VATICAN CITY (CNS) – As young delegates and the coordinators of youth and young adult ministry from the world’s bishops’ conferences gathered near Rome, an archbishop asked them: “How can we be a church that young people come back to, not a church they leave? How can our young people find hope and courage in the church and transform their lives?”

The questions were posed by Archbishop Peter Chung Soon-taick of Seoul, South Korea, host of World Youth Day 2027, during the Vatican-sponsored International Youth Ministry Congress May 23 in Ciampino, just south of Rome.

Participants attend the International Congress on Youth Ministry May 23, 2024, at a conference center in Ciampino, outside Rome. (CNS photo/courtesy of the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life)

The Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life convoked the three-day congress to consider answers to the archbishop’s questions as they marked the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ exhortation to young people, “Christus Vivit,” reviewed World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal, and looked forward to the Holy Year 2025 jubilee of young adults and, more remotely, to WYD in Seoul.

The theme for the gathering was “Synodal Youth Ministry: New Leadership Styles and Strategies.”

Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, prefect of the dicastery, said that since the 2018 Synod of Bishops on young people, many bishops’ conferences, dioceses and Catholic movements have worked with young adults to uncover new ways of communicating with them, to set up structures to listen to them and encourage their participation and to launch “programs of faith education, accompaniment and evangelization in both the digital and the non-digital spheres.”

“It is precisely young people who can be the main agents of renewal so that the church can ‘unblock’ itself and become young again,” Cardinal Farrell said, adding a quote from “Christus Vivit”: “Let us ask the Lord to free the Church from those who would make it grow old, encase it in the past, hold it back or keep it at a standstill.”

Archbishop Chung told the group, “When the decision was made for Seoul to host WYD, I wondered, ‘Are our young people happy right now?'”

“They are connected to others 24 hours a day through social media and are more materially affluent than ever before,” he said, “but our young people today just don’t seem that happy.”

In many parts of the world, they struggle with “unemployment, low wages, endless competition, polarization and inequality, hatred, war, terrorism, the climate crisis,” he said. “Why do our precious youth, whose only job is to love, be loved and dream of a better world and future have to live in this reality?”

When celebrated as a pilgrimage of faith rather than an event, the archbishop said, World Youth Day can help people find a response. “It’s a pilgrimage, a time to share our stories, work through our concerns together and find answers in our faith,” he said.

Paul Jarzembowski, associate director for laity at the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, was attending the congress and told Catholic News Service, “Listening is a foundation to so much of what we do in ministries with young people as our response and activities build upon what we have heard in the stories of youth and young adults.”

In response to “Christus Vivit,” the U.S. bishops launched “Journeying Together,” a process that brought together young adults, bishops, youth ministers and campus ministers “to engage in respectful yet honest dialogue in matters of faith, culture, racism, inclusion and the issues that affect them as young people,” according to the program’s web pages.

Although it formally concluded in 2023, Jarzembowski said the conversations are ongoing “as the young adults continue to convene together and engage us at the USCCB.”

The 1,500 young adults involved, who came from many cultural and ethnic groups, “included those who were active in their practice (of the faith) and those who are less engaged,” he said. The initiative was not about convincing them to return to church, “but about trying to understand the realities facing younger generations. Through this process, some did reconnect with active practice, but that was not its original goal. It was a pleasant surprise and the result of authentic listening.”

In June, he noted, the U.S. bishops will vote on a new national framework on ministries with youth and young adults. The document, “Listen, Teach, Send,” he said, aims to help the church engage and build up trust with young people by being a church “that truly listens, one that teaches as an act of response and witness, and one that motivates young people to be sent out to transform the world in the company of the Holy Spirit.”

Another key result of listening, he said, has been the church’s efforts to respond to the mental health crisis among teens and young adults, “raising awareness, combating stigmas and promoting a balance of clinical and spiritual support so that those who need help” can get it.

In discussions at the congress, Jarzembowski said, it was clear that “most continents are experiencing this crisis yet in different ways. However, the U.S. experience is certainly amplified by our polarization, digital landscape, consumerism and the struggle many families experience, especially around divorce.”

Cardinal Américo Aguiar of Setúbal, Portugal, one of the chief organizers of World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon, told the group that an essential part of planning involved setting up committees in every Portuguese diocese and almost every parish, involving thousands of young adults, many of whom “were not part of or engaged in any other ecclesial reality. They were and are one of the most important fruits for the Portuguese church and society.”

Those planning the Lisbon gathering “did everything and gave everything” to ensure it would promote a true encounter of young people from around the world with their peers, their pastors and with Pope Francis, “but above all an encounter with the living Christ,” the cardinal said. “Did it happen? We do not know, there are no statistics” that can answer that question.

But “personally, I know they did. I know it in my heart of hearts,” he said. And God knows, too; “he knows about each particular person, as only a Father can.”