U.S. delegates to pre-synod meeting lay out priorites

Three delegates will represent the United States at the pre-synod gathering March 19-25 at the Vatican in preparation for October's synod of bishops on "Young people, the faith and vocational discernment." The three, named by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, are De La Salle Christian Brother Javier Hansen, a religion teacher at Cathedral High School in El Paso, Texas; Nick Lopez, director of campus ministry for the University of Dallas; and Katie Prejean-McGrady, a wife, new mother, youth minister and a popular speaker from the Diocese of Lake Charles, La. Pope Francis invited Christian and non-Christian young people from around the world to a meeting in preparation for the Synod of Bishops in October. "Through this journey, the Church wants to listen to the voices, the sensibilities, the faith as well as the doubts and criticisms of young people. We must listen to young people," Pope Francis said in October as he announced the pre-synod gathering, set for March 19-25.

A greater awareness to religious life

Growing up, De La Salle Christian Brother Javier Hansen never anticipated a religious vocation.

From Northern California, Hansen attended public schools until he enrolled at St. Mary's College of California, which is run by the Christian Brothers.

He first seriously considered the idea of religious life during his freshman year when a friend told him she was leaving school to join the Sisters of the Society Devoted to the Sacred Heart at the end of the semester.

Hansen said, "I remember going to my dorm room later that night and just thinking to myself, 'Wow, if she could that, maybe I could do something similar."

Despite doubts, he said, "Eventually, by the time I was a junior and senior, I had made up my mind that in some capacity, I would be a religious."

Today, five years later, Hansen is a Brother of the Christian Schools in the Lasallian District of San Francisco New Orleans and a religion teacher at Cathedral High School in El Paso, Texas.

Hansen believes he was selected to be a delegate in part to create greater awareness about religious life, and in particular, to the vocation of religious brothers.

Awareness surrounding vocations to the religious life is a topic Hansen said he can bring to the pre-synod conversations. How can the Church better support young people who are discerning? First, find them outside university and college campuses, Hansen said.

Hansen noted another difficulty for those discerning a religious life: the idea of chastity.

"Some people believe it's like you're cutting something out of your life, but really I'm saying 'no' to this and I'm saying 'yes' to a lot of other things in my life," Hansen said.

"I'm really curious on what other countries do, or how they do Church compared to how we do Church here in America."

Accompaniment, relationship building

For Katie Prejean-McGrady, youth and young adult ministry is about building relationships.

Gearing up for the pre-synod gathering, Prejean-McGrady, a youth minister, wife and mother, has been reflecting on her own ministry's best practices and reading the fall synod's preparatory document. Highlighted in her notes is a line from the document's section on accompaniment: "It is a question of fostering a person's relationship with God and helping to remove what might hinder it."

"It seems as if Pope Francis' vision of youth ministry," Prejean-McGrady said, "is standing alongside the person and shining a light — not dragging them along that path kicking and screaming — but saying 'Let's walk on this path together.'"

Despite being active in the Church from a young age, faith did not always come easy. A turning point came her junior year of high school, when Hurricane Rita hit Louisiana fall of 2005, and her city, Lake Charles, was evacuated for eight weeks.

She wondered why God let this happen. Prejean-McGrady said she gradually came to an understanding of "why bad things happen and how the Lord uses our suffering to essentially sharpen our faith and help trust Him more."

These and other experiences of being ministered to helped Prejean-McGrady discern a call to pursue a theology degree to become a youth minister.

At the pre-synod gathering, Prejean-McGrady plans to spend much of her time simply listening. In the pre-synod discussions, she hopes to contribute her perspective as a wife and mother, and sees the importance of raising the topic of family life in ministry. Her husband, Tommy, is a teacher and part-time youth minister at a parish.

"When you meet young adults that have left the faith, sit down with them and say, 'Why did you leave?'... Then slowly build a relationship of trust and understanding..."

Latino/Hispanic experience, mental health training

Nick Lopez hopes to emphasize a number of topics at the pre-synod gathering, among them, the broadness of Latino/Hispanic American experience, the need for mental health training for young adult ministers and a better understanding of what the word "vocation" means.Born and raised in San Antonio, Lopez said that he initially planned to become a theology teacher to help students transition to live their faith beyond high school before switching to focus on college students.

At the pre-synod gathering, Lopez, a Mexican-American, plans to stress the diversity and breadth of the Latino/Hispanic experience in the United States. It's difficult to define Latinos and Hispanics with one term, he said. "We're diverse. We come from all walks of life and different cultures." To better serve such a broad community, the pastoral response needs to be regional, Lopez said. Parishes and ministries should keep in mind that not all Latinos speak Spanish, said Lopez, who can understand and read, but not speak Spanish.

Another topic Lopez plans to bring to the pre-synod gathering is mental health.

What has surprised Lopez in his ministry is how much of an advocate he has become for the pastoral care of individuals with mental illness. He is open about his own struggles with anxiety and depression, and shares them with his students, where appropriate.

Over the past five years of his professional ministry, he has noticed that young people often view the vocation to single life as negative, even painful.

Millennials can mistakenly fall into thinking that single life is "a period of waiting for what your actual vocation is," Lopez said.

"Your vocation is a lot more about who are you in relation to God and His Church, and certainly marriage, single life and of course being a religious plays into that." 

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