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Plenary 2020 and holiness: Hear the plea of the young

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Students from Sydney join together in an remarkable display of faith, fun and friendship at the Australian Catholic Youth Festival in 2017. Is the voice of young people in danger of being lost in the preparations for Plenary 2020? Photo: G Portelli

Amidst the many voices captured in the consultation process for the Plenary Council 2020 there is one plea that risks being overlooked. It could be readily passed over because it seems too other-worldly or naively spiritual. It might seem to stem from a sentimental idealism that fails to address the real and pressing issues faced by the Church. However, for those who hold this view, it is their burning desire for the Church and for this Plenary Council.

Above all else – holiness!

This plea is for the Church to seek holiness above all else. There are many who are convinced that what the Church of today needs most of all is saints. Though the idea was clearly evident in the findings of the consultation, it seems not to have found a home in the proposed writing groups for the Council.

Young Australians participate in praise and worship at ACYF in 2017. The young hunger for straight answers rather than jargon and have a strong instinct for the truth. Young Catholics want clarity in their faith – precisely because it helps them to understand and embrace their faith. The response of young Australian Catholics to the listening process of Plenary 2020 was to call for an emphasis on holiness – the universal baptismal vocation re-emphasised by Vatican II. The Plenary should recognise this and respond concretely. Photo: G. Portelli

This focus on holiness came chiefly from the contributions of young Catholics who submitted their response to the ‘listening’ process. It was their belief that this is what God is saying to us at this time. They carried a simple conviction that God wanted us, the Catholic Church in Australia, to be holy above all else.

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The importance of prayer

Prayer is everything: young Catholics pray during the US National Catholic Youth Conference, which drew 20,000 people, mostly high school youth from across the country, in November 2019. Will Plenary 2020 respond to young Australian Catholics’ desire for a nationwide emphasis on prayer? Photo: CNS, Sean Gallagher, The Criterion

When they spoke of holiness they understood first of all that it meant giving primacy to prayer. Here they did not mean occasional short prayers, but deep and devoted prayer; specifically, silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Indeed, many reflected on what was for them a profound experience of knowing the presence of the Lord as they knelt in silent adoration. They had come to know of His love for them personally as they knelt for long periods in His presence. They felt His love for them as something real and indeed transforming. They were drawn in a deeper longing to taste this love and to live under this love. They want the whole Church to discover what they have discovered.

Experiencing the reality of the spiritual life

Many young people today have had profound spiritual experiences in the course of silent prayer. So when they urge the Church to give primacy to prayer they are thinking of their own experience. They are saying that if the Church embraces prayer before the Blessed Sacrament then the Church will know the love of God and this will transform its vision and mission. They firmly believe that it is prayer that will change the Church and empower its mission in our land.

Liturgy as worship – not a social activity

These young people long for the Church to become holy.

Archbishop Charles Thompson of Indianapolis raises the monstrance on 21 November 2019 at the beginning of adoration during the US National Catholic Youth Conference. Youth hunger for liturgy that allows space – emotionally, mentally, spiritually – to worship. And given the best liturgy the Church can offer, they respond overwhelmingly. Can the Plenary hear the message from young people about the need for excellence in liturgy rather than something dumbed-down in an awkward attempt to connect with youth? Photo: CNS, Bob Nichols, Catholic Moment.

Their heartfelt desire is that the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy be a time of worship of God. They want to encounter the Transcendent One every time they go to Mass. They do not need to be attracted to Mass by gimmicks or superficial efforts to appeal to them. They want silence and prayerfulness to be a feature of the Liturgy.

They don’t want many words, banalities and superficial commentary. They hope that the music will be prayerful, beautiful and directed to the honour of God. They have in their hearts a desire to offer God their praise and thanksgiving. At every Mass they long for a personal and ‘holy communion’ with Jesus their Lord who they know is alive and comes to them in the Body of Christ which they will receive.

These young Catholics love the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is their spiritual mother. Some express their Marian devotion by saying “Loving Jesus with the heart of Mary”. They say the Rosary regularly. They love its simple repetition and see in it a mode for quiet contemplation of divine mysteries. They wear a scapular or a medal of the Virgin Mary, invoking her maternal love and care. They are unafraid to show their devotion to the Mother of God.

Saints, sanctity and sainthood

Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, the World War II German Catholic husband and father who refused to serve the evil of the Nazi regime and paid with his life. Examples such as Blessed Franz and numerous other modern saints inspire young Catholics today. The Plenary needs to concretely respond to the call from young Catholics for leadership in sanctity for all Catholics – but especially the young.

They love the saints. They read lives of the saints. They are inspired by their virtue, their faith, their heroism. They have their favourites to whom they pray. The saints are their friends, their companions on the road. They surround themselves with this cloud of witnesses. In a particular way they are drawn to the youthful saints. Saints like Pier Georgio Frasatti, Maria Goretti, Therese of Lisieux, Chiara Badano, Philomena, Jose Sanchez, Francesco and Jacinta Marto, and many others often not known to older Catholics.


They invoke the angels. They pray to their Guardian Angel. They seek the protection of St Michael the Archangel against the powers of darkness. They know that the Christian life is a spiritual warfare. They know that they need the intercession of the angels to guard and protect them.

These young people have heard the call of their favourite Pope, St John Paul II, who urged them to become the saints of the new Millennium. His words continue to echo in their hearts:

Young people of every continent, do not be afraid to be the saints of the new millennium! Be contemplative, love prayer; be coherent with your faith and generous in the service of your brothers and sisters, be active members of the Church and builders of peace. To succeed in this demanding project of life, continue to listen to His Word, draw strength from the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Penance. The Lord wants you to be intrepid apostles of his Gospel and builders of a new humanity.

Pope St John Paul II: Young Australian Catholics are inspipred by his challenge to them to become saints for the modern world. The Plenary needs to deliver for young Catholics in serious ways on the holiness front. Photo: CNS

These words given at the World Youth Days continue to stir their hearts. They know his words are an authentic call and are a real possibility. They want to be saints and so they set out to be holy.

When they thought about what God wants for His Church in Australia, the answer seemed clear: God wants us to be Holy.

Youth from Australia’s Tongan Catholic community participate in ACYF in 2017. They were among an estimated 20,000 young people who participated in the three day celebration of their faith. The desire for holiness among young Catholics is clearly not just coming from an isolated few – it’s widespread. Photo: G Portelli

This desire, this hope, is not just in the hearts of an isolated few. Nor is it just among some who are overly pious. It is in the hearts of thousands of young people across this nation, a new generation of young Catholics whose hearts are on fire with the love of God. And they love their faith and their Church.

A voice for youth at the Plenary?

Will we hear their plea for the Church, for their future in the Church? Do we need some of these young people to speak at the Plenary Council so that older Catholics who have become perhaps a little world weary and whose love of God has gone somewhat cold can be touched by their vibrant, uncomplicated faith?

Will we hear and heed this plea of the young to be holy?

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