June 15, 2018

Young people are key to life and mission of the Church, Archbishop Thompson says

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson shakes hands with Nathan Cullen of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross Parish in Bright after conferring upon him the sacrament of confirmation. In the background, fellow parishioner Avery Daniels stands next to her sponsor waiting to receive the sacrament. Archbishop Thompson baptized the youths of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and four other parishes in St. Louis Church in Batesville on April 21. (Submitted photo by Waltz Photography, LLC)

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson shakes hands with Nathan Cullen of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross Parish in Bright after conferring upon him the sacrament of confirmation. In the background, fellow parishioner Avery Daniels stands next to her sponsor waiting to receive the sacrament. Archbishop Thompson baptized the youths of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and four other parishes in St. Louis Church in Batesville on April 21. (Submitted photo by Waltz Photography, LLC)

(Editor’s note: At the direction of Pope Francis, a synod of bishops will focus on the theme of “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment” at the Vatican in October.

According to the Vatican’s website, the aim of the synod is “to accompany the young on their existential journey to maturity so that, through a process of discernment, they discover their plan for life and realize it with joy, opening up to the encounter with God and with human beings, and actively participating in the edification of the Church and of society.”

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson recently met with Dr. Kimberly F. Baker, associate professor of Church history at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad, to talk about the gifts, needs and opportunities that young Catholics bring to the Church. The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.)
 

First part in a continuing series about the Synod of Bishops (Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5)
 

By Dr. Kimberly Baker (Special to The Criterion)

 
Q. What is the purpose of the Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment?”

A. “The purpose of the synod is to ask how to better engage young people [ages 16-29] in the life and mission of the Church and its leadership and service. The hope of the synod is to better proclaim the Church’s message to young people so that it can be better heard, understood and appreciated in today’s culture and climate.”
 

Q. At the 2016 Women of the Church conference (in Indiana), a young woman asked how the bishops could respond to the numbers of young people, especially young women, who were leaving the Catholic Church. What struck me was the way you responded. You said that you felt you needed to hear from young people about their lives, their hopes and their struggles. And you quickly put that into action during a visit to a Newman Center when you asked questions of the students rather than making a presentation. What have you learned from young people since then?

A. “Where I have talked with young people have been places where they were coming out of a love for the Church already, places such as NCYC [National Catholic Youth Conference] and at Newman Centers [on college campuses]. They already have enthusiasm for the faith and a sense of Catholic identity. I’m impressed with their sincerity, with their knowledge of the faith.

“Where I get to see a broader perspective is at confirmation. I have the young people write me letters. I’m fascinated by the depth of their theological sense of confirmation and of the Church. There’s a true depth of seeking and longing to belong. It’s amazing how some of them open up their confirmation and apply it to their lives, their brokenness and their struggles.

“They’re linking their lived experience with their saints and the witness of their sponsors. I think with all the social media today how much we live in isolation, almost in silos. I think that has had an effect on young people, but they’re searching for more.”
 

Q. Are there any models where you’ve seen parishes and others giving young people opportunities for true engagement in a way that is meaningful and authentic for them?

A. “In the Diocese of Evansville, there is a small parish in a county that is not highly Catholic. It is a small community, but youths are doing the music and lectoring; youths are the [extraordinary] ministers [of holy Communion]. There’s a lot of life, a lot of energy among these young people and in their engagement.

“I think the parishes that are making the best progress in energizing youths are those that engage youths on all levels—the liturgical level, the administrative level such as parish councils, and also on the service level. I know parishes that have active youth groups with outreach, such as spring break trips to the Appalachian Mountains or a summer trip to Haiti.”
 

Q. I have always been impressed because The Message, the diocesan newspaper in Evansville, has youth columnists. It impresses me that space was made where they could share their insights. As a reader of the newspaper, it keeps their stories and their faith in front of me.

A. “One of the things I was really impressed with in Evansville was the [annual] March for Life. The director of youth and young adults there, Steve Dabrowski, scheduled speakers for the trip up and back [to Washington, D.C.] to address a variety of life issues so that these young people were getting a holistic sense of the Church’s respect life teaching. I always thought that was a good way to enrich the lives of these young people.

“I think, also, of One Bread, One Cup [a liturgical leadership conference] at Saint Meinrad. I hear the difference that’s making in the lives of young people in the Church.

