by Katleho Khang SNJM

Young Catholics are the future of the Church in South Africa. Without them the Church will dwindle into insignificance. In this month in which we celebrate youth, it is appropriate (in fact essential) to reflect on how our youth are treated in our parishes and dioceses, the way priests and religious relate with them and how much space is given for their involvement in different ministries in the Church. Above all, the church needs to use this time of commemoration to think more creatively about ministering to the needs of young people.

So what is the situation of the youth in the Church of South Africa? I recently had conversations with young people in Nyanga in Cape Town, Soweto in Gauteng, and Mdantsane in East London. Stories of poverty, teenage pregnancy, rape, domestic violence, unemployment, crime, confusion, pain, exploitation and guilt were shared with me. Many feel that the Church neither cares about nor addresses these realities, beyond perhaps abstract moralising or condemnation.

This experience opened my eyes. I began to reflect on how the institutional structure of the Church fails to minister to their needs because we do not invite them to speak, nor give them the confidence of knowing that we are ready to listen to them without a tendency to talk at them. If the Church listened more, it might help them more.

Such attention and providing ministries and programs that work specifically for their wellbeing, helping them to grow spiritually by providing more opportunities for leadership and stewardship, makes the Church a ‘home’ where young people can identify their own priorities and, therefore, the ministry they need.

I strongly believe that young people can contribute great insights to the Church. How, then, do we engage with them to create positive change? It is necessary to create programs in the pastoral plan of every parish and diocese for listening to youth. From such discussion fora, the Church might better understand how to transform the current hierarchical structure that many perceive silences them as young people or relegates them to the background.

The Synod of Bishops on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment challenges us to be a listening Church. In this rapidly-changing digital age, if the Catholic Church in South Africa does not listen to youth, does not get closer to them, nor engage with them in their own context, one major area of our mission of evangelization will fail. We need an attitudinal change on the part of those who lead, a change rooted in the Gospel, to empower and prepare young people to be responsible future leaders.

A group of young people I spoke to suggested a pastoral approach that invites them to a joint search for solutions that are possible, both at individual and group level, so as to facilitate the desired youth-oriented transformation in our Church. Those in authority need to create an enabling environment where psychosocial problems are addressed, spiritual growth is experienced, and a culture of listening is critical. A listening and reflective Church is possible, what are we waiting for?

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