be seen as a path that leads to possible future faith development.

During this period of searching, there are many challenges. College students, along with those in the work force, speak of having their faith challenged by fundamentalists or agnostics.  Many are attracted to these people because of the conviction present in their message. Others speak of being challenged by secular messages portrayed through television, music, movies, and the news media. Some even speak of  the pain they experience from parishes that are in-hospitable or unresponsive to their concerns and  struggles.

Spirituality develops and is nourished through culture which "primarily expresses how people live and perceive the world, one another, and God.  Culture is the set of values by which a people judge, accept, ad live what is considered important within the community. 
National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry, U.S. Catholic Bishops, no. 10

Despite the turbulence of these years, many seek to return to their faith, remembering the positive experiences of youth and campus ministry. They tell us that it is our tradition that feeds their hunger. They return seeking participation and involvement in church life and guidance for their lives. Young adults need opportunities to share their stories and be affirmed in the importance of their lives within the Church. What is important to them and holds great value is being with people who have similar beliefs.22  This common bond, shared within a community of peers and others, provides support and nourishment for their faith. The Church needs to provide young adults with the support, prayer, time, and space to search fruitfully and to nurture the movement toward deeper faith.23

No matter the form, it is important to realize that this questioning is a searching for what it means to be sons and daughters of the light. What a wonderful opportunity this presents to the Church.

Everyone in the Church, precisely because they are members, receives and thereby shares in the common vocation to holiness. 
Christifideles Laici, no. 16

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