Participants attend the International Congress on Youth Ministry at a conference center in Ciampino, outside Rome (CNS photo/courtesy of the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life).

As I have spoken with young people in the Church about their experiences of worship, inclusion, and synodality, I have come to understand the importance of attending to their wounds, many of which have been caused or worsened by the Church. These wounds come in many forms, but I’d like to focus on one that is discussed less often: the exclusion of young people from parish leadership and the leadership of other Catholic organizations that make up the life of the Church. As the Church works to embrace synodality as its modus vivendi et operandi and to have a “preferential option for young people,” we must urgently integrate young people into Church consultative bodies at all levels.

Healing the wounds of young people will require a pastoral conversion on the part of the Church. According to Synodality in the Mission and the Life of the Church (2018), pastoral conversion “involves renewing mentalities, attitudes, practices and structures, in order to be ever more faithful to [the Church’s] vocation.” We must come to recognize in our hearts that all the baptized belong to Christ’s body and to see each member as part of the same vineyard—a belonging granted in light of our baptism. According to Rafael Luciani, an appointed expert of the Theological Commission of the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops, the first step in engaging with young people is to recognize that a young person has the same baptismal dignity as her older counterparts, to “consider her a subject that has her own voice and that she represents a reality of her own that I do not know.” When people are recognized as subjects, we can value their contributions “not as participants but members.” A real recognition of their dignity is necessary if young people are to be included in pastoral initiatives at any level of the Church or Catholic organizations. 

It may come as no surprise that there are few dioceses and parishes in the United States that can count young people among their pastoral councils. The same is true of the consultative bodies of Catholic organizations and schools. Leaders of these councils and bodies often assume that including ministers to young people—paid or volunteer—is enough to address the needs of young people. But synodality requires us to examine who is missing from the table and intentionally and actively include them. As Luciani puts it, “It’s not just about listening but who I listen to…. How can one truly discern if there are missing people who represent something [a reality] I have to discern at that table of the pastoral council? Discernment involves integrating all those who bring me something for discernment.”

But incorporating young people into consultative bodies goes beyond filling up seats at the table or checking the required boxes. It means teaching and forming them to be capable and responsible leaders. Theresa O’Keefe, an expert in ministry with young people and professor at Boston College Clough School of Theology and Ministry, emphasizes the need to provide young people with the right skills, tools, and accompaniment when we incorporate them into pastoral councils. It’s imperative to “train them in the structure of the church and how it works” and to give them “a sense the governance of the church” so that they know what they’ll be able to affect or accomplish. Young people can inspire each other and remind each other of their agency as they learn “how to be part of a deliberative body.”

How do we achieve the necessary pastoral conversion that will recognize young people as full members of a synodal Church? Those in leadership positions need to heal their vision of young Catholics and their role in the Church. First, we need to recognize the diversity among young people and not be afraid of or threatened by it. In the United States, the Church is culturally and ethnically diverse, and Hispanic-Latine young people are the emerging majority. There are other types of diversity to keep in mind, such as different liturgical preferences and spiritual practices in and out of the structural Church. There is an unfortunate tendency to homogenize young people in pastoral communities—such as shutting down pastoral juvenil ministries (Hispanic-Latine ministry with young people) or merging them into mainstream ministry. But this homogenization denies young people their forms of prayer and cultural knowledge, which inform their way of being Church and make sense of their life experiences. The diversity of cultural, linguistic, and/or ethnically centered communities of young people is often perceived as divisive rather than enriching. It is indeed logistically challenging to engage a wide diversity of young people in one consultative body, but we can provide young members of consultative bodies with peers to consult with, “a larger group out of which they speak,” as O’Keefe puts it, to build their confidence and skills. Church leaders need to recognize these groups not merely as “youth groups” but, in O’Keefe’s words, “a deliberative body that thinks about the life of the church from the perspective of the youth.”

It may come as no surprise that there are few dioceses and parishes in the United States that can count young people among their pastoral councils.

Second, Church leaders need to shift the way they talk about young people, to move from a “problem narrative” to an “assets narrative.” When we focus on the increasing disaffiliation of young people, we see them as a problem to be solved rather than people to be in relationship with. There is also a tendency for older people to see intergenerational differences as a sign of deficiency in young people. If we define young people by their struggles and questions, we won’t be able to see the richness of their life experiences. An assets-focused narrative, on the other hand, allows us to see young people first and foremost as children of God who are dignified, capable, and gifted. When we value young people’s baptism and God-given gifts, then we will want to remove logistical obstacles to listening to their voices and include them in consultative groups and decision-making processes. An asset narrative allows us to recognize young people’s strengths: their collaborative orientation to learning, resilience, bilingualism (in the case of most first, 1.5 and second generations), multicultural perspective, inclusivity, and inquisitive thinking. If we want to become a synodal Church, we need a pastoral conversion that helps us see young people as the assets they are.


