Pope Benedict and The Social Formation of Young People

Today (January 1st), the Catholic Church celebrates the World Day of Peace. For 45 years, popes have commemorated this occasion by issuing annual statements on relevant topics. While not the same weight as a social encyclical, these statements are an under-appreciated part of the Catholic social tradition and they signal important issues that need to be addressed by the Church and the wider world.

For this year Pope Benedict XVI has chosen to focus on the theme: “Educating Young People in Justice and Peace.” In his message, the Holy Father points to the transformative potential of young people as agents of justice and peace. In order to live up to this potential youth and young adults, according to the pope, need a strong formation to help them in undertaking the “task” of working for justice and peace:

“In order to be true peacemakers, we must educate ourselves in compassion, solidarity, working together, fraternity, in being active within the community and concerned to raise awareness about national and international issues and the importance of seeking adequate mechanisms for the redistribution of wealth, the promotion of growth, cooperation for development and conflict resolution.”

This theme, as the pope himself suggests, is particularly timely. Not since the late 1960s has the world witnessed such a loud youthful voice crying out for justice and peace. From Tripoli and Cairo to Wall Street and London young people have sought to make their voices heard. While their actions may not always have been constructive, these voices challenge governments, churches and society as a whole to respond to the issues they lift up.

2011: An International Year of Youth

Although it went virtually unnoticed here in the United States, the United Nations’ (UN) commemoration of the International Year of Youth (2010-2011) marked an important milestone for the 1.2 billion young people in the world.

The first international youth year took place in 1985 when the UN General Assembly adopted the World Programme of Action for Youth to guide the global community’s efforts to improve the lives of young adults around the world. Interestingly, in 1985, the Catholic Church responded to UN year by organizing the first World Youth Day—the eleventh of which was celebrated last August.

As the present UN review of the World Programme shows, young women and men are often the hardest hit by social problems. Young people, for example, are disproportionally impacted by unemployment, HIV/AIDS, and drug abuse. They are often marginalized from decision-making structures in our society and generally bear the brunt of armed conflict and economic downturns.

Despite these very real difficulties, the UN has also recognized young people as an untapped resource. With the right resources, young people can be effective agents of social transformation. Noting this potential, the UN has called upon governments and civil society organizations to involve youth in decision-making processes. A few countries have responded to this call for greater youth participation and some have even gone as far as to appoint youth delegates as part of their delegations to the UN General Assembly.

An Untapped Resource

The recent events in North Africa, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the 2011 riots in London have illustrated both the need and the challenge of integrating young people and their concerns into our communities. For the Catholic Church, especially in the United States and in Western Europe, this task is of critical importance. Without a clear effective effort to support and empower young people, we risk alienating many talented and caring young women and men who, if given the chance, could contribute much to the life of the church.

In his message today, Pope Benedict reminds us of the need to incorporate issues of social justice and peace in the formation of youth and young adults. Sadly, far too few young people are exposed to this formation. Basketball leagues, confirmation classes, large-scale celebrations like World Youth Day, and other social activities are not enough by themselves. Young adult Catholics need supportive communities and ministries to help them discover the rich tradition of Catholic social doctrine and empower them to respond to the complex realities of our world.

In its Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, the Second Vatican Council stressed the role and the responsibility of youth in the Church’s mission in the world. According the to the Council, the spiritual and ethical formation, of young people is often most effective through lay movements and associations. Indeed, the Decree points to the important role of lay associations as “the ordinary channel” in the empowerment and formation of the faithful (§30) and sees such an apostolic education as grounded in dialogue and social action (§31). It is not enough for young people to simply learn about social issues, however, they must be engaged in communities where they can be become leaders and apostles themselves (§12).

The Compendium on the Social Doctrine of the Church affirms this point by highlighting the important role played by lay organizations in the life of the Church and points to their role in the formation of the laity on issues of social justice:

“The Church’s social doctrine must become an integral part of the ongoing formation of the lay faithful. Experience shows that this formative work is usually possible within lay ecclesial associations.. The Church’s social doctrine sustains and sheds light on the role of associations, movements and lay groups that are committed to the Christian renewal of the various sectors of the temporal order.” Compendium, 550.

Although they are not mentioned explicitly in this year’s message, one of the most important instruments in the formation of youth and young adults in areas of social justice and peace are the international Catholic youth organizations and their national and local affiliates around the world. For over eighty years, these six international movements have gathered millions of young people together from around the world.

  • International Coordination of the Young Christian Workers (CIJOC) www.cijoc.org;
  • International Independent Christian Youth (JICI), www.jic.cef.fr;
  • International Movement of Catholic Agricultural and Rural Youth (MIJARC), www.mijarc.org;
  • International Movement of Catholic Students (MIEC-Pax Romana), www.imcs-miec.org; (In the United States known as the National Catholic Student Coalition.)
  • International Young Catholic Students (JECI), www.iycs-jeci.org;
  • International Young Christian Workers (JOCI), www.jociycw.net;

These movements have had a significant impact on the life of the Church and the international community. In the Church they have contributed greatly to the development of Catholic social teaching and the theology of the laity. In civil society, these organizations have also contributed to the international community’s discussions on youth related issues. When inter-governmental organizations like the United Nations or European Union discuss youth-related issues, these organizations are frequently invited

Despite their size (millions of active members globally) and continued contributions to the life of the Church and society, these organizations get far too little attention and support. While millions of dollars are spent on high profile international, national, and diocesan gatherings like the World Youth Day, these youth-led movements and other similar initiatives struggle to fund their ongoing projects and have difficulty in finding priest-chaplains or campus ministers to work with them. Even in wealthier parts of the world, like the United States, the financial and pastoral support offered to youth, campus and young adult ministries have seen sharp cuts in recent years.

As the events of 2011 have illustrated well, young adults have a critical role to play in the promotion of social justice and peace. In this context, the Church is called, as Pope Benedict indicates, to offer more effective tools in the social formation of youth and young adults. If supported and given the chance, the international Catholic youth movements can have an important impact in this regard

In future posts, we will return to some of these themes.

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