Making Room for Youth

Making Room for Youth


Making Room for Youth


Recently I’ve had the opportunity to reconnect with people I’ve met over the years. Though nostalgic, it has also alerted me to the reality that many people who are active in ministry are busy maintaining structures and systems that have less relevance to the faith needs of emerging generations. While reading Finding Faith in Ireland is very thought-provoking, it should not really surprise those who work closely with young people.

Ireland has undergone profound change in the last 50 years, which this survey reflects. Contrasting statistics show that over 80 percent of the Irish feel Catholic. However, large parts of our towns and cities have regular participation of less than 10 percent. Some parishes in cities have less than 5 percent participation.7 A number of commentators have referred to the Irish as over-sacramentalised and underevangelised. Barna’s research would seem to endorse this opinion.

It is important to remember that recent generations in Ireland have become more individualistic and separated from the emotions of statehood or Church across many denominations. Catholic Ireland, for many, has disappeared. Some people haven’t noticed its disappearance. Others struggle with their religious heritage. It would seem that identifying as Catholic is an even heavier burden than identifying as Christian. Clearly young people pick and choose parts of Christianity that resonate with them and choose to ignore parts of the faith that they don’t agree with. The values of Church are not shared by all youth in Ireland.

Amid all the cultural changes in Ireland over the last 20 years, we forgot to understand and listen to those who belong to what sociologists call Generation X and the Millennials. The generation born and formed in recent decades is quite distant from and very different in its relationship to the Church. They inhabit different worlds. As many of these young people
watched TV while eating their breakfast before school or in the evening, all they witnessed was a series of church scandals. No wonder many have abandoned faith and chosen to follow a different path, as echoed in chapter two’s overview of perceptions of the Church.

Young people who do have some type of faith commitment speak of a fear of talking to their friends about it. In an expanding culture of ridicule of anything Catholic or Christian, the faith of the younger generation has been suppressed. This has been the norm for many years. Church leaders and adults need to reflect on the salient points noted in chapter three, where young people speak about “hiding” their faith. Persecution of Christians and peer pressure are not new, however, young Irish people are now identifying with their faith in an “underground” manner.

Pope Francis asked the gathering of Bishops in Brazil, “Are we as a Church still capable of warming hearts?” In his encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, he notes that we all need to reach out to the “peripheries” and find ways of bringing the gospel to all situations. He has also said that we need to go out and meet young people on their search, where they are. They will be part of a Church where they feel welcomed. Youth leaders and emerging leaders will have to inspire a new generation to be part of the Church.

Young people want to contribute and to make a difference. They care about the world, the environment, justice and the poor. As Pope Francis has also said, “Young people are the windows through which the future enters the world.” This means that we have to create the material and spiritual conditions for their full development. For example, Pope Francis has called for the whole of the Catholic Church to prepare for a Synod on youth in 2018. For him, young people and their presence in Church and society are important.

Youth workers should feel validated that, as this report observes, teenagers are more likely than young adults to have been at church in the last week. If we approach youth ministry with an attitude of failure or dejection, it will contaminate our efforts. Young people need to have a space to develop, nurture and explore their faith. As we listen to young people, hopefully we can make room for them to be fully part of the Church—for the long term.


Gerard Gallagher has worked for the Church for over 20 years with a particular focus on youth. Currently, he works within the Office for Evangelisation and Ecumenism for the Archdiocese of Dublin. He is the author of Are We Losing the Young Church?, a history of youth ministry in Ireland, and Your Child’s Confirmation.

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