Lent Reflection Week 3


Enlarge the Space of your Tent – A Church where Young People Feel at Home

The miracle of the feeding of the Five Thousand appears in all four Gospels, but St. John is the only one who tells us that there was a young boy there who had five loaves and two fishes. This happens a good deal in the Gospels, where different evangelists emphasise different aspects of the same story or the same event. I found myself wondering, however, why none of the other evangelists mentioned the young boy. Then I remembered that John, himself, was the youngest of the Twelve and was probably only in his late teens during the years of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Perhaps he remembered the boy, because his whole experience of that day was seen and heard through the eyes and ears of a young person.

In the various conversations we have had during the on-going synodal process in our Diocese, people of all ages commented that young people are not particularly visible or engaged in the life of the Church. You could say that, as a group, they seem to be “outside the tent”. There was a sense among parents, teachers and members of Parish Pastoral Councils that we have not done very well in handing on the faith to our children. Some felt very responsible for this failure, while others were inclined to blame the schools or the media.

What about young people themselves? As I looked through the comments of young people and young adults, in response to a survey we did in 2022, I didn’t feel that they were negative to faith, though many could “take it or leave it”. One commented “The older community can frown upon you having an opinion on the Church and this kind of stops me from speaking in the Church or my parish”. Many young people certainly don’t feel “connected” to Church, and they don’t see any opportunity for them to be involved.

Here, of course, there is a risk that we who have found our place “in the tent” would simply get “up on our high horse” and say: “If they want to feel involved, let them come to Mass”. But the feedback from many young people is that, when they do come to Mass, they feel isolated, because their friends are not there. Another aspect of that experience is peer pressure, which leads many young people to keep their relationship with God to themselves, in order not to be isolated from their friends. We all see things from our own perspective. It is difficult to expect young people to engage actively in the faith community, if they experience themselves as being “on the outside, looking in”.

All of this brings me back to the Gospel account of the five loaves and the two fish. It was Peter’s brother, Andrew, who said: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” In many ways, Andrew’s comment goes right to the heart of the matter. He sees the possibility presented by the young person, but almost immediately, he seems to say: “what good will that do?” Is this not what happens in many of our parish communities? We go to older more experienced people when there are things to be done and decisions to be made. Young people are here now, with their many gifts, but we insist on seeing them as the Church of the future.

My own experience over the years is that young people have boundless energy. They know more than we sometimes give them credit for, and they think at a deeper level than sometimes appears on the surface. What they need is a place to unpack all of that. Can we enlarge the space of the tent, to give them that space?

Like many people, I would dearly love to see more young people participating actively in the Eucharist. Somehow, I think, that may be the destination rather than the starting point. We can share faith with young people in many other ways too, if we only have the confidence to allow them to see our own faith. Let’s face it, we older people are also vulnerable to peer pressure, and we are not always ready to allow our faith to show.

Meanwhile, long before the Last Supper, the story of the boy with the five loaves and the two fish, in some sense, prefigures the Eucharist. At the moment of the “offertory” when Jesus tells the people to sit down on the grass, this young man has something to offer. The Gospel seems to tell us that it is not the size of the gift that matters, so much as the generosity of the giver. It is certainly true that young people have things to learn, about life and about Church, as do we all. None of us, whatever age we are, has all the gifts that are needed. So, yes, five loaves and two fish seems very little to be divided among so many. But Jesus takes those simple gifts and makes of them what he needs. My message to young people this Lent is that there is room for you in the Tent, and your gift, however small it seems to you or to others, is all that Jesus needs. 

Bishop Kevin

28th February 2024