Dermot Kelly, Youth Director for the Archdiocese of Armagh discusses journeying from World Meeting of Families to the upcoming Synod on young people, the faith and vocational discernment

Saint John Paul II once said: “When I look at you, I see the Ireland of the future. Tomorrow, you will be living force of your country; you will decide what Ireland will be – tomorrow you will have the power to make dreams come true.

“When I look at you assembled around this altar and listen to your prayers, your singing voices, I see the future of the Church.  God has his plans for the Church in Ireland, but he needs you to carry it out.  What the Church will be in the future depends on your cooperation with God’s grace.”

In tackling the issue of young people in the Church, the upcoming synod will be addressing the Church’s future. Above is a sentiment that reflects St. John Paul II’s when he visited Ireland 39 years ago when he spoke to Ireland’s youth in Galway. This message is even more important today!

From the announcement of the preparatory document (January 2017) of the synod of Bishop XV ordinary general assembly on young people, the faith and vocational discernment Archbishop Eamon Martin and I were excited and wished to evaluate the situation within the Archdiocese of Armagh.  We wanted to begin a process in which responses were sought, from young people, those who work with them but most importantly establish a more ‘Listening Church’.

We must give thanks to his Holiness Pope Francis for selecting these topics for the upcoming Synod as it has created constructive and positive dialogue both locally and internationally with youth and to help them discern their vocations.  It has been really interesting in being part of this process and most interesting has been observing Pope Francis’ approach to the synod, he really wants to hear from youth and wants his brother Bishops to consult and to hear the true from each country.

Some observations from listening exercises and questionnaires to youth and those who work with youth have been the main challenges of being a young person today which include; school & exam pressures, mental health, social media, prejudices towards young people and struggles with faith.  One recurring answer that was given was the struggle put on young people to ‘live up to expectations’ and told socially to ‘be the best at everything’. 

I have been very much enriched from the dialogue and listening with young people.  Over this last year we as a youth commission have prayed to discern and how best to respond to young people.  This will be most evident in our forthcoming Youth Commission strategic plan 2019 -2024.

In May 2018, I was given the opportunity to take on the role as Coordinator of the Teen Global Village at the Pastoral Congress, RDS for the World meeting of Families 2018.  This was a great honour, something that I was very grateful for and blessed to be part of a dynamic team to help our Church. To say the least it was a dream as over a decade ago I obtained a third level education in event management and worked in the hospitality sector before coming to work for the Church almost 8 year ago. 

From the start and from previous consulting with young people around the area of what kinds of places or spaces have a major success outside the Church, I really wanted to create a space for teens to come to celebrate, to be themselves and to be encouraged – a festival like environment…a Glastonbury for teenage Catholics. 

As advocates of fun faith opportunities for young people, we are completely overjoyed with our experience at World Meeting of families.  ADYC young adult volunteers were fortunate enough to be part of the core team at the festival of families and to help coordinate up to 1000 young people per day. This was significant for us to journey with a core group in preparation and implementation stage and to be a positive community together.

In reflecting from all dialogue from young in regard to the preparatory document on the Synod the Teen Global Village offered international teens the chance to develop themselves in faith, spirit and person.  They were encouraged to be the person God created them to be, they developed skills and qualities, and helped teens to discover ways to maintain a health mind through games, concert, catechesis, panel discussions and workshops.  We had amazing speakers who shared their religious experiences, which inspired us and reminded us that we are called to live a faith filled life.

My time working at World Meeting of Families proved that, even in times of challenge and difficulty, so many inspiring young people will still engage in their faith and act as positive faith role models for their peers, and for that I am proud.  The Teen Global Village emphasised and epitomised what ADYC is all about.  We offer opportunities for young people because we want to leave a positive mark on young people’s lives, in a way which encourages them to live out their faith.

Pope Francis in his speech at World Meeting of Families asked for forgiveness, and as Catholics we pray alongside him.  We pray for a Church with faith, hope and love.  A Church that no young person should ever feel ashamed to be part of.  A Church that provides young people with a sense of belonging.  A Church that inspires.  A Church that loves.

As a youth practitioner for 10 years I hope and pray that this upcoming synod is a continual process of dialogue.  After the pre-synodal meeting in March of this year in Rome attended by 300 young representatives from around the world.  Approximately 15,3000 young people from 5 continents took part in the meeting physically or virtually.  Receiving input from 20 language groups, the resultant document was sent to Synodal Fathers and ultimately now informed the Instrumentum Laboris.   

The final document, the Instrumentum Laboris, is broken up into three parts and has been drawn up to mimic the method of discernment.  Pope Francis describes the process of discernment in Evangelii Gaudium using three verbs: recognise, interpret and choose.  Instrumentum Laboris states it recognises that young men and women are often confronted by challenge of cultural changes that sometimes disregards spirituality and Church teaching.

The big questions or desires I have from a local level are how we focus on resilience, self-acceptance and attitude of gratitude.  Overall the Synod responses from the Archdiocese of Armagh have challenge me and should disturb our Church. A high portion of respondents can be assumed to have ‘some’ connection with Church.  However, this connection is not exclusive and should not be taken for granted as there are many other influences impacting on young people values and beliefs.

Young people today are under a great amount of external pressures.  Consistent mention about pressures of success, mental health, peer pressures and social media pressures.  When it comes to engaging with their faith and practice of the faith, there are extreme circumstances of social pressures from contemporaries.

Many young people today have a great sense of justice, equality and fairness, more so than ever.  This is very evident from school setting and from the individual young person in what they follow or participate with.  However, some when they view the Church, they view it as a place where inequality still exists in relation to woman, people who are gay or indifferent. 

Positivity, there is a clear message that young people are as spirituality as ever, they want to learn, experience and have a greater role in their faith.  Many responses have indicated that they have a desire to help and be involved in parish life.  But many noted that parishes create greater obstacles to be involved and are discouraged.

Diocesan structures and offering of experiences such as pilgrimages and faith-based activities that focussed on mobilising groups of young people seem to have a great impact on the lives and personal accompaniment of young people.  Young people who encounter role models like youth ministers, chaplains or volunteers in a faith setting are crucial to the ongoing faith journey of the young person.