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The Italian Church and young people: it’s time to suspend judgement and to listen

The Italian Church and young people. Are youths still interested in the message of the Church? Do they understand it? Who are they and what do they want? We turned the question to the Directors of CEI Departments in dialogue with young people in various areas of life: youth pastoral care, vocations, school and university. They form part of the Italian delegation attending the CCEE European Symposium on the accompaniment of young people

“We need to understand where we stand as adults, educators, community leaders. The question of young people challenges us and we are called to face that question. The issue at stake is not young people in themselves but the fact that we have lost contact with them. The answer is to listen to them.” The leading theme is the Italian Church and young people. Fr Michele Falabretti, National Coordinator of the Department for the Pastoral Care of Young People for the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI), drew an overview of the situation of pastoral support to young people in Italy. We are in Barcelona, the city of the Ramblas and of Gaudi. The European Symposium promoted by CCEE, attended by 275 delegates representing 37 European Bishops’ Conferences, ends today. There is a large Italian delegation that includes the leaders of all CEI departments working in close contact with the young in the realm of catechesis, in schools, in universities, in pastoral and vocational ministry. The meeting is being held in view of the Bishops’ Synod that Pope Francis has decided to dedicate to the young generations. “The Synod offers us the opportunity to reflect and pinpoint the questions, which aren’t about what we should do but about who young people are, what do they dream, how do they live, how do they develop.”

The most frequent risk is expecting that young people tell us “what we want to hear. Sometimes –Falabretti pointed out –it’s almost as if we don’t believe enough in the serious, important questions that young people ask themselves.” In Barcelona European delegates devoted four days to the challenges of accompaniment. How should their accompaniment be carried out? “I don’t know”, Falabretti replied. “We need to understand it. We certainly need to learn to suspend judgement. We need to listen, and try to understand. We don’t want to convert young people. We care for them. I don’t think that the Pope intends or is concerned about bringing youths back into the Church. Rather, I firmly believe that he has their future at heart.”

Monsignor Domenico Dal Molin is the Director of the National Office for the Pastoral Care of Vocations of the Italian Bishops’ Conference. The situation – on the front of vocations –grew stable after the major decline registered a few years ago. But Italy is a large country, and its southern regions have largely contributed to that stability with a numerous presence of young people in the regional seminaries of the Apulia and Sicily. “We see a culture marked by the fear of commitment that prevents people from taking decisions and is combined with the fear of lifelong engagement”, pointed out Msgr. Dal Molin. “Hence it is important to work at motivational level, thereby attempting to release the burden of this fear at psychological level.” “The joint reflections with European Churches – Dal Molin said help us see the lights and the shadows of our reality. The debate helps us enhance all the good things we are doing and it also helps us identify the new direction that lies ahead. At the level of the Italian Church we have a strong, deep-rooted tradition. But in my opinion we find it hard to see the new opportunities that emerge among the young. We should not wait for them to come to us, we should go where they lead us.”

Young people? “They cannot be defined with labels”, replied Ernesto Diaco, Director of the CEI National Office for Education, School and University. “They are a varied, plural world, rich with great desires and with a yearning to live, and most of all, they are motivated by the quest for significant models. They are alert, they notice everything, and when they meet true, authentic people, they listen to them. We should do the same with them: we must get rid of all forms of prejudice and look beyond appearances. If we succeed, we will have beautiful surprises.”

School and universities are precious occasions for encounter. Spaces for the future. Areas where the major questions on life and on the future are raised and discussed. There are 1.7 million university students in Italy, 100 thousand in the city of Turin alone. State universities lack public spaces for university pastoral work and there are only 200 priests and religious devoted to this ministry. Fr Luca Peyron is one of them. He is in charge of University Pastoral Ministry in Piedmont. He said: “20-year-olds have a set of needs, aspirations, fears and hopes that should be detected.” Being present in the university realm is a key enabling us to reach out to the hearts of the young through their intelligence. Indeed, universities represent a stage of life during which young people become adults. It’s a time when, to a certain extent, the course of their lives will be determined forever.”

Thus nothing can be taken for granted. There are no recipes, nor ready-made solutions. Moreover – added Monsignor Oscar Cantoni, Bishop of Como, President of CCEE Commission for Vocations – young people want the Church to be near them. They ask for travel companions with whom they can share their living situations, that are not always easy to cope with. They ask for hope on the basis of their own problems, expectations, and wounds, without being judged. Young people expect a great deal from the Church. That expectation should be answered carefully, in order to focus on who they are, where they are going, and what they need. This requires patience, leaving them the time to discover the best ways to be helped, and most of all, it requires great mercy, so they may feel fully accepted and loved.”

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