When I took on this current appointment as a Youth Coordinator serving a parish (not the Church of St Michael) in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore, the Lord God in his sense of humour allowed me to start on the 1st of November – All Saints’ Day, knowing that I would be most in need of the help and the intercession of Mother Mary and the holy saints, to see things through, and even more so to survive.
Almost immediately after receiving confirmation of the position, I wrote to the parish priests and to the panel who had interviewed me saying that it was the wrong fit job for me. I had in mind someone who had been working with the Youth for decades who was a better fit. As the Lord God would have it, I was too late in approaching her, and she had already been hired by another Parish, just a month prior. Talk about missing the boat! This is how from the onset, I was employed as a square peg to address a problem in a round hole.
For one, there hardly seemed to be any youth around. Apparently, I had been appointed as the Youth Coordinator in a parish with a predominantly elderly demographic. For decades, this parish serving a small population was used, and insisted on doing and running things in the way it had always known. A further excavation of the situation revealed that 7 years ago, the Youth Council had imploded upon itself, when the Youth comprising the Charismatics and a small group of youth who were in favour of the more traditional Tridentine rite, had a heated argument, due largely in part to the faulty and judgemental formation that they had received from someone who they had held in high esteem and respect, and who was a key person in fuelling the disputes. Apparently this same person was the source of other disputes in other communities before he had come to the parish in concern. A quick chat with the then parish-priest, whom shall remain unnamed to prevent identification of key persons involved at that time, revealed further that this person’s presence was very “bad for the youth”. The youth who identified as Charismatic exiled themselves from the parish and went on to serve at the Office for Young People and other neighbouring parishes.
The Parish Pastoral Council, elected in 2018, but kept in the dark about this forgotten chapter in History, decided that for the Parish to grow, and as a one-size fits all solution, the Parish had to hire a Youth Coordinator. However, it became clear after a couple of meetings that the decisions made at the Parish Executive Council did not take into account the opinions of the youth. Decisions were made on behalf of the youth, by adults who were far-removed from the youth on the ground, who thought they knew best about Youth Engagement. A salient meeting was telling in how the adults had met to discuss the shape and the architecture of a projected youth meeting area to be built in the new pastoral centre on the premises, and the youth activities for the year, and at that meeting, the greatest irony being that there was no youth who was present.
An incident about the use of the canteen left a distaste in my mouth. The parish priest had in his foresight and generosity given free use and permission for the youth of the confirmation classes to use the canteen kitchen to cook their suppers and meals. However, fuelled by some strange power struggle and jealousy, some other ministry who had booked the kitchen for use, in an attempt to cover up the fact that they had failed to clean up the kitchen after their use, decided that it was convenient to place the blame on the youth who had so coincidentally passed by. This resulted in the youth being banned from the use of the canteen and great unhappiness on the part of the youth who felt that they were wrongly accused.
When COVID-19 came about, there was an attempt to reach out to the youth, by creating video content that contained topics with what was relevant to the youth such as Bubble Tea, and mixing that content with theology and a discussion about faith communities. This was posted up on the parish’s social media channels. However, it was promptly shot down by the powers that be in the Parish Executive Council whose stance was: “We do not want our parish to be associated with bubble tea,” – which of course missed the whole point of using an object relevant to the youth to propagate the faith and to engage and evangelise to the youth. The parish thus, in its failure to understand the trends which were important to the young, missed an opportunity of building community with them.
In 2018, Pew Research and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) in the United States of America carried out a follow-up survey to its 2015 report. The findings were surprising. There had been a spike in the numbers of adults who had identified themselves as “nones” – those who labelled themselves as atheist, non-religious, or agnostic from 16% of the population in 2007 to 22.8% in 2014. Many of these “Nones” had origins in organised religion, and 80% of these surveyed, reported having been raised in the traditions of religion. The increase in “Nones” is congruent to the decline in those identifying themselves as Christian. According to Pew Survey, Catholics were hit the greatest in a mass exodus of Catholics out of the Church. While there was diversity in the responses garnered, top on the list for the cessation of any practice of the faith, was the loss of faith. About 50% surveyed revealed that a loss of belief had precipitated the leaving of the Church. A frequently cited reason was the lack of relevance to what the Catholics had learnt in school, and that was experienced via their life circumstances, compared to what they knew of in the Catholic Church. (Catholic World Report)
CARA augmented the findings of Pew Research with two separate studies, comprising of the age demographics from 10 to 17, and young adults from the age of 18. Alarmingly, two-thirds of the youth and young adults surveyed revealed that that had lost their faith between the age of 10 and 17. 23% of those surveyed reported that they had ceased to be Catholic or Christian by the age of 10. The second study by CARA, offers a glimmer of hope that Catholic programming could curtail the decline in the numbers of Catholics leaving the Church. a large group of the respondents reported that finding incompatibility with what they had learnt in school and what and how they were taught in the Faith, had bearings on whether they stayed on in the Faith or not. Those who had encountered solid and sound Catholic Programming from a younger age, were able to detect the differences between the Catholic Church and those from other Christian denominations, and reconcile how Faith and Science complemented each other, for example with regard to the topic of the Creation of Life and Evolution. (Catholic World Report)
The hard truth is this: 78% of Catholics are leaving the Church at an exponential rate from the ages between 15 and 23. As the statistics show, this age is lowering, and children as young as 10 are identifying themselves as disaffiliated from the Catholic Church. Out of these numbers, 65% of these are not returning to be married in the Church. (Catholic Foundation for Brooklyn and Queens)
To build a Faith Community, one has to begin with the Youth who make up the future of the Church. Nonetheless, the challenges are as such:
- The agency of Youth as change-makers, who have something important to say, are often dismissed by the adults running the parish. As they have been shut down all too often, when it comes to the truly important things, they would not speak up eventually.
