By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator

First in a series

When asked what they would like to change if they were in charge of the Catholic Church, perhaps not surprisingly social media was on the minds of many post-millennial (up to 21 years old) Catholics.

Overall, however, those same youth said the church does a good job in reaching out to young people but cited more compassion in the message the church sends is needed.

“It seems as if there may be a rift between the Catholic Church and its younger audience that would be best addressed through a heavier social media presence,” said Emma Munoz, 17, a parishioner at St. Aloysius Church in Baton Rouge.  “Although Pope Francis has a Twitter (account), proving the effort to reach a wider audience is there.

“However, there may still be other ways to utilize social media to reach more people and spread accurate church teachings even if all that means is including them on a newsletter email list. Just any form of communication to make younger teens feel connected to their church community would better include and then further involvement.”

But before the church thinks it needs to “re-invent the wheel,” young Catholics said they enjoy the Mass liturgy and traditions of the church.

“I like the Easter Vigil because it is a beautiful ceremony that, to me, makes the Easter story more intimate. My other personal favorite (tradition) is the baptism of RCIA candidates at Easter because it is like the candidates experience a new life just as Jesus did upon his resurrection,” said Jefferson Koonce, 17, also a member of St. Aloysius.

Spending time before the Blessed Sacrament is also popular with youth. Eighteen-year-old Kirstynn Battencourtt, an active member at St. George Church in Baton Rouge and St. Gabriel Church in St. Gabriel, said her favorite church tradition is eucharastic adoration.

“Being able to sit either in silence or listening to worship music while in Jesus’ presence is an indescribable feeling of overwhelming peace only Jesus can bring us,” said Bettencourtt.

Sarah Degeyter, 16, also a member of St. George Church, said she enjoys the “plain silence” of adoration.

“I was just a mess and they said, ‘Hey just reach out to God and let him know that you’re listening and give it five minutes of silence and if he says anything he’s reaching out to you,’ ” Degeyter, said. “I (did that) and toward the end God said, ‘Be different.’ ” 

The youth urged the church to continue the fun youth activities, but it should also realize teens are ready for a mature relationship with God and to explore deep faith issues.

Degeyter said the church does a good job of recognizing the innocence of children and youth but can sometimes seem surprised that some young people have developed a personal relationship with God.

“I might say ‘I’m Catholic,’ but to have a personal relationship with God is completely different,” Degeyter said. “When I tell people I talk to God and have heard from him, people usually think I’m not ready for that.”

While the church works hard to connect with youth, Degeyter said because of generational gaps it’s often hard for it to “get on our level.”

“From a teenager’s perspective, you have (older adults) who look at youth who are 16-17. They grew up in a different world than us,” said Degeyter.

She pointed out that while many previous generations grew up in households with parents and siblings and a stable environment, many of her peers have not.

“Now it’s different,” said Degeyter. “There are people and families torn apart.”

Should Pope Francis ask for recommendations on how the church can better meet their needs, the post-millennial Catholics said young Catholics need to know they are loved before they can be catechized and evangelized?

“The word ‘love’ is thrown around a lot. But I would want to make sure that people know ‘You have a reason to be here on earth, and it’s good that you are here and that’s because God has this compassion,’ ” Degeyter said.

She said while it’s not bad that the church is focusing on current issues, it should not get distracted from its mission of authentically sending out messages of love and acceptance.

Degeyter used the example that when the church deals with issues such as the gay, transgender, LGBTQ population, the church must not think “it has it all figured out” on its approach, which can result in a message of criticism rather than love.

“We’re trying to change their minds first and then tell them they are loved,” said Degeyter. “You have to let them know first that they are called to a place of true joy and acceptance.”

In order to get a clear understanding of youth’s needs, the post-millennials urged church leaders to have meetings where youth who have questions about Catholicism or even drifted away from the church can freely express their opinions.

“For those who classify themselves as having no religious affiliation, I think it is important to show them that there is more to Catholicism than just sitting in a church one-hour a week,” said Bettencourtt. “Advertise youth events to bring people of any faith to come and explore what Catholicism has to offer. Maybe have a question and answer night so that those who are questioning can turn somewhere they feel comfortable voicing those concerns but not be judged for having doubts.”

Said Koonce, “The problem that I see a lot of people who have trouble in their faith facing is that they feel that it is wrong to question teachings of the church, so I feel that events where anyone can ask a religious official anything about church doctrine and come and feel free to pose their questions (is beneficial).”

Overall, post-millennial Catholics conveyed a message of hope, a hope that involves the church continuing its outreach and efforts in listening to youth while challenging their peers to make an effort to participate in activities already provided. Also, inviting youth to provide their feedback and guidance on how the church can move forward.

“Many times when someone asks me my faith and I tell them I am Catholic, they have an odd reaction,” Bettencourtt. “Many people have the misconception that Catholicism is very secluded and ‘boring’ or long. I think it is important that we teach our youth the importance and beauty of the many traditions, but also show everyone that there are many fun events to be involved in, you just have to put yourself out there.”