How to Keep Youth in the Church?
From the end of the Second World War, there has been a trend towards the decline in the influence of the religious phenomenon in the public sphere, accompanied by the progressive loss of religious practice in most citizens, particularly in contexts of industrialized countries. This trend is called secularization, which arises, above all, because of what can be called the phenomenon of modernization characterized, essentially, by:
• Education of the masses;
• Growth in literacy rates;
• Economic development;
• Proliferation of pluralism;
• Growing importance of modern and secular political and social institutions;
• Advances in science and technology
Little by little, this wave of secularization has also reached developing countries, including African countries, with emphasis on urban contexts, with communication and information technologies as a major driving force. All of this, of course, has had visible consequences for the life of the Church.
One of the consequences of this phenomenon of secularization is also the fact that there are a few people, particularly young people, who are decreasing attendance at Church. In contexts such as ours, namely our countries, cities, dioceses, parishes of southern Africa, we have more and more adolescents, young people, who attend catechesis, are baptized and,
others even confirmed, but who later hardly set foot in Church again. Why do young people leave the Church? What do these baptized young people, in some cases even from traditional Catholic families, look for outside the Catholic Church? How does the Church look at this phenomenon? Finally… How to keep youth in the Church? This is the suggested theme for today’s webinar session.
As you can see, the theme is too vast and complex. Therefore, more than offering answers to the question with “ready recipes”, my purpose in this session is to suggest responses that allow us to reflect on what the Church offers young people and how she sees and responds to the concerns of young people in our region of southern Africa, in our respective countries, dioceses, parishes, finally in our Christian families.
To this do so, I have tried to structure my intervention on three fundamental points.
On the first point, I will focus my attention on some preliminary notes. Here my interest is to bring some elements which show how the issue of young people has been dealt with throughout Sacred Scripture and in the Social Teaching of the Church.
In the second point, I will try to focus my attention on the context in which young people live in Africa in general, particularly in the southern African region. It is about bringing elements of the social, economic and political context in which young people live, including young Catholics and which often conditions their attitude towards the Church.
Finally, on the third and final point of my speech, based on the elements of the context presented in the previous point, I will focus my attention on the Church and the concerns of youth. It is a question of asking what the Church can offer young people in a context marked by enormous social, economic and political challenges that particularly affect youth.
Let me start with the first point – some preliminary notes.
Some preliminary notes
In the Old Testament, we see some young people as important figures in God’s saving plan. For example, Samuel is one of these figures — a young man who heard God’s call. In the first book of Samuel, one can read:
“Samuel was serving the Lord under the direction of Eli (…) The Lord came and stood there and called as He had done before. Samuel answered: Speak Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Samuel, 3:1–10).
Other figures such as Saul (1 Samuel, 9: 2), or David (1 Samuel, 16, 6 – 13) were young people who knew how to listen to the voice of the Lord and put themselves at the service of Yahweh.
In the New Testament, we find many passages where the reference to the youngest, to the young person, to the idea of change, of repentance, of the search for a new meaning for life. The parable of the prodigal son lends itself to this perspective, where the younger son, after having wasted his fortune, fell into suffering, and having repented, said:
“I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against God and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me to one of your hired workers. So he got up and went back to his father” (cf. Luke 15, 18 – 31).
In the same vein, the idea of abandoning the “old” to take up the “new”:
“For you have taken off the old self with its habits and have put on the new self. This is the new being which God, as Creator, is constantly renewing in his own image to bring you to a full knowledge of himself. ” (Colossians 3:9–10).
How does the question of youth appear in the Social Teaching of the Church?
Since the Second Vatican Council with the Pastoral Exhortation Gaudium et Spes on the Church in today’s world, young people and the youth, are one of the important issues in the church’s social teaching. In fact, the reflection on young people appears in messages of the Supreme Pontiffs addressed directly to young people, in the message of Pope Paul VI at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in December 1965, in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit of Pope Francis, published in 2019, as well as in numerous interventions that have been made, above all, on the occasion of youth days, institutionalized in the Church by Pope John Paul II in 1985.
At the end of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI said to young people:
“Lastly, it is to you, young men and women of the world, that the council wishes to address its final message. For it is you who are to receive the torch from the hands of your elders and to live in the world at the period of the most gigantic transformations ever realized in its history. It is you who, receiving the best of the example of the teaching of your parents and your teachers, are to form the society of tomorrow (…) The Church is anxious that this society that you are going to build up should respect the dignity, the liberty and the rights of individuals. These individuals are you.” (Holy See, Paul VI: 1965)
Therefore, the Church wishes to respect the dignity, freedom, the rights of young people…
In my opinion, the concluding words of Pope Francis in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit sum up, to a large extent, the way in which the Church looks at youth. In this regard, Pope Francis says:
“Dear young people, my joyful hope is to see you keep running the race before you, outstripping all those who are slow or fearful. Keep running, “attracted by the face of Christ, whom we love so much, whom we adore in the Holy Eucharist and acknowledge in the flesh of our suffering brothers and sisters. May the Holy Spirit urge you on as you run this race. The Church needs your momentum, your intuitions, your faith. We need them! And when you arrive where we have not yet reached, have the patience to wait for us” (Holy See, Christus Vivit: 299).
