A wise person once described evangelization as gently moving a person closer to a friendship with Christ. The image he used was that of concentric rings. The outer ring would be a vague understanding of the existence of God, with each ring representing a deeper knowledge of God until one comes to the center where lies the belief that we are saved by Jesus Christ. This is a helpful image in our effort to evangelize that nebulous population of young adults who drift away soon after the bonds of Sacramental preparation programs release them. 

Young adults may be closer to Christ on their Spiritual set of rings than we realize, at least according to a recent Pew Religious Landscape Study. The research revealed that 50 percent of young adults report feeling a sense of “Spiritual well-being and/or peace” at least once a week, clearly orbiting on the outer ring. About the same percentage report feeling “wonder about the universe” at least once a week. 

However, the study reported that while weekly attendance at a religious service has declined from 33 percent to 27 percent in the past 10 years for the overall adult population, 28 percent of young adult Catholics report that they attend Mass weekly. Fifty percent report “once or twice monthly/a few times a year,” compared to the 21 percent who report that they “seldom/never” attend. We might not see them in our parishes because they don’t settle for one place; seeking a good homily or the best Liturgy wherever they can be found.

Many young adults have a nascent Spiritual life that may not involve attending Mass regularly. Forty-one percent of young adults report “at least daily” prayer, even though 34 percent say that they seldom or never pray. As we gently guide our young adults from the outer ring to the inner, we might focus on giving them the tools to develop their prayer life rather than insisting on Mass as the nonnegotiable starting point. How we get close enough to young adults to begin the process of guiding them through their Spiritual journey is the challenge facing the Church today. 

There are a multitude of strategies, but we might look at the methodology employed by Jesus as our guide. We need only look at that moment on the road to Emmaus for our model. It began with an encounter and it involved intentional and non-judgmental listening. First came the encounter with Christ. He walked beside them and said nothing while they recounted the concerns of their lives. So caught up in their worries they didn’t immediately recognize Jesus, but He listened intently before discerning what they needed, which turned out to be a walk through Scripture. Even then they weren’t forced to continue their relationship, but they were so hungry for more that the young disciples took the next step and invited Jesus into their lives. It was only then that Christ was fully revealed to them in the breaking of the bread.

Father Frank Donio, director of the Catholic Apostolate Center, explains the four-fold process Jesus used to accompany those young disciples. The encounter with Christ is the starting point, followed by accompaniment, which requires intense listening. This may be the most difficult part of our walk with young people. Most adults feel like they have to give answers, and will jump in with corrections and apologetics as soon as a young person floats a question in the air. Questions are the tip of an iceberg of understanding that lies beneath the surface and will emerge as the young person matures. Respecting their questions and challenges with love is the beginning of inviting them into the community. The final step after the community embraces the young is to send them forth into mission. 

Listening is a lost art, but in the Diocese of Fall River these past few months there’s been a lot of sessions just to hear what people have to say. True, these sessions are part of a strategy for revitalizing the diocese, but when humans listen to humans it usually results in a deepening of a relationship. Of all these listening sessions, the one that will bring the youth from around the diocese together with Bishop da Cunha may have the greatest impact. If we listen with sincerity and without judgment to our youth, we will forge a bond that will strengthen our Church as we go forward into the future.

The majority of youth who have been invited to come to Cathedral Camp on June 27 at 1 p.m. are mostly high school-age teens, but we can’t wait until this generation has experienced the inevitable drift before we engage and accompany them. The statistics have shown that young adults are much more ready for a relationship with God, and the Church, than we may have thought. When we listen to the young people we must be willing to take them where they are, not where we want them to be, but definitely where Jesus is taking them.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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