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
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 the...it 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
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
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
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
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
- Grappling with questions about the purpose of life and what it means to be a good person.
- Appropriating and internalizing the gift of faith and a religious tradition.
- Finding an adult faith community in which to live.
- 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
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
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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