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‘Listen, teach, send’ - The USCCB's draft plan for young people

Ministry leaders working with teens and young adults are gathered in Rome this week, for the International Youth Ministry Congress, a three-day symposium organized by the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life.

U.S. bishops meet Nov. 14, 2023 in Baltimore, Maryland, as part of the fall plenary assembly of the U.S. bishops’ conference. Credit: Pillar Media.

The congress is meant to provoke conversation among leaders from different countries, especially about Christus vivit, an apostolic exhortation on youth ministry promulgated by Pope Francis in March 2019. The exhortation came after a 2018 synod of bishops on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.”

The International Youth Ministry Congress comes shortly before U.S. bishops are set to vote at their plenary assembly next month on the “National Pastoral Framework for Ministries with Youth and Young Adults,” a document meant to implement Christus vivit in the United States — and to reimagine youth ministry among American Catholics.

Present at the Rome meeting is Paul Jarzembowski, an associate director at the USCCB’s Committee on Laity, Family Life and Youth, which developed the draft pastoral framework due for a vote at the bishops’ conference next month.

Paul Jarzembowski. Credit: USCCB

Jarzembowski talked with The Pillar this week ahead of the Rome meeting, about the USCCB’s efforts to reshape youth ministry in light of guidance from Pope Francis.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Do you think Christus vivit has impacted ministry here in the United States in any meaningful way?

I would say yes, with an asterisk, because the document was released right before Covid — which has also had a significant impact on ministry to young people in the United States. 

I think more and more dioceses are seeing the need for a renewal of ministry to young people. But with Covid, and the resultant hit on the economic investment in young people in several of these dioceses, that's kind of ebbed and floated in practice. 

In many dioceses, the desire is there, even if the means are not necessarily there. 

But Christus vivit has pushed the bishops to look towards their June plenary assembly, where they're going to be voting on the new pastoral framework on youth and young adults, which was inspired by Christus vivit

Now, I know that the pastoral framework is another document from the bishops’ conference, which may not necessarily be the most exciting thing, but we believe that the document — if it should pass — is an opportunity for pastors and pastoral leaders to look again at this ministry in the Church.

What are the contours of that pastoral framework? How are they drawn from Christus vivit?

The three contours of this draft pastoral framework are really caught up in the title of it: “Listen, teach, send.”

A lot of it was inspired by the synod on young people, and by Christus vivit, because Pope Francis began that whole process by spending two years listening to young people, and encouraging bishops to listen to young people. 

Of course, that process was kind of the precursor to what we have now in the synod on synodality — the idea that listening should be the first step in engaging any population. 

So with the pastoral framework, the bishops are saying: first, listen, then teach, and then send them, moving them forward towards whatever their mission in life is — towards their vocation.

The vocational aspect was something that Christus vivit also noted — both the synod on young people and Christus vivit, really emphasized a vocational element. 

And so that document inspired the bishops, who said in their deliberations: “Oh yeah, we need to really push that the end goal of ministry with young people is not just to get them to sit in our retreats, or to come to a Theology on Tap, or to come to a youth retreat, but rather the goal of our ministry with young people is to send them out as missionary disciples — to send them out into the world empowered by the faith that they've been taught.” 

Those are the lessons that many of the bishops got through the synod on young people and through Christus vivit, and which they’ve really incorporated that into this document. 

And those three contours of the pastoral framework: “Listen, teach, send” are really drawn from that.

Bishop Barron, who was a delegate at the synod on young people and and a delegate to the synod on synodality, was among the bishops to lead the charge, really emphasizing that the structural outline of the document should follow the Emmaus story, which was very inspirational for him and for the bishops at the synod on young people.

[On the road to Emmaus,] Jesus listened to the disciples, then he taught them, and then they were ultimately sent forth from that encounter.

The ‘listen, teach, send’ paradigm seems to me very close to the paradigm emphasized by campus ministry apostolate FOCUS, namely: ‘Win, build, send.’ 

Is that intentional? What, in particular, do the bishops wish to emphasize?

As the bishops’ committee [on laity, family life, and youth] developed their framework, they did recognize certain similarities, and the threefold FOCUS perspective did come up, but that did not inspire their paradigm.

But the bishops felt strongly about emphasizing that listening needs to be really the first thing. And in a sense, that compliments the FOCUS approach, because ultimately, to win someone over for Christ is to listen to them first — to really hear their story, and experience it, and to build a level of trust.

So there certainly is a connection, but in an informal way, not in an intentional way. 

As you prepare to engage in this meeting with leaders from other countries, what do you think the Church in the U.S. can learn about ministry with young people from the Church in other parts of the world?

What can the Church in the U.S. teach?

