By Paul Jarzembowski, Youth and Young Adult Ministries, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Today, many young adults are heartbroken and wounded. Where do they turn? Will they find help from us?
There is not a straightforward answer, partially because we may not even know who it is that we’re talking about. The term “young adult” is not used consistently in Church or in society, so confusion abounds. Walk into most bookstores in the United States, and the “young adult” book section includes literature fit for pre-teens and junior high students, a far cry from the demographic in question.
Within Church circles, the term is often coupled with “youth,” defined in the United States as adolescents under 18, centered around the high school experience. Internationally, the English word “youth” can mean those ages 16 to 29, corresponding to World Youth Day terminology. The origin of this linguistic confusion is the awkward translation of the Italian “giovani” (or the Spanish “jóvenes”). These words speak to specific cultural realities in Europe and Latin America. Pope Francis also acknowledged these distinctions in his post-synodal exhortation Christus Vivit, saying: “The worlds of today’s ‘youth’ are so many that in some countries, one tends to speak of ‘young people’ in the plural. The age group… does not represent a homogenous category, but is composed of distinct groups, each with its own life experience.”1
In 1996, the bishops of the United States released Sons and Daughters of the Light, a national pastoral plan for ministry with young adults, whom they defined as “people in their late teens, twenties, and thirties: single, married, divorced, or widowed; and with or without children.”2 The scope of “young adulthood” (ages 18 to 39) offered by the U.S. bishops is helpful. This range, while lengthy, represents a series of key life transitions (and traumas) within early adulthood, distinct for each of us. The maturation of an individual through transition moments is not consistent from person to person; people move at their own pace through developmentally critical life events, i.e., leaving one’s family home, falling in love, discovering a vocational pathway, moving constantly, etc. Thus, “young adulthood” is less about time than it is about perspective, which is why the age range is as inclusive as possible.
With the promulgation of Christus Vivit (the first and only papal document focused exclusively on young people), along with statistics that show an increasing number of twenty- and thirty-somethings are disaffiliating from the practice of the Christian faith, ministry with young adults has once again been awakened in the consciousness of many Catholics today.
The term “ministry” itself also requires some examination. In Spanish, the word translates as “pastoral,” which is an incredibly fitting moniker. Ministry, when seen only as the activities of the Church toward a particular group or initiative (i.e., seniors ministry, children’s ministry, marriage ministry, vocations ministry), leads to a rather banal or pedestrian use of the term “ministry,” stripped of its richer meaning. This is where the Spanish translation (“pastoral”) really helps.
Seeing ministry as pastoral action draws connection to the Gospel: the word is derived from the image of shepherds in the Scriptures, most especially with Jesus the Good Shepherd as the model for work in his name. He passed on this mantle to his disciples after the Resurrection, telling Simon Peter to “tend my sheep… feed my sheep.” (Jn 21:16,17). The same mandate now rests with today’s ministry leaders. We, too, must act like shepherds, tending and feeding those we accompany.
In Christus Vivit, Pope Francis said, “The community has an important role in the accompaniment of young people; it should feel collectively responsible for accepting, motivating, encouraging, and challenging them. All should regard young people with understanding, appreciation, and affection.”3 Ministry, then, is grounded in accompaniment. He also noted, “In this outreach, we need to use above all the language of closeness, the language of generous, relational, and existential love that touches the heart, impacts life, and awakens hope and desires. Young people need to be approached with the grammar of love.”4
The language the Holy Father uses to describe ministry is incredibly pastoral. Tied to accompaniment language is an understanding that ministry is a journey, where we walk side-by-side with the young. He added that ministry leaders and mentors “should not lead young people as passive followers, but walk alongside them, allowing them to be active participants in the journey.”5 It would be helpful, then, to use the phrase “ministry with young adults” rather than “young adult ministry.” Ministry “with” (versus ministry “to”) implies accompaniment, not a top-down approach, and broadens the scope of who can accompany (for example, anyone can minister with young adults, while only a select few have a title like “young adult minister”).
This reframing connects with Pope Francis’ other common metaphor, the field hospital. Used by the Holy Father since the first days of his papacy,6 this term provides an illustrative image: accompanying those on the front lines, moving with, supporting, and healing them, binding up their wounds, tending their hearts, and sending them on their way. Doing good ministry with young adults, then, is ultimately an opportunity for the whole community to support and provide healing for every person in their area in their late teens, twenties, and thirties, as those women and men transition and struggle through the early years of adulthood.
