The move toward mentoring

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Elise Italiano is co-writer and co-curator of the Catholic News Service column “In Light of Faith.” Italiano is the founding executive director of The Given Institute. (CNS photo/courtesy Elise Italiano)

Elise Italiano
Catholic News Service

Every so often, a new catchphrase will take hold in church circles, signaling a change of course in catechetical method or missionary outreach. Phrases like “forming intentional disciples” and “ministry of presence” come to mind as examples.

In recent weeks, the call for “mentoring” has begun to circulate with greater frequency, particularly as the church considers how it is going to attract and retain young adults moving forward and how it is going to meet the needs of its millennial members.

What’s most notable about this concept is that it’s coming directly from young adults themselves, not from the academy or hierarchy. It’s a grass-roots request from young Catholics for meaningful support in the art of Christian living.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, offered one young woman in his diocese an opportunity to make a public request for mentoring. Using space in his weekly column, she wrote, “I ask the 2018 synod to consider how the Catholic Church can encourage mentorships for today’s youth and young adults. We’re so tired of feeling lost in a storm with no one to help us find God’s light.”

Or consider this from the document that the presynod delegates penned for the synod fathers: “Young people are looking for companions on the journey, to be embraced by faithful men and women who express the truth and allow young people to articulate their understanding of faith and their vocation.”

Why the sudden call for mentoring? Though sociologists and church historians can provide a more comprehensive picture of this phenomenon, I think it’s tied to the weakening of communal bonds and the disappearance of reliable support networks.

By and large, many young people — including those who count themselves as engaged Catholics — have lacked the consistent presence of adults in their lives to show them to what it means to be a mature Christian. They’ve also been starved for instruction in how to tackle the general expectations and demands of adulthood as well as how to navigate today’s complex moral questions.

Families — nuclear and extended — used to be reliable and consistent “schools of love.” They were the context in which emerging adults could learn, almost by osmosis, how to forgive, make lifelong commitments and discern God’s will. But decades of divorce and a changing economy that has scattered people far and wide in search of work have weakened the family’s foundation as a critical place of instruction for those coming of age.

Moreover, young Catholics — if they are active and registered in a parish — can go weeks or months without being greeted by someone in the pew. This is not to cast blame. The reality is that overworked priests have a lot on their plates, and older parishioners might not be interested or able to engage young adults.

Hence, the call for more individualized and dedicated attention from a mentor.

What does mentoring look like? It will take on different forms depending upon where its place and the expectations and needs of those involved.

The church would do well to take cues from the corporate world, where employees are assigned mentors to help them hone particular skills, set personal goals and outline a path to achieve them. We can also look to our Protestant brothers and sisters, some of whom routinely pair up an older member of a community with a younger one to check in on his or her faith, relationships and well-being.

Mentoring is a low-budget undertaking. It only requires two people — the mentor and the mentee. The mentor shares something about Christian living: maybe how to prioritize prayer in the face of a busy schedule, how to balance parenthood with professional responsibilities or how to determine if you want to spend your life with someone. There’s no shortage of material to pass onto a generation starved for support.

As family life and parish life continue to change, young adults are going to need one-on-one encouragement in the spiritual life and practical tools for facing adulthood. It’s up to individuals who hear that request to offer themselves as mentors, ready to accompany someone on the road to maturity.

Italiano is the founding executive director of The Given Institute.

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