But when the Church speaks of young people, she speaks to young people, not to young people living in a void! This is about young people living in concrete social, economic, political and cultural contexts with their particularities, specificities and, above all, their challenges. We cannot want or wish for young people to stay in the Church without knowing the social, economic, political and cultural contexts in which these same young people live and which, to a large extent, condition their permanence or not in the Church today.
Arriving here, the question would be: What is the social, economic and political context in which our young Catholics live in the IMBISA region? This brings me to the second point of my speech – The context of Southern Africa.
The context of Southern Africa
Southern Africa is a region marked by the late end of colonial regimes. Indeed, while most countries achieved their independence in the 1960s, notably the former British and French colonies, some countries in Southern Africa achieved their independence in the mid-1970s (Mozambique and Angola), the 1980s (Zimbabwe) and the 1990s (Namibia and South Africa). This historical aspect and the fact that the region has known white minority governments (in the former Rhodesia and South Africa during the Apartheid regime) played an important role in the emergence and development of violent conflicts. In this context, in the 1980s, the region was the scene of devastating wars, which cemented internal problems in the affected countries, and created the correlation of forces in the context of the cold war.
From a political point of view, the region is characterized by the existence of the so-called “Liberating Parties” – those who brought independence in their respective countries through arms or through nonviolent contestation of the right of self-determination (Matsimbe,2017). Some of the examples of these liberating parties are Frelimo in Mozambique, ZANU- FP in Zimbabwe, MPLA in Angola, SWAPO in Namibia, UNIP in Zambia, MCP in Malawi
and CCM in Tanzania.
With the exception of Zambia and Malawi, the other countries in the region have not yet known political alternation since independence… they have a “generation of aging politicians”, who clearly clash with younger generations, in some cases thirsty to see change. In many countries in the region, the promises made by independence to improve living conditions, particularly from the most disadvantaged social groups, especially young people, have not materialized. On the contrary, over the years many countries in the region have seen social inequalities increase, the gap between those who have a lot (usually political elites and their families) and those who have absolutely nothing to live a life with dignity, which make up the majority.
In the early 1990s, many countries in the region stalled political reforms aimed at establishing democratic regimes. However, almost thirty years later the promises of democratization, like the promises of independence, are also far from materialized. There are even countries such as Mozambique, Angola or even Zimbabwe, which in recent years have descended in the classification of the index of democracy, having gone from hybrid regimes to authoritarian regimes… as shown in the table for the period 2019 – 2022.
Table 1 – Democracy Index (2019 – 2022)
Country 2022 2021 2020 2019 Regime
South Africa 7.05 7.05 7.24 7.24 Incomplete democracy
Namibia 6.52 6.52 6.52 6.52 Incomplete democracy
Botswana 7.73 7.73 7.62 7.81 Incomplete democracy
Mozambique 3.51 3.51 3.51 3.65 Authoritarian regime
Zimbabwe 2.92 2.92 3.16 3.16 Authoritarian regime
Angola 3.96 3.37 3.66 3.72 Authoritarian regime
Zambia 5.80 5.72 4.86 5.09 Hybrid Regime
Malawi 5.91 5.74 5.50 5.49 Hybrid Regime
Mauritius 8.14 8.08 8.14 8.22 Full Democracy
Eswatini 3.01 3.08 3.08 3.14 Authoritarian regime
Lesotho 6.19 6.30 6.30 6.14 Hybrid regime
Source: (The Economist, 2023)
In addition, many countries in the region are characterized by high rates of corruption, with significant impacts on the deterioration of the lives of citizens of their respective countries, raising unemployment rates to high levels, seriously affecting the economically active population, made up mostly of young people.
Table 2 – Corruption Perception Index 2022
Country Points Position Change in position
South Africa 43/100 72/180 – 1
Namibia 49/100 52/180 0
Botswana 60/100 35/180 +5
Mozambique 26/100 142/180 0
Zimbabwe 23/100 157/180 0
Angola 33/100 116/180 +4
Zambia 33/100 116/180 0
Malawi 34/100 110/180 -1
Mauritius 50/100 57/180 -4
Eswatini 30/100 130/180 -2
Lesotho 37/100 99/180 -1
Source: (Transparency International, 2023)
In this context, many young people are unable to obtain material, economic and financial conditions that will enable them to meet their expectations and fulfil their social obligations and thus access the social status of “adult”. In social science literature on youth, the concept that captures in an interesting way this situation in which many young people in our contexts live, is the concept of “waiting age”, known in English as waithood… Authors such as Dianne Singerman with her studies on marriage and the unemployment crisis in the Middle East or Alcinda Honwana in her work on youth in Africa discuss and use the concept of waithood. But, after all, what is waithood? From Alcinda Honwana’s perspective, waithood is “the prolonged period of suspension in which young people’s access to adult hood is delayed or denied” (Honwana, 2014: 401). According to Alcinda Honwana, “Although they can be considered adults from the point of view of their chronological age, these young people remain socially dependent, as they have not yet fully achieved the requirements that allow them the responsibilities of adult life, that is, to have employment or forms of stable livelihood, to be independent, to have resources to create and provide for their family and to be able to contribute to the common social good. (Honwana, 2014: 401).