Coupled with the trends that young adults are increasingly disaffiliated are trends that show that young adults are increasingly in pain: struggling with mental health concerns (depression, loneliness, and anxiety, to name a few); racism and prejudice, especially in culturally diverse communities; constant migration and movement; economic uncertainty, unemployment, and under-employment; violence, oppression, and abuse in all its forms; and facing the weight of current events (the global pandemic, racial injustice, polarization, climate change, etc.), so visible to a social-networked and global-conscious generation. Pope Francis ties the lack of responsivity of Christian leaders to their disaffiliation, observing that “young people frequently fail to find in our usual programs a response to their concerns, their needs, their problems and issues.”7
Ministry with young adults, then, must become a field hospital for younger generations of adults transitioning through life’s tumultuous landscape. We can no longer look upon young adults as empty vessels needing to be filled or secularized pushovers needing to be saved. In fact, such perspectives and judgements may be why young adults avoid Christian institutions. Rather, we are called to be medics in the field and companions along the road, going beyond the walls of our churches.
The “shelter in place” restrictions have reminded us that, as parishes were closed for health and safety, the domestic Church expanded exponentially. We needed to go out from our churches to the young adults. Such “going out” implies a ministry in motion, like a field hospital on the move, going where it is needed.
“Where does Jesus send us?”8 Pope Francis asks us in Christus Vivit, and then offers this: “There are no borders, no limits: he sends us everywhere… to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away and most indifferent… He invites us to be fearless missionaries where we are and in whatever company we find ourselves: in our neighborhoods, in school or sports or social life, in volunteer service or in the workplace.”9
As a result, then, the pastoral missionary on the move begins the journey by observing who needs help and where they are. This methodology of “see-judge-act” means that the initial work is observing and taking stock of the landscape, in particular where young adults are within the local community. When the Holy Father looked at the situation of young people around the world in the synodal process that led up to Christus Vivit, he was clearly moved by the realities he witnessed, saying “As a Church, may we never fail to weep before these tragedies of our young. May we never become inured to them.”10
We are challenged to re-orient ourselves to see young adults with the eyes of a shepherd seeing his or her sheep trapped in the thorns, lost and afraid, to rush over to provide them with concrete help, to tend their wounds, and to accompany them as far as possible. Or, seen another way, through the eyes of the field medic with an injured soldier, rushing over to provide them with immediate care and ongoing support through the recovery process.
We sometimes bemoan the fact that young adults are no longer in our pews, but young adults may be wondering why we are not in their lives. Here is a chance to respond with the care of a good shepherd or a medic in a field hospital. This simple direction can align our pastoral work with the realities young adults are experiencing right now and allow us a chance to truly be pastoral in the way of the Lord, “healing the brokenhearted and binding up their wounds.” (Ps 147:3)
- How can you learn more about the young adults in your local community, beyond the walls of the church? How can you discover more about their cultural heritage and demographics? Where do they work? Where and how do they live? What are their social-economic realities?
- What possible preconceptions or misconceptions about young adults might you need to leave to the side before engaging them in pastoral ministry?
- How can your local community be a “field hospital” for young adults, in particular those who are struggling with economic concerns, mental health issues, racism and prejudice, loneliness, and other painful experiences that weigh them down?
Paul Jarzembowski has served on staff at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Washington DC since 2013, and in that role, has been the bishops’ lead staff for youth and young adult ministries and the national coordinator for this county’s engagement with World Youth Day. He has consulted with and spoken for over 300 dioceses, parishes, university campuses, consecrated religious communities, and national organizations and conferences in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Europe, including the Vatican. He serves on several boards of directors and leadership teams for several organizations including the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry (NFYCM), the National Catholic Network de Pastoral Juvenil Hispana (LaRED), the National Advisory Team on Young Adult Ministry (NATYAM), and the National Catholic Committee on Scouting (NCCS). Originally from the Chicago metropolitan area, Paul received his Master’s Degree in Pastoral Studies from and served as an adjunct faculty member at the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University Chicago. He and his wife Sarah live in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC.