How can we accompany young adults searching for faith after the pandemic?

A young woman helps sanitize pews following a bilingual memorial Mass March 13, 2021, for parishioners who have died from COVID-19 at St. John-Visitation Church in the Bronx borough of New York. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Springtide Research Institute, a sociological research institute that focuses on youth, recently released its findings from a survey of 508 respondents ages 18 to 25 administered between March 24-31, 2020.

The findings are somewhat remarkable. 

  • Respondents are not experiencing a decrease in their faith; in fact, 35% increased their faith and 47% stayed the same.
  • Nearly 46% have started new religious practices, and 43% have participated in at least one religious service online.
  • Yet 50% of those who have attended an online service report that they don’t have anyone to talk to about how they are feeling, and 44% report feeling isolated because no one has reached out to them.

Lucy Cobble, a 21-year-old Villanova student who interns with Springfield, writes that she doesn’t want a space to process her feelings. Instead, she is grateful for “the presence of trusted adults [that have] made all the difference in my life.” 

“If it weren’t for the adults in my life who have provided spaces for open reflection, I would never have found the language to begin honestly thinking through and naming the experiences of the year,” Lucy said. “Adults all over the country, all over the world, are going to play a critical role in how my peers and I process and move forward in life after the pandemic.”

Lucy explicitly says she wants guidance and wants to start making sense of what happened and how to respond in light of what happened.

As Catholic Christians, we have the so-called “tools” from more than 2,000 years of faith tradition. We are able to walk alongside these young adults who are seeking meaning in their world, particularly in relation to suffering brought upon by the coronavirus.

But “guidance” does not mean launching into theological diatribes. As Pope Francis points out in Christus Vivit (CV), rather than listening to young people attentively, “All too often, there is a tendency to provide prepackaged answers and ready-made solutions, without allowing their real questions to emerge and facing the challenges they pose” (CV 65).

So, how do we open up spaces for this kind of dialogue to happen?

First, we have to be willing to meet them where they are. As Pope Francis says, we need to “enter their night” (CV 237). What does this mean? Well, many young adults are indeed in darkness. The results from a study by the American Psychological Association, which was published before the pandemic, indicate a marked rise in mood disorders and depression among young people.

This is not a time when we should be judging. Rather, we should simply be willing to listen to their story. We must be attentive to the “other” before us, in the same way Moses knelt before the Lord who was manifested in the burning bush. “Each young person’s heart should thus be considered ‘holy ground,’ a bearer of seeds of divine life, before which we must ‘take off our shoes’ in order to draw near and enter more deeply into the Mystery” (CV 67).

Finally, paragraph 113 in the Directory for Catechesis calls for catechists to become “experts ... in the art of accompaniment.” However, we don’t need to be formally designated as a “catechist” to do so. Each of us is called, by our baptism, to be those who can walk alongside another as Jesus walked alongside those on the journey to Emmaus.

As Lucy seems to imply, young adults don’t just want “a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption” (Evangelii Gaudium 170).

As more and more people are getting vaccinated and our parishes begin to open up (and the weather gets warmer!), this is an ideal time to offer a real, physical space for young adults to come together with more “spiritually seasoned” adults. We also need to be aware of the great opportunities that are online, where so many young adults are hanging out. Given the possibilities for interactivity on websites, social media and even gaming, how can the Church continue to put its head in the sand and avoid this modern-day Areopagus?

Echoing the Second Vatican Council, the Directory for Catechesis affirms that the Church is committed to deciphering the “signs of the times” as “possibilities for encounter and for proclamation of the newness of the faith.”

Really? Is she? Are we?

Tamra Hull Fromm, Ph.D., is director of discipleship and an instructor with the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan and has taught at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.