In fact, in the context of our countries in the Southern Africa region, many young people live in this state of “long wait”, unable to access the social life of an adult… without minimum conditions to have a decent source of income, that allows for financial independence to ensure decent housing, the constitution of a family and the fulfillment of other obligations, as a citizen.
In this context, marked by enormous social, economic and political challenges affecting the daily lives of young people, keeping young people in the Church demands that the Church herself be attentive and respond to the concerns of youth. In fact, it seems to me that there is no way to keep young people in the Church until the Church is attentive to the current challenges of youth; as long as the Church passes completely alongside the social, economic and political problems that youth face in their day-to-day life.
There is no way to keep young people in the Church, as long as young people themselves have the perception that the Church does not care about their problems, does not care about their waithood status; There is no way to keep young people in the Church if they do not feel welcomed by the Church; while they feel constantly judged, rejected by the Church. This brings me to the third and final point of my intervention – Church and youth unrest.
Church and youth unrest
The Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council unequivocally shows the Church’s concern to open to the world and to today; the concern to walk in history together with humanity, seeking to discern the signs of time in the light of the Holy Spirit.
The Church that leaves the Second Vatican Council is a Church concerned with the great challenges facing the world today… It is not a Church that closes itself in its institutions and turns its back on the problems of humanity… rather, on the contrary, the Church coming out of the Second Vatican Council is a Church willing to respect the dignity of the human person… the human person in all its dimensions: spiritual, social, economic, political, cultural. What is interesting in this sense (and Pope Francis reminds us in his Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit), the Church emerges as the true youth of the world. In the words of Pope Francis:
“The Second Vatican Council noted that, ““enriched by a long and living history, and advancing towards human perfection in time and the ultimate destinies of history and of life, the Church is the real youth of the world”. (Christus Vivit: 34).
In line with the Second Vatican Council, the Church must not be alien to the problems of young people, to the challenges that young people face in today’s world. Speaking of a Church attentive to the signs of the times, Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit writes:
“Even though to many young people, God, religion and the Church seem empty words, they are sensitive to the figure of Jesus when he is presented in an attractive and effective way”. Consequently, the Church should not be excessively caught up in herself but instead, and above all, reflect Jesus Christ. This means humbly acknowledging that some things concretely need to change, and if that is to happen, she needs to appreciate the vision but also the criticisms of young people. (Christus Vivit: 39).
This implies that youth ministry needs to be pastoral care that increasingly goes to meet young people; to meet their concerns, problems, challenges, showing a Church that walks with young people… To go to the young people as the Risen Christ goes to meet the disciples of Emmaus and shows interest, cares about them. In the text about the disciples of Emmaus, St. Luke writes:
“(…) As they talked and discussed, Jesus himself drew near and walked along with them; they saw him but did not recognize him. Jesus said to them: “What are you talking about to each other as you walk along?” (Luke 24, 15 – 17).
Keeping young people in the Church requires the Church to walk with young people; be concerned with the young people, listen to their concerns, seeking to discern the signs of the times in the light of the Holy Spirit.
I would like to end my speech with the words of Pope Francis (again) in his Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit. In paragraphs 65 and 66, the pope says the following:
“The Synod recognized that the members of the Church do not always take the approach of Jesus. Rather than listening to young people attentively, “all too often, there is a tendency to provide pre-packaged answers and ready-made solutions, without allowing their real questions to emerge and facing the challenges they pose”. Yet once the Church sets aside narrow preconceptions and listens carefully to the young, this empathy enriches her, for “it allows young people to make their own contribution to the community, helping it to appreciate new sensitivities and to consider new questions”. We adults can often be tempted to list all the problems and failings of today’s young people. Perhaps some will find it praiseworthy that we seem so expert in discerning difficulties and dangers. But what would be the result of such an attitude? Greater distance, less closeness, less mutual assistance. (Christus Vivit n. 65 & 66).
Honwana, A. (2014) Juventude, waithood e protestos sociais em África. In: Desafios para Moçambique 2014. Maputo, IESE. pp. 399–412.
Matsimbe, Z. (2017) Partidos Libertadores em África. Reflexão sobre os desafios para Moçambique. In: Maputo, IESE. pp. 62–79.
Holy See (2019) Christus Vivit. Vatican, Holy See
Holy See (1965a) Pastoral Exhortation Gaudium et Spes. Vatican, Holy See Available in https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vatii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_po.html.
Holy See (1965b) Message of Pope Paul VI to the youth at the end of the II Vatican Council. Vatican. Available in https://www.vatican.va/content/paulvi/pt/speeches/1965/documents/hf_p-vi_spe_19651208_epilogo-concilio-giovani.html.
The Economist (2023) Democracy Index 2022. London, New York and Hong Kong, The Economist Intelligence Unit. Available in https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracyindex-2022/.
Transparency International (2023) Corruption Perceptions Index 2022. Transparency International Available in https://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2022.