Being a young adult today: frustration or opportunity
GRAHAM NEIST FMS
Since I am not a young adult, perhaps I need to clarify how it is that I come to write this. I am a middle-aged Marist Brother who has the honour of working with and for young adults who are searching for and developing their spirituality.
I say ‘honour’ because it is a work where all I have come to know about young adults and their spiritual longing I have learnt from the personal stories and thoughts that young adults have shared with me. And so, it has come to be, that I am given opportunities like this to be an advocate for young adults and their way of living and developing their spirituality.
This article is focused on young adults who give a priority to spirituality in how they view and understand their life and experience of the world. This is not the majority of young adults but they are a very significant group for the future of spiritual values within our Australian culture and especially for the Churches.
Being a Young Adult
An important step in the early part of being a young adult is moving away from all that has constrained them or given them their identity up to this point in their life.
This is not a rejection of values and standards that come from family, church, school or peers, though it can feel very much like rejection for those closely linked to the young adult. Rather, it is a movement to gain distance from instilled values and structures so that the young adult can make his/her own choice as to how they want to live their life.
This can be a time of lots of experimenting and continuous change for the young person, exciting for them and worrying for those who love them. It is a very important time, and also a very healthy part of growing as a person. It only becomes unhealthy if it goes on too long.
In a good growth pattern, having spent some time trying different ways of living, with different values and structures, the young person is drawn to making a choice of a particular way of living and of then making the commitment to bring this choice to life. If the young person continues to free-float, not making any definite choices or commitments, then they become stuck, living in a very disconnected way.
There is much about our present culture/society that doesn’t help young people to do the growth work that is important for them to develop as a young adult. I would like to emphasise three such issues : being unable to attend to their deepest desires; fearing and mistrusting commitment; and the avoidance of pain.
A very strong emphasis on an immediate response to their immediate wants, forms young people in ways that keep them out of touch with their deepest needs and desires. Much of our advertising informs us that we can find all the happiness we need by selecting the ‘right’ hair colouring, perfume, car, kitchen product or food! If we can keep our selves distracted by being busy about keeping up with all the latest trends then we can keep our awareness away from the deep longings for belonging, identity and intimacy that are connected to God and our membership in the family of Life.
Because of this emphasis on responding to the immediate rather than what is at depth, young adults can grow up with a poorly developed ability to attend to their deepest longings and desires. This makes authentic choice very difficult.
Even where a young adult is able to make choices, the society’s attitude to commitment makes it very difficult to give everything to the choice. Our society encourages an image of commitment as ‘old-hat’ or ‘too limiting’ of our personal freedom. This prevents young people from really entering into their choices fully and stops them from gaining the insights about their true identity that only commitment can bring.
Sadly for young adults, it is a real ‘catch 22’. They desire so strongly to know who they are, but the attitudes they learn from our society prevent them from living in a way that could best give them what they most want.
The last point is probably the most destructive of all. Within our society we go to enormous lengths to avoid pain. Yet pain is a natural consequence of fullness of life and love. So in the end we find ourselves avoiding life and love, even though they are the two things most sought by young people-and all of us.
Because growth as a person will produce pain, we can find ourselves seeking all forms of distraction to keep the pain from our awareness. Worse still, we can end up making our life choices in directions that avoid growth.
These three dispositions, which are so strong in our society, can cause young adults great trouble as they seek to move on from the period of experimenting and continuous change. Unless older folk, whom the young adults respect and trust, can invite and encourage them to make life giving choices, and to give themselves fully in commitment, the young adults will find themselves locked into continuous upheaval and can eventually feel quite lost.
Young adults need to see living examples of adults who have made choices and commitments. People who witness by their daily lives, how to attend to one’s deepest human desires; and, even though it includes some pain, choose to grow towards becoming their most authentic self.
As well, young adults need older adults who will invite them to make choices and commitments. But these invitations can only be taken seriously within an ongoing relationship. The young people need to know that the older people will stay with them, living life fully alongside them, offering skills and insights along the way.
Being a Spiritual Young Adult
Most young adults remain unconscious with regard their spirituality. This does not mean they don’t have spiritual experiences, or that their life is not effected by these experiences. It is just that they are mostly unconscious of these effects. This means the graces and insights that can flow from such experiences also remain mostly unconscious.
For those young adults who choose to explore their spirituality, and especially those who make a commitment to the development of their spirituality, their experience of being a young adult gains a great richness, but it also brings more challenges, questions and invitations to continuously live more and more deeply.