“[The Archdiocese of] Indianapolis has a lot of good things happening, and I’m still learning about them. At my press conference here [when I was introduced in June 2017], I was asked about young people. I said, the key thing is that they need to know, we need you today. You’re not the future Church; you’re the young Church of today. We need you here and now.”
 

Q. Do you think as Church, we do recognize young people as the Church of today?

A. “I think we’ve done it in some places better than others. Certainly Pope Francis is calling young people, ‘Get involved now. We need you now. We need you now to step up, to speak up. Make your voice heard; make your opinion known.’

“Look at what young people have done after the [school] shooting in [Parkland] Florida, and how they’ve been able to come together with the March for Our Lives. That was young people’s energy and their focus and their initiative. I think in the Church, too, people will step up.

“At World Youth Day a couple of years ago in Krakow, [Poland], Pope Francis said, ‘Don’t be afraid to leave your mark on the world.’ I use that at confirmations. I encourage young people, ‘Leave your mark.’ While you have your own particular gifts and talents, you won’t be nearly as effective as an individual as you will be with the gifts of the Spirit and carrying out the mission of the Church as entrusted to us by Jesus, as mandated by Jesus.

“When I was in [the Archdiocese of] Louisville, there was a program for youths called the Catholic Leadership Institute. I was chaplain for seven years. It was a profound week of teaching them how to be engaged in the life of the Church through liturgy and pastoral activities and getting involved in decision-making in the life of the Church. They’d get this high, and then go back to their parishes. Some would stay engaged, but some didn’t have a place to get involved in their parishes. They’d tell me, ‘Father, I went back and there was no place for me to plug in.’ And that was kind of sad.”
 

Q. Some of our work might be to help parishes to know how to welcome all the gifts in the community.

A. “And also asking, how do we go to their turf? Not to wait for young people to come in, but to go out to them. One of the most powerful experiences I had as a newly ordained priest was as a chaplain of a high school in Bardstown. I started playing basketball with some of the young men. Six or seven of them came to me, and these were guys who weren’t coming to church, but they came to me and said, ‘Father, we’ve enjoyed playing basketball with you. We’re playing in a basketball league and would you be our coach on Saturday mornings?’

“I remember thinking, is that where I ought to be? And I thought, well, they’re not coming to church; maybe I need to be on their turf. They saw a way to connect with me; I needed to try to meet that connection, so I coached these guys in basketball. I don’t know where they are today. I’d like to think that going out to them somehow led them to have some positive experience that would eventually reconnect them to the Church.

“One thing I hear from young people, they’re looking for authenticity. They’re really moved by people’s passion and compassion, sometimes as much or more so than the words. I think that young people, even if they don’t agree with you, they appreciate that you are sincere and mean what you say.”
 

Q. How would you respond if a young person asked, “Archbishop Thompson, what meaning does the Catholic faith give to your life?”

A. “I have said before that that being Catholic is like breathing for me. It’s my life. It permeates everything about my life. I’m not perfect, but I would like to think that even when I fail, I’m driven by the principles of my faith. It’s what gives me energy and strength. It’s what allows me to go through all I do each day. It’s asking how am I giving my life to God.

“The Catholic faith, it reminds me that there’s something bigger than myself and that I’m not alone. And the Catholic faith, first and foremost, teaches me that it’s about Jesus Christ; it’s not about Chuck Thompson. If people are looking for energy and purpose in life, I don’t know of anything that can provide that more than the faith, and for me the Catholic faith.

“Also, the Catholic faith is a reminder that life isn’t about immediate gratification. We take up our cross. True happiness is not without its sacrifices and its crosses and its challenges. Catholic faith certainly helps us to center on that reality.”
 

Q. What are your hopes for young Catholics?

A. “I would hope that young Catholics would take the time to really learn their faith, the richness of it and all that the Catholic Church provides. I think the more they would know, the more they would fall in love with the Church.

“And I would hope that young people would embrace their place in the mission of the Church. Find how God is calling them to be a part of this Catholic faith, this mission. I would hope that each young person would learn enough and understand enough about their Catholic faith to grow in enthusiasm and desire to embrace their place in that mission.”
 

(Dr. Kimberly F. Baker is an associate professor of Church history at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad.)

 

Related story: Youths embrace pope’s invitation to share thoughts about their lives and the Church

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