Throughout her career working with young people, Christina Lamas, executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, has witnessed the capacity of young adults to do great things when they are trusted with leadership at the parish and diocesan levels. “I introduced a strategy to the board and to the membership that young people were going to be one of the pillars of our five-year strategy for the organization and that involved forming a youth advisory council,” Lamas says. “It was no longer [enough to say that] we serve young people and we minister to who accompany them, but young people had to be a part of our overall strategy.” She admits that there was a bit of “resistance” to this idea because some people “felt that we don’t need [young people] at that level.” But thanks to Lamas’s advocacy and the vision of the board, in 2022, the first national youth advisory council was established. It focuses on integrating young people into the work of NFCYM, modeling to other organizations and dioceses that it is worth having young people at the table.

While young people often experience tokenism in consultative bodies in and out of the Church, at NFCYM, “they’re not above, they’re not below, so they are given as much value and attention as we would give to the Diversity Inclusion Council as we give to the Partner Leader Council,” Lamas says. In the last four years, the advisory council has influenced the internal decisions made by NFCYM board including funding and programming. They have also taken a leading role at the largest national Catholic youth conference in our country, including advising on programming, leading workshops, and participating in panel discussions. Lamas celebrates the fact that their wisdom has spread beyond NFCYM through consultation with other national organizations.

It is clear that the support and vision of Catholic leaders are necessary for creating a synodal Church that recognizes young people as members of the Body of Christ. We have started to see a shift in organizational and parish narratives regarding young people, but, Lamas says, this may be due to “the decline that we’re seeing of our young people’s engagement in their faith.” But there is a danger in including more young people out of a sense of fear or loss rather than out of a sincere recognition of their value as members of the Body of Christ. We should integrate them because there is no Church without them, for they, too, are the Church. Acting in fear, we risk seeing them as objects rather than subjects.

Young people, for their part, must embrace their baptismal calling in prophecy, kingship, and priesthood to build a synodal Church.

Fear can be paralyzing, but it can also move us into conversion when we recognize it as a spiritual desolation and allow the Holy Spirit to move through our personal and institutional fears. Another fear that often prevents us from engaging youth in our consultative bodies is our wounding history with sexual abuse. However, Lamas insists:

If we’re doing our job right, whether you’re a pastor, a DRE, a youth minister, or any caring adult that’s invested in your parish to work with young people, and you’re training adults, you’re forming them, you’re bringing awareness, then you have nothing to fear. But if you’re fearing it, [it’s] because there’s a formative element that’s lacking that hasn’t been done.

Fear can also lead us to stay in safe, familiar Church spaces. The antidote to this is to recognize lo cotidiano, or ordinary life, as sacred. It is in these informal, diverse spaces that young people move as incubators of God’s grace and revelation. Synodality recognizes and values diversity and challenges ecclesiologies that foster monoculturalism. Why, then, do we desire to homogenize our thinking and only include those we already agree with in consultative bodies? Pope Francis says that the homogenization of young people “is just as serious as the disappearance of species of animals and plants.” By discarding or limiting voices in the margins in our consultative bodies, we are discarding people’s experiences of God, different ways of spiritual knowing. Young people have a predisposition to reach out to the margins. Pope Francis reminds us that young people evangelize young people, and they can question our motives when the fear of change paralyzes us.


To better include young people, we also have to reconsider what the most common Catholic consultative bodies—pastoral councils—are for. O’Keefe says that pastoral councils tend to focus on logistical matters rather than pastoral ones because pastors often do not know how to use their councils best. Pastors don’t ask questions like, “What does it mean to bring the gospel to this community and how do we live out the gospel in this community?... How do we build a community of faith?” These are relevant questions for young people, and they may get frustrated when the conversation does not address the things that really matter to them. Fr. George Evans, pastor of Holy Name Parish in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, insists that for a real integration of young people into pastoral councils, all members need “to remember not to talk too much about the past because teenagers don’t go back that far” and instead create a “welcoming and future-oriented approach…so that they don’t feel left out.” Like Lamas, Evans believes it is crucial to meet young people where they are, not overwhelm them with work, and accommodate their needs. Young people should be consulted about their own experiences—only they can explain what it’s like to be a high-school student today, for example.

Evans insists that pastors need to renew their vision of pastoral councils and use it for the nourishment of their community. “The real purpose of the council is to monitor the vision that’s been expressed after some reflection and then to see how we are carrying out that vision,” Evans says. Consultation and spiritual conversations tend to be less tangible than making cookies for fundraisers or choosing the color of a building, but they can lead to pastoral healing and communal transformation. When it comes to changing attitudes and behaviors to achieve synodality, we need to value more intangible assets such as dreaming and encountering reality through a process of spiritual listening and interiority. If pastoral councils are about bringing the life of the parish to the table, perhaps we need to start considering different ways of consulting within established bodies. Imagine how different our pastoral “business meetings” would be if they were to follow the Conversations in the Spirit method regularly.

Evans characterizes his style as “loose and conversational rather than [focusing on] agenda and minutes and parliamentary procedure.” At times this approach may frustrate some people who see pastoral councils as an opportunity to advance their agenda, gain influence, or lobby for a position. But Evans says that conversational spaces rather than parliamentary ones provide an opportunity for encounter and discernment and that young people are probably more comfortable with a conversational approach.