I think one thing that we can offer the rest of the world is the amount of experience that our country has had in engaging youth and young adults. 

I think also the distinctions we make in terms of approaching different age groups. In the United States, we have distinct ministries with youth and with young adults, whereas, in many other countries, it’s often just a kind of one-size-fits-all approach.

The distinctions we make regarding age groups remind us of all the other distinctions that are out there — you can’t homogenize young people. 

And I think there are other countries which might take that approach. 

And so I think what the United States can share is its long experience of a very nuanced approach to young people, really meeting young people where they're at — whether it’s youth, collegians, or young adults. 

 I think in the last couple of years, our intercultural multicultural perspective has also given us a lot of tools to teach, because we've been able to see what ministry with young people looks like among different cultural populations. 

For us, that individuality of youth ministry and young adult ministry is very important to us, and I think we can share that with others. 

One thing that we can learn is this: For many other cultures, ministry with young people is very much integrated into just the way that they do church, period. 

Specifically, for the Church in Latin America, ministry to young people is fully integrated with the Church's ministry to all people, there's not quite the siloed aspect that we see sometimes in the United States, where the youth are in one place, the young adults in another, the adults, the seniors, the children, the families. 

So even though we have distinctions in ministry among populations here, I think we can sometimes lean too much into that. And I think we can learn how ministry to young people is integrated into the Church in these other countries. That’s something I’d like to learn a little bit more about — how young people are impacting the whole life of the Church, rather than seeing that ministry as just a thing off to the side.

As the bishops discuss young people, to what extent does the growing interest among young people in traditional liturgy and spirituality factor into their conversation? 

Some young people, along with other traditionalists, say that bishops haven’t heard their input, especially in the synod process. 

One of the great things is that our committee has had input from our bishops who represent and who have experienced young people in a variety of circumstances. 

So the draft document really does include perspectives from all of that, and to recognize young people with different experiences of the Catholic Church. 

And in addition to those more traditional currents which you mention, there have also been some bishops who have shared about young people in their diocese who are engaged in social justice work, and that that's the avenue they’ve found to faith.

In the document, the bishops have tried to make sure that all of those young people are seen, acknowledged, and respected for how they approach the faith — some through a more traditional path, some through a more evangelical focus, some through more social justice focus. And many young people experience a mix of all those things. 

That’s one of the things the bishops have been listening to. They ask to hear the stories of young people, and to hear their spirituality. And so the framework encourages people to listen, and not to presume. The moment you start saying that all young people are one way, or another, well, that’s when you’ve presumed. 

This gathering in Rome is something that we have generally done after every World Youth Day, to assess the state of ministry with young people in the world. 

But this gathering is overlaid with the five-year anniversary of Christus vivit, the synod on synodality is ongoing, we have a Jubilee celebration coming up in the Church next year. And there is going to be a Jubilee event in Rome focused on young people next year, and it’s probably going to be much like a mini-World Youth Day, which adds another layer to this whole conversation.

And the United States is not the only country in which bishops are doing things in response to Christus vivit. At the bishops’ conference, we’re coming up with this pastoral framework, that’s how the American Church responds to things, often — we produce a document. 

But the Church in other countries has been doing other kinds of things. So it will be interesting to hear what the Church is doing. 

When the bishops’ conference releases a pastoral framework — or any other document for that matter — there is always concern that the text not become relegated to just a place on the shelf in chancery offices, and not actually used.

How could this framework actually impact ministry work in the U.S.?

On that, we have a preliminary plan. 

I say it's preliminary because anything is possible with these documents. But should it pass [next month], we do have a three year projected plan that involves workshops, symposia, and developing toolkits — and then we’ll interweave that with the upcoming Jubilee Year, and with preparation for the next World Youth Day.

Our hope is that pastors in their local parishes, and pastoral leaders, take time to think through their approach to youth and young adults. And maybe this can be an opportunity, a “new springtime” for them to begin to do some new things.

We’ve seen that before. In the 1970s, the bishops came out with their first pastoral letter on young people, and then there was some growth of ministry in the 1970s and 1980s.

And then in the 1990s, the bishops’ conference released “Sons and Daughters of Light” and “Renewing the Vision” — and that led to another resurgence of ministry with young people. And so we’re hoping that this document could be a third experience of a new springtime for ministry with young people, and really initiate something very different from what we’ve previously seen. 

I would like for someone 25 or 30 years from now to look back and say: “Oh yeah, the 2020s, that was the time when we started doing this new thing with young people.” 

I think that's the hope — that the pastoral framework inspires people to think outside the box, and to think that with a challenge from the pope from our bishops, we need to invest in young people in a way that really reaches them today.

That’s certainly our hope.

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