The steps along the pathway of the spiritual journey have been constant throughout human history. What change are the doorways in which we meet the God who continually invites us to join with him on this spiritual journey. Also the language, images and symbols we use to describe the experience of being on the spiritual journey can change over time.
For many people of older generations, the main doorway where they met God, and the language, images and symbols about the spiritual experience were connected with the Church and with weekly celebration of the Mass. This is not the case for many spiritual young adults today.
Young adults today tend to meet God in five main doorways: experiences of community, personal and community prayer, working for social justice, experiences of creation and working to protect the environment, and opportunities to offer ministry to others. This variety of doorways also means that the language, images and symbols around God and the spiritual journey have become more varied.
For many spiritual young adults today, the importance of a personal relationship with God precedes the choice to consciously participate in a church community. Spiritual young adults value very highly the wisdom from the church traditions, especially when it is translated into the language, images and symbols of their spiritual journey. However, they do not find membership of a church community the first place where they experience God’s invitation to take up the journey of developing their spiritual life.
Groups working for social justice, involvement in offering service and care to those in need, retreats, living in community, peer group celebrations of faith, parish based groups that meet for social and faith sharing, groups connected with the charism of particular communities of Religious Life, e.g. Edmund Rice Family and programmes such as Alpha and Dialogue-these are some of the key places where young adults begin their conscious spiritual journeys. They find these small faith communities-church with a small ‘c’-places where they are invited, supported, educated and challenged to be people who live rich spiritual lives.
If there is one great need that young adults identify as they work to grow in their spirituality it is the need for mentors-older people wise in the ways of the spiritual journey. Not so that they can give the answers, because the answers for one person could be continued blindness for another, but so that they can walk with and pass on the wisdom that has been learnt from thousands of years of people consciously living the spiritual life.
So often, when spiritual young adults turn to their elders within religious traditions, they simply receive doctrinal statements, rather than the sharing of experience of one who has also risked the journey. Many older folk are fearful of sharing their own spirituality, or worse, fear they have none to share.
We older consciously spiritual adults need to share our wisdom with young adults and be prepared, even desire, to listen to their wisdom and be challenged by it for it can be for us the whispering of the Holy Spirit for our own spiritual journey.
Being a Spiritual Young Adult in the Catholic Church
Like all groups, the Catholic Church is strongly oriented to preserving its present structures and understandings. All groups need the young so that the group can continue to grow and develop. When a group stops listening to its young people, or stops encouraging the young from having dreams, it has begun to die.
It is the role of young adults to challenge the present structures, systems and values with the dreams and longings for the future. It is not that they ‘have the answers’, anymore than the elders ‘have the answers’. Rather in the back and forth as the different members of the group struggle to understand and appreciate each other and each other’s wisdom, the way to grow becomes a little more clear and together we can stretch ourselves forward.
When we stop listening to each other and don’t have respect for the other’s wisdom-even if we find it quite challenging to our ways and beliefs-there is no way to go forward and grow.
Young adults are given to us to disturb us with their dreams, visions and passions. As is the way of the young, their solutions will sometimes be simplistic, but that doesn’t detract from the value of their perceptions about the directions in which we should grow.
In this tension the best of a tradition in wisdom and structure is carried forward and married with new insights and growth in wisdom. This is how a tradition is renewed and preserved from being reduced to mere traditionalism.
Our present Church structures and methods have not carried well the skills and practices that underpin a fruitful living of the spiritual journey. Often what has been passed on, from generation to generation, has been how to be a good member of the ‘Catholic group’ rather than wisdom about how to grow in one’s spirituality.
The young adults of our time are challenging us to be renewed in this aspect of our living. Through them, the Holy Spirit is inviting each of us to once again take our own spiritual life seriously, and to live a rich personal relationship with God, as well as celebrating and living our relationship as Church.
It can be very tough for a young adult to be part of a local Church community. What is most visible about our Church communities are that they are ‘old’ with very few young people present. As noted earlier, it is highly likely that the language, images and symbols the young adult will use to speak of their experience of God and Church will not be the same as older people.
If a very narrow understanding of orthodoxy is used, their ideas and dreams will be deemed ‘outside the Church’. Using this very narrow understanding of orthodoxy, all renewal is unorthodox. Looking back over the history of our Church who is more unorthodox than the Holy Spirit! Because of this young adults can find it hard to have anyone really listen to them.
Another reaction occurs in some Church groups. Seeing the small number of young people participating in Sunday liturgies, they make every effort to have young adults be part of their group. The problem is that the young adults get treated as the ‘saviours’ of the group and so no-one is ready to question them or share a differing opinion. They are the future and must therefore ‘have the answers’. This is disrespectful of all concerned.
