I was ten years old when the World Youth Day Cross and Icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary visited my school, St Catherine’s Catholic College, Singleton. I vividly remember my teacher explaining to my class how important this visit was and how lucky we were to glimpse them. Filled with anticipation, my classmates and I headed out into the playground to see what all the fuss was about. There they were, the much talked about Cross and Icon. I’ll admit it, I wasn’t particularly impressed and with the hot summer air stinging my skin as it tends to do in Singleton, I made my way back into the air-conditioned classroom and didn’t think much more about it.
This year is the 10th anniversary of Australia’s hosting World Youth Day and I’ve not long turned 21. I’d probably take more notice of the Cross and Icon if they appeared at my University today than I did as a ten-year-old school girl. In my final years of secondary school, the place of religion and faith became more interesting to me. What is the role of faith in people’s lives? Why are some people devotedly religious and others not? What could religion offer me as a young woman in an increasingly complex and diverse world
Coming from a distinctly Christian context, having grown up in a Catholic family and schooled through the Catholic education system, religion has always been part of my life. It floated somewhere in the background; murmured in the utterance of a morning prayer or sung in the school song. In the same way that I ate Vegemite on toast for breakfast or had a passionfruit juice popper at recess, Catholicism was a convenient part of my routine that rarely received a moment’s thought in my young mind. Now that I’ve entered the adult world and have moved to Sydney for university, I have found myself bereft of my faith and have begun to seek the comfort it once provided me.
In my experience, finding young people who openly declare they are “practising Catholics” is somewhat rare today. The recent census data suggests something similar, revealing that Australians are rapidly ticking the ‘non-religious’ box. I don’t believe we are any less religious or spiritual than we have been in the past. In fact, in this increasingly complex world, I am inclined to believe that the desire for religious or spiritual expression is stronger then ever. So how can the Catholic Church reach out to young people
We young people are living in a world that demands so much of us. We need to be opinionated but still open-minded, informed yet not arrogant ‒ and we need to have realistic plans for the future. Through social media and the internet, we are exposed to a world that can seem so big that we don’t always know where we stand. We know we can’t resist change and coming to terms with the workings of the world is a fantastic adventure for young people. As we try to find our place in it all, religion can offer us a landing place for when we fall. In the world of contemporary young people, the Catholic Church needs to remain non-judgemental. Church should be a place where young people can escape expectations and where the sounds and pressures of the exterior world can be paused, even if only for a few moments.
Moreover, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the current push for gender equality, the Catholic Church needs to make a conscious effort to promote and celebrate the achievements of women of faith in order to attract young people and especially young women. When I was in my final year of high school, my religion teacher introduced me to a 12th century German saint, Hildegard of Bingen, who promoted gender equality and once wrote, “Without woman, man could not be called man; without man, woman could not be named woman.” Hildegard was a feminist before the term existed and recognised that for Catholicism to be attractive for women, it needed to promote a feminine image. Now more then ever, the teachings of religious women like Hildegard should be celebrated in the Church. In a world that can be particularly confusing and highly judgemental of young women, the church has a duty to provide a place of empowerment, inclusivity and equality.
That ten-year old girl, staring unimpressed at the Icon and Cross, couldn’t have anticipated the tumultuous years of adolescence and young adulthood that were ahead of her. Yet my religious faith stood as a constant ‒ and so much more than blunt questions about ‘Do you believe in God’ or ‘Do you agree with this church teaching?’ As an institution, the Catholic Church can offer young people a sanctuary from a world that is frightening as much as it is exciting. I believe it’s important not to lose track of what really matters: a sense of community, opportunities for reflection and a source of inspiration.
To learn more, please click here.