- The parish has for such a long-time stuck to the status-quo of doing things, that it may be dismissive of new ideas of engagement.
- The power struggles and politicking at the Church Leadership level leave the youth and the young adults disillusioned. If these people whom I respect are behaving like spoilt, entitled brats who spend more time being busybodies and sowing discord and gossip, rather than building the Church, I would rather not be part of this nonsense.
- The youth are not consulted with regard to the important decisions made by the parish. Imagine a whole synod or assembly that contains adults discussing the welfare and the activities of the youth without the youth being present at all.
In April 2019, Pope Francis released an apostolic exhortation, Christus Vivit, which was addressed to “young people and to the entire people of God”. The humility, example, and simplicity of Pope Francis may be the saving Grace which a Church facing its largest exodus needs today. Inspired by how Pope Francis walks the talk, youth and young adults have been graced to give the Church a second look and chance.
In Christus Vivit, Pope Francis highlights the way there may be a renewal in the engagement with the youth of the Church:
- Young people need to be empowered to live as disciples of Jesus who are relevant to the world today. Catechesis and Youth Ministry need to begin to teach the youth about what life as a disciple of Jesus entails. Youth are empowered when they are welcomed into a Church that speaks to their hearts with the “joy of the Gospel and the strength of the Eucharist” (St. John Paul II, 1995 World Day of Prayer for Vocations).
- There is a need to draw Youth and Young Adults to responsible participation in the life, mission, and work of the Catholic Community. The four Communities which can help a young person to grow in the faith are: A) Family Community – the domestic sphere is where there is the ” first community and the most basic way in which the Lord gathers us, forms us, and acts in the world” (USCCB. Follow the Way of Love, 8) The family is responsible for the foundations of formation a child receives. The family unit is responsible for the spiritual, moral, and overall development of a person. B) The Parish Community – According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, ‘It is important for youth to engage the Parish community because parishes “are the place where God’s people meet Jesus in word and sacrament” in a concrete way (USCCB. Renewing the Vision). Youth-friendly parishes do three things to foster adolescent spiritual growth. First, parishes should allow youth to serve the parish along with adults. When adolescents feel welcomed into the parish community as full-fledged members, they are more likely to identify as a community member. Second, parishes must allow youthful energy and vision in parish activities. Young people have a great deal to offer parish ministry, and when they can express their faith through meaningful roles, they develop a spirit of commitment to the parish community. Finally, if parishes truly desire to become “youth-friendly”, it is crucial to value adolescents. This means listening to them and responding to their needs, as well as providing them with facilities and money to enable their growth as disciples. If the parish wants youth to commit to parish life, the parish must commit to the development of the youth.’ (USCCB. Youth Ministry) C) Catholic School Community – Catholic education and its environment needs to deepen the understanding of Faith in and outside the classroom. D) Youth Serving Organisational Community – The youth need to be engaged in service to others and the poor. Going beyond the boundaries of their homes, schools, and parish, Youth need to be given opportunities to live out their faith in the streets and the gutter, in the mission fields, and in foreign lands.
- Last but not least, there is a need to actively pursue the total and holistic growth of each person. If the Church is not paying attention to the developmental, social, moral, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual needs of a person, and nurturing them accordingly, then these young persons, will be disengaged and find their faith irrelevant to their lives.
Central to the the Apostolic exhortation in Christus Vivit, is that youth and young adults have to be alive with Christ, and being inflamed by and with the Gospel, make Christ their reason and pivot for living. Without whom, any ministerial intervention and attempts at Community Building falls short.
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
- Catholic World Report. “Catholicism and ‘Nones’: The data on youth and young adults” 23 Feb 2017.
- Catholic Foundation for Brooklyn and Queens. “Youth Evangelisation.” 2020
- Pope Francis. Christus Vivit. April 2019
- St John Paul II. World Day of Prayer for Vocations, 1995
- United States Conference of CAtholic Bishops (USCCB). “Renewing the Vision” 2000
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). “Follow the Way of Love” 1993
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). “Youth Ministry”. 2020