The kind of renewal of vision that Evans recommends would also help pastors see their committee members as contributors and producers of knowledge rather than mere recipients of ministry. O’Keefe suggests that pastors ask themselves, “How do I bring [parishioners] into this? How do I share with them the questions that are in my mind? And then how do I hear what’s on theirs?” instead of coming in with an agenda and asking the people to help him make it happen. After forty-seven years of priesthood, including eighteen years at St. John’s Seminary, Evans observes that pastoral councils have been treated more like corporate boards than representative groups for consultation on pastoral matters. Parishioners are not used to being asked and may even prefer to focus on logistical matters rather than pastoral ones, since, as Evans says, “those concerns sometimes come more easily to people than the concerns about how [to] meet Christ and share Christ. Most of us feel [like] newcomers to being church leaders.” More worrisome is that “priests haven’t always been good at pastoral visioning either, so we’re not inclined to get the group moving in that direction.” Evans adds that seminarians aren’t receiving much education on how to interact with councils. Nonetheless, he believes that bishops with pastoral vision can model to priests what it means to consult with the faithful as one body in Christ; that is how he learned to consult with his own community.

In all his years as pastor, Evans has tried to be intentional in including youth and young adults in pastoral councils. In his experience, the young people who are best integrated into a council are those who are already active in the life of the parish, otherwise they “have nothing to say, even if they aren’t shy.” It’s important to choose young people who “don’t feel overwhelmed, pressured or overshadowed by adults.” It is crucial to recognize their valuable contributions and affirm their presence without “putting them on the spot too much.” Similarly to O’Keefe, Evans believes young people need to be provided with an orientation about the life of the Church and accompaniment from the ministers who walk with them, like a youth minister or an adult from the council.

Young people have a predisposition to reach out to the margins.

Young people, for their part, must embrace their baptismal calling in prophecy, kingship, and priesthood to build a synodal Church. If young people want rights, they must accept the responsibility to be stewards building God’s kingdom. Wyatt Olivas, a twenty-year-old student at the University of Wyoming and the youngest member of the Synod on Synodality, believes that young people have unique charisms, such as finding beauty in diversity even amid political polarization and modeling how to resist the temptation to control. Young people are used to having everything planned out, Wyatt says, but when they overcome the need to control, they have the right spiritual disposition for approaching difficult questions. When a problem comes up, “I surrender it and I give it up—‘God, it is in your hands’—that’s step one for young people.” Olivas believes that for Americans to learn to live synodally, we need to learn to slow down and surrender our expectations and goals to God, to “focus on the big picture.” But we need to do “the small things” too: “Remind little kids that Jesus loves you, he died for you…plant positive seeds.” He also insists that we should start including young people early in their lives on parish councils—he became a member at sixteen. Moreover, if we do not see young people ready to take on leadership roles, it is not because they are deficient or incapable, but because we haven’t prepared and formed them well. Church leaders need to take responsibility to shape them as contributors to the life of the Church.

When we allow young people to be at the core of consultative processes, we not only benefit from their experience, but we also facilitate vocational discernment. We help them to see beyond their personal interests and care for the whole Body of Christ. For Olivas, the synodal process has been an opportunity to embrace his faith in a way that hadn’t been possible before. When he was “figuring life out” during his transition between high school and college, Pope Francis’s message to walk together as a synodal Church spoke deeply to him. Wyatt is now sure that “for the rest of my life I want to live like this…seeing our brothers and sisters and talking to them—talking with them and not talking for them.” He was inspired by Fr. Timothy Radcliffe’s invitation to “let yourself be emptied and be filled by other people and by the Holy Spirit.” The experience of Church leaders listening attentively to everyone at the synod, including a young layperson like him, helped him to be centered in Christ. In other words, being part of a consultative process that respected his agency as a baptized disciple regardless of his age brought Olivas to pastoral conversion and a commitment to being light in the world.

Olivas’s experience shows how important it is to see pastoral councils and consultative bodies as spaces where relationships and vocations can be strengthened. Showing up to meetings and discussing business as usual can no longer be the norm. Pastoral-council and committee members need to focus on knowing each other deeply to appreciate what each one brings to the table. Thus, if we truly aim for a preferential option for young people, if we recognize them as key agents of synodality, it is imperative to form them in the spiritual disciplines of listening and discernment and give them ample opportunity to practice them. To fail to do so means stifling young people’s experiences and knowledge, using young people as promotional tokens, or homogenizing their dreams and challenges. Without the full participation of young people, we are worse equipped to discern how to live as one Church and to continue building God’s kingdom.

Brenda Noriega, a Commonweal synod fellow, is a national Catholic evangelizer currently pursuing her PhD in theology and education at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Brenda’s academic and ministerial interests focus on the lived spiritual and religious experiences of young people and faith formation processes that respect them as epistemic agents.

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