A group of eight people, all in a voluntary capacity, came together to explore how best we can enable and support future generations to take on leadership in the Church's social mission. We developed a creative methodology to be used in diverse settings, and organised two conferences in 2017 in Manchester and London to introduce the research and try out the methodology. The methodology was intentionally structured to enable conversation between different generational experiences and worldviews. Groups, mostly inter-generational, then carried out the project in different settings until Lent 2018, and sent back their 12ft long charts covered in data. In total, we had data from 24 groups, involving around 180 people, which we analysed together. We are grateful to everyone who gave their time to this process.
Our learning has been shared with the Bishops from England and Wales attending the 2018 Synod in Rome on 'Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment'.
This summarises what we learned:
1 Both generations have a strong sense that faith and social justice are closely related.
· In both generations, people see that faith has a necessary outflow into how we act in our world, how we respond to anything that diminishes people or creation.
· Younger generations point out that there are many other structures in which to work for justice; it doesn’t have to be through the Church.
· Younger generations connect faith motivated action for justice to a personal sense of vocation understood as the search for fulfilment and authenticity: ‘discovering my true self and then living out of that and where that meets needs’
· For some, there’s a question about whether you need faith to have a commitment to justice; ‘I would do it anyway.’ But for others, faith was significant; ‘You can go so far without faith, but faith can be something that pushes you further.’
· Older generations have a stronger sense of their involvement in social justice as an ecclesial activity and as a vocation; ‘The calling gets stronger as I get older’. But they recognised that social justice action, working for peace and political engagement often seems like a fringe activity in the Church.
· People from both generations belong to social justice action in a multitude of ways: pointing to Church groups, Catholic and Christian agencies, neighbourhood groups and community projects, political parties, LGBT groups, secular NGOs and many other organisations and events.
· And both generations recognised a shared challenge: ‘We need a new vocabulary about faith and justice, and to find a new strategy’. ‘New wine in new wineskins, new models’.
2 ‘Tell us what you want, what you really really want’: inter-generational conversation is generative.
· Real encounter and listening between generations has transformative potential for all involved. Different generations found common ground and reciprocal appreciation and understanding. The shared space of the dialogue also made challenge possible.
· For some younger people, the older people seem ‘stuck in your ways’ with ‘tunnel vision’. Their message was – please be brave enough to allow things to evolve. Others asked some penetrating questions: Will you allow us to take risks and fail? Can you show us your scars?
· Younger generations asked for space to do social mission in their own way; ‘give us space to think about what we are doing outside the Church and how it fits theologically’. ‘Can you trust us, and trust the spirit within us?’
· Younger people recognised the gifts that came from the experience of older generations: their commitment over a long period of time; curiosity, wisdom and knowledge; willingness to mentor; generosity, and a community minded approach that contrasts with the individualistic culture which often seems dominant today.
· Older participants welcomed the questions and expressed their sense of responsibility: ‘we owe it to you to have a viable world’. One voice ‘appreciated the challenge to my certainties’. Others invited challenge; ‘make me recognise that our approach can be dated’; ‘make me think outside the box’.
· When we enable inter-generational conversation, using a creative process of deep reciprocal listening, there are gifts for all. People discover that barriers can be broken, and it provides ‘a view from the other side’ so that insights can be gained.
From these two major themes, three significant dimensions of Church life came into view.
i) ‘New wine, new wineskins’: the desire for a church that is willing to listen and welcome change
· The message here was strong; ‘don’t be closed’. As faith communities, we need to be open, to learn and to change, to let go and evolve.
· One comment summed up the challenge from the younger generation: ‘If you are aware that young people aren’t there at your events, are you willing to change or close down your events? What are you willing to sacrifice so that young people can get involved?’
· They look for positive inspiration: ‘The Church tells you what you should do - it should encourage you in what you can do.’
· There is a tension here between leaving room for new things and new generations, and providing support. Younger generations acknowledged that they need sponsors and formation.
· Many of the younger voices were not confident that their ways of doing things, their desire to innovate, their treading out of new paths, would be trusted: ‘Will you allow us, trusting we will be faithful?’.
· They are also genuinely asking – ‘What are you trying to pass on to us?’
ii) The desire for a church in which the leadership of laypeople, and particularly of women, is more supported and visible
· For some in the younger generations, the way leadership still mostly works in the Church does not make sense. ‘We don’t get it - why do laypeople have less credibility than clergy?’
· They want to see more lay leadership and involvement in decision-making. Others asked for greater freedom to act without the ‘rubber stamp’ of the Church hierarchy. ‘Make the hierarchy less complicated!’
· Younger generations were aware that leadership and action in the area of social mission needs resources.
· They see the gender imbalances in leadership: ‘girls need to have more of a voice in the Church – girls need a bigger role’. They asked for ‘equality in roles within the Church’.
iii) The importance of community and belonging and the desire for an authentic Church
· People from both generations value and want to experience belonging
· The common theme for both generations was a desire for an authentic church, a community that lives what it believes. There was awareness too, that as a church, we often fall short; ‘fear holds us back’; ‘broken church’.
· Younger people want to feel appreciated and recognised. They also want to contribute – ‘I want to build community – let me!’
· Some in younger generations see the Church as still stuck in traditional ways; it seems to consist of ‘Sunday church’ and does not convincingly show that faith means following Jesus. ‘Is there a gap between the person and actions of Jesus, and the Church?’
The messages and potential actions from the project: reflections from the Project Group
1 For Church leaders
· Can you include a vocation to social justice commitment and action when you speak about vocation? Younger generations need to hear this.
· Can you affirm all the ways young Catholic adults express their faith in other networks of social and political involvement?
· Church leaders can find opportunities for dialogue with young people. But at least half the challenge lies in the older generations in the Church. Can you encourage, model and enable intentional inter-generational conversation at different levels, including in parishes?
2 For those who lead justice and peace activity in Catholic organisations, networks and dioceses and are concerned about how to engage young people
· The future starts with inter-generational listening, learning and conversation; even though it’s difficult to start, we need to take this path, and to be open to change, to learning and to different possibilities.
· The agenda needs to be set in this kind of participative process rather than imposed by past patterns and current convictions.
· We need to find a new language, a new way of talking about justice and peace, a broader vision.
— Conversation participant