Polls have shown what regular Mass-goers have already noticed: it can’t be taken for granted that young people will go to church anymore.

But why? St. Mark’s College in Vancouver hosted nearly 100 Catholics, young and not-so-young, to find out what teens and young adults appreciate, struggle with, and need from the Church.

“Young people, regardless of who or where they are, want to feel like they belong,” said Rachel Wong, a student at Simon Fraser University and panelist at the March 14 event.

“Belonging is a big barrier we feel in the Church,” especially for young adults who want to be more involved than sitting in the pew on Sunday. “I’ve been in circles of youth ministry where I’ve felt like I’m from a different era. I don’t really belong there (with teenagers), but I don’t belong at the Catholic Women’s League table just yet.”

She suggested parishes encourage their young adults to participate in council meetings, take up leadership of certain ministries, or become readers and extraordinary ministers. “We need to encourage intergenerationality.”

Maureen Wicken, a religion and English teacher at Vancouver College, agreed. She has noticed the difference it makes when her students take on active roles in liturgy.

“One of the boys expressed to me one of the reasons he finds it hard to go to church is he goes to church and only hears one voice. That’s a big challenge to them. They need to hear their own voices, because they are Church. We all are Church.”

On Ash Wednesday, Vancouver College hosted a student-led prayer service. “There was an attentiveness and a reverence that I haven’t seen at any of our liturgies so far,” Wicken said. “It’s not that they want to shut out other voices of authority,” but that they need to see themselves and their peers in active participation and leadership, too.

Teacher Angelo Casiano (second from right) speaking on a panel with St. Mark’s professor Nicholas Olkovich (left), SFU student Rachel Wong, and longtime educator Maureen Wicken.    

Teacher Angelo Casiano pointed out young people also crave genuine relationships. “One of the greatest strengths of young people is to build community and relationships organically.”

When Casiano leaves a classroom of studious teens at St. Patrick’s Regional Secondary, he often returns to that same room to find it full of chatter and laughter. Likewise, spaces for young people in the Church must be authentic and welcoming. “I’d like to see a building up of relational ministry,” he said. “Community building, when done right, always points us to truth, beauty, and the goodness of God. When we do that together, we achieve so much more.”

Nicholas Olkovich, a 36-year-old assistant professor at St. Mark’s, said it’s not long ago that he was considered a young adult, and he understands some of the challenges they face.

“I’ve been struck by how many of the young people I’ve met are longing or searching for meaning – not just for knowledge, but also for relationship and for love. They’re not necessarily comfortable about talking about it or naming whatever it is they are looking for, but there is a certain restlessness there, a desire to make sense of their lives, to work out who they are and who they are in relationship with others. They want their work, in many cases, to be meaningful. They want their service to the common good to be meaningful.”

The Church ought to welcome that search for meaning, since “Jesus Christ is the answer to the restlessness of the human heart.”

Olkovich also pointed out young people often have a passion for social and environmental justice. “Many of today’s youth are more socially and environmentally conscious than I ever was.”

This, Wicken said, can be a blessing and a curse. “They want to give someone something to eat, and see someone’s hunger assuaged by their actions, but at the same time, they feel so paralyzed by the overwhelming amount of need and information out there,” she said.

“They don’t necessarily have the life experience or the depth of the years of hard-won struggle in faith through disappointments and ill health to be able to parse out those things that pop up in the news cycle.” That can lead to cynicism, apathy, or hopelessness.

The event at St. Mark’s was a response to the Synod on Young People in Vatican City last October, when bishops and lay people from around the world sat down to discuss challenges facing young people and what the Church can do about it.

At the small Catholic college in Vancouver, four panelists and 100 or so audience members (most of them young adults) reflected on the synod’s Final Document and shared their own thoughts and recommendations.

Rachel Wong (centre), a student at Simon Fraser University, said a lack of a sense of belonging "is a big barrier" for young adults in the Church.  

Many pointed out that young people are drawn to intentional discipleship and authentic relationships; that they are often motivated to do works of social justice that matter to them personally and are not necessarily tied to the Church or tradition; and that they respond better to invitations into communities than to programs.

“The youth desire and have expressed very much to be the protagonists in their faith journey,” said Wicken, an educator for more than 30 years.

“Not that they push Christ aside,” but that in the Church, they “want to be involved, appreciated, and feel co-responsible for what’s being done.”