Bishop's Interview: Young adults are a treasure to the church
Editor: Bishop Joe, Pope Francis has called for a Synod of Bishops to meet with the theme “Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment” in October 2018. First of all, what is a synod?
Bishop Vásquez: The convocation of a synod was established by Pope Paul VI after the Second Vatican Council. A synod is a gathering of bishops from different parts of the world with the pope to address certain concerns that are going on in the church. They come together to discern under the guidance of the Holy Spirit how the church should respond to the issues at hand. The finding of the synod are then presented to the entire church.
Pope Francis has chosen the theme for this particular synod to be “Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment.” So in October 2018, bishops and the pope will gather to discuss how important young people are to the church. The preparatory document for the synod, which was launched in January, defines young adults as between the ages of 16 and 29. The document says, “the church has decided to examine herself on how she can lead young people to recognize and accept the call to the fullness of life and love, and to ask young people to help her in identifying the most effective ways to announce the Good News today.”
This synod is not simply the church telling young people what they should do. It is quite the opposite in that the church wants to listen to young people and discern how to help them proclaim God’s message in today’s world. The church knows the gift of young people, thus we are inviting them to tell us their needs, hopes and desires.
Young people, as we know, are very close to the Holy Father’s heart. Pope Francis is very much aware of young people’s needs today. He has spent a great deal of time listening to them. Bishop Garcia and I were privileged to be in Poland for World Youth Day when Pope Francis gathered with more than a million young people to celebrate Mass. The pilgrims spent the night before the Mass in vigil and prayer anticipating the Holy Father’s arrival. The connection young people share with our Holy Father is quite profound. He understands the challenges and demands placed on young people today. He knows the church must speak to young people, which is why he has call this synod.
Editor: What do you think the church in general has to offer young people?
Bishop Vásquez: First and foremost, the church offers Jesus Christ. Her mission is to proclaim Christ to the world. Jesus is the hope that young people are seeking. There is a deep hunger and restlessness, and young people are searching for purpose and meaning. Jesus Christ is the answer to their longings. We cannot let them sit at the peripheries, we must welcome them in and meet them where they are at in their faith.
We are blessed in the Diocese of Austin in that we have offices primarily focused on serving and ministering to young people. We have a vibrant Office for Youth, Young Adults and Campus Ministry that works closely with the Office of Evangelization, Catechesis and Family Life. Thousands of young people are involved in our religious education and faith formation programs; we also have large groups of young adults involved in campus ministry throughout the diocese.
In the Austin Diocese, we have some of the largest universities in the country, and we have strong campus ministries at Texas A&M University and the University of Texas, as well as at Texas State University, Baylor and the other universities in our boundaries. We have excellent priests, as well as lay people, including FOCUS missionaries, who are involved and dedicated to serving these young people.
Young people are a treasure to the church and need to be invited to partner with us in our endeavors. Young people have a lot of energy and they bring hope and joy to the church. One of the great gifts that I admire in young people is their commitment to serve others. Every year at the Pro-Life Mass and Rally here in Austin, the crowd is filled with young people praying and marching for the dignity of all human life. As I visit campus ministries, I am inspired by the young people who are giving their time and talent to the church. They are involved in liturgical ministries, prayer groups, Bible studies and discernment groups.
I see it as a priority for the church to encourage youth involvement and participation in parish life. We cannot take young people for granted as though they will always be part of the church. We know many young people are leaving us. As a church, we must appeal to them and share the joy of the Gospel in a way that is fresh and fulfilling.
Editor: Families also play a crucial role in the faith of our young people, correct?
Bishop Vásquez: Parents are the primary teachers of the faith to our youth. Mothers and fathers teach Christian values to their children, primarily by how they live their lives. This is why marriages are so important. Strong marriages provide the foundation for strong families. There is no such thing as a perfect family, but we have plenty of good families and good marriages.
“The irreplaceable educational role played by parents and other family members needs to be acknowledged in every Christian community,” the synod preparatory document says. When Pope Francis visited the U.S. in 2015 for the World Meeting of Families, he said, “Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to grow in faith.” It is within the family that children hear the Gospel and are being formed as disciples of Jesus Christ, thus, the church must support families.
Editor: How does the church help young people accept the joy of the Gospel?
Bishop Vásquez: Pope Francis has given us a great example of how we can invite young people to go out and tell others about Jesus Christ. We have to invite our young people, catechize them, evangelize them and then send them forth, but first and foremost, we must love them. The church must pay attention to our young people and be a positive part of their lives.
“Through every phase of this synod, the church wants again to state her desire to encounter, accompany and care for every young person, without exception. The church cannot, nor does she wish to, abandon them to the isolation and exclusion to which the world exposes them,” the synod document says. As a church we want to help young people realize their value and the vital role they have in the church. They are gifted, energetic, wise and faithful, and the church needs them.
Editor: Tell us more about the survey for young adults.
Bishop Vásquez: To prepare for the synod, each diocese is conducting a survey seeking input from all young adults (ages 16 to 39). The survey is directed at three audiences: young people engaged in the church, those not engaged in the church and pastoral and ministry leaders who work with young people. The survey questions seek input on a variety of issues, including the cultural changes resulting from a developing digital world. Summaries of the survey responses from each diocese will be compiled and distributed to bishops in preparation for the synod. It is good to note that the synod organizers do not see young adults throughout the world as the same. The questions and concerns that the young adults in America have may be very different from those in Africa or Asia. I encourage young people, whether they are Catholic or not, to answer the survey. I welcome this feedback, which will help us understand what they are facing at this time. To participate in the survey, go to www.austindiocese.org/synod.
Editor: What is your prayer for young adults in our church?
Bishop Vásquez: My prayer is young people will find in us a welcoming community where they encounter Jesus Christ, so that they may become full and active members of the Catholic Church sharing their gifts of joy, zeal and service with others. I pray that our families will continue to be sources of strength for young people, even as they reach independence and adulthood. I pray that our parishes, Catholic schools and service organizations will welcome the gifts of our young people with open arms.