We do not grow in wisdom by being treated as always right or all-knowing. What young adults are looking for in Church is relationship with others who value and are committed to the spiritual journey. They want a relationship where they will be valued and listened to, as well as encouraged to participate in the life of the community. They also want the relationship to be one that stretches them through the questions and sharing of wisdom of those who are further along the way.
Being a Young Adult. Frustration or Opportunity?
Spiritually speaking they are both part of the one movement-all frustration offers a moment of opportunity and all opportunities will offer moments of frustration. Young adults need older heads to share with them experiences of how this is so, and to urge them not to be afraid of the pain of frustration or the risk of taking up an opportunity. Young adults also need to see older adults living with the pain of frustration and risking opportunity if they are to believe.
God’s people is renewed as we all live-out fully, and with passion, the part of the spiritual journey that is ours at this time. Both young and older adults need to dream dreams and see visions, and then, have the courage to struggle together as a community of spiritual people to find God’s invitation within these dreams and visions.
We need each other very much to become true Church and the greatest gift we can give to each other is an authentic personal spiritual life lived with passion and shared with the community.
A Wish and a Prayer
I urge all our young adults to dream their dreams and speak forth their visions for the good of us all! I pray we can encourage them to disturb us deeply!
As well, I pray that many more older adults will have enough love for our young adults to be courageous in walking with them as they strive to be all that God created them to be!
Graham Neist is a Marist Brother who has worked in Young Adult Ministry for many years. Currently he is Director of the Montagne Institute which is dedicated to encouraging and assisting spiritual formation, especially in young people.
Young People in the Church
In many countries of Oceania, young people form the majority of the population, while in countries like Australia and New Zealand this is not true to the same extent. The Synod Fathers wanted to assure the youth of the Church in Oceania that they are called to be ‘salt of the earth and the light of the world’ (Mt 5:13,14). The Bishops wished them to know that they are a vital part of the Church today, and that Church leaders are keen to find ways to involve young people more fully in the Church’s life and mission. Young Catholics are called to follow Jesus: not just in the future as adults, but now as maturing disciples. May they always be drawn to the overwhelmingly attractive figure of Jesus, and stirred by the challenge of the Gospel’s sublime ideals! Then they will be empowered to take up the active apostolate to which the Church is now calling them, and play their part joyfully and energetically in the life of the Church at every level: universal, national, diocesan and local. Today ‘youth live in a culture which is uniquely theirs. It is essential that Church leaders study the culture and language of youth, welcome them and incorporate the positive aspects of their culture into the Church’s life and mission’.
Yet this is also a time in which young people face great difficulties. Many are unable to find employment, frequently drifting to the larger cities where the pressures of isolation, loneliness and unemployment lead them into destructive situations. Some are tempted to drug abuse and other forms of addiction, and even to suicide. Yet in these situations too, young people are often searching for the life that only Christ can offer them. It is imperative therefore that the Church proclaim the Gospel to the young in ways that they can understand, ways that can enable them to grasp the hand of Christ who never ceases to reach out to them, especially in their dark times.
The Synod Fathers were convinced of the need for youth-to-youth ministry, and they echoed the plea I made to young people when I visited the region: ‘Do not be afraid to commit yourselves to the task of making Christ known and loved, especially among the many people of your own age, who make up the largest part of the population’. With the Synod Fathers, I call on the young people of the Church to give prayerful consideration to the following of Jesus in the priesthood or in the consecrated life, for the need is great. The Bishops were quick to applaud young people for their acute sense of justice, personal integrity and respect for human dignity, for their care for the needy and their concern for the environment. These are signs of a great generosity of spirit which will not fail to bear fruit in the life of the Church now, as it has always done in the past.
In many places Youth Pilgrimages are a positive feature of the life of young Catholics. Pilgrimage has long been part of the Christian life, and it can be most helpful in conferring a sense of identity and belonging. The Synod Fathers recognized the importance of the World Youth Day as an opportunity for young people to experience genuine communio, as was seen most memorably during the Great Jubilee. There they come together to listen to God’s word presented in a language which they understand, to reflect upon it prayerfully and to take part in inspiring liturgies and prayer meetings. Time and again I have seen how many of them are by nature open to the mystery of God revealed in the Gospel. May the glorious mystery of Jesus Christ bring unending peace and joy to the young people of Oceania! -Ecclesia in Oceania, par. 44.