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Youth and Church: Biographical Notes from the German Context

I come from a very Catholic home.[1] Often, when I say this, it is assumed that a bad story follows about prohibitions and rules or stuff the like this. However, this is by no means the case. Church was always somehow part of my home and my family. My mom is a Catholic from the left side of the Rhine. It is a region famous for carnival and maybe that explains her way of belief. The core sentence of her belief is in her native dialect: „De leeve Jott is man net all so!“ This sentence is even difficult to translate into High German. It is more a way of life and belief then just a sentence. If I should translate it, I would say it has probably the meaning of: trust God, be surprised, He is not so quickly resent, God reacts differently than you think, as many think, God is different.

My mom really likes going to church. She does not do it compulsively not in accordance with the rules, not guilty she really likes it. She says, “it is the only place in the world where nobody wants anything from me”. You can see – not at least because I studied theology – that my parents’ home shaped me with its attitudes. So why it did not always work with the church service and church connection?

It was not that I did not try. I went to the children and youth church group, but you should become an altar server. Of course, there was nice play and there were nice holiday camps, but an important topic was always the worship service, which I did not appreciate very much anyway. Not so much its content, but the ceremonial questions: when must who go where, how do I ignite the incense properly, where do you bow, when do you kneel? I found almost everything more interesting than the question of when and how the host is worthily packed, put away or taken out.  I was also at World Youth Days in Rome and Cologne and it was great, but maybe not quite in the sense that the organizers hoped for. It was incredibly international, we were young, we were away from home, we were in Rome and it was colourful, open, and lively. I can remember the first pizza, I can remember mattress camps in schools, and I can remember how we tried to flirt with the security guards. I also remember spontaneous jam sessions with guitar and yes, we liked to sing spiritual hymns. However, I can also remember how we had to walk on large meadows early in the morning. Nice Romans watered us on the way because it was already incredibly hot. Then we sat in the blazing sun for a very long time and worship were celebrated. We were tired, thirsty, and close to sunstroke. The actual action was miles away. Anyway, we young people could not get closer because that area was reserved for the priests. Instead of singing the songs we had sung, some choir performed a stilted alleluia. I am sure it gave great pictures for television, the mass of white-dressed priests in the sunshine, the perfect music, and all around a field full of young people. The fact that we, and most of the others around us, were lying, dozing, chatting, eating or even sleeping was only seen when you were sitting in the middle. However, I can also tell a completely different story. In the age of 14 I went on my first holiday camp with the KjG (a Catholic youth association) and was immediately enthusiastic. The KjG is affiliated with many other youth associations (including scouts, Catholic rural youth, Catholic workers’ youth, Catholic students) in the umbrella organization BDKJ (Federation of German Catholic Youth). The BDKJ represents 17 youth associations and a total of 660,000 children and adolescents between the ages of seven and 28.The associations organize group lessons, but above all holiday vacations and camps, spiritual offers and also major events such as nationwide meetings, or the 72-hour campaign, in which young people realizing social, ecological, intercultural or political non-profit projects within 72 hours.  The German Catholic youth associations work, as the association work in Germany as a whole, is very complex and goes back to a long tradition of the organization of Catholic lay people. Many associations that were banned under the Nazis were re-established after the Second World War. Others have been founded new, knowing that something like this should never happen again and that the church is responsible for this too. Common too many of these associations, is that Christians do not give up their political consciousness at the church door. They are based on the spirit that Christian faith not only has to do with piety, and prayer, but also with global responsibility, political, social, and church engagement. I was active in the KjG from 14 to about 26. Worship was always part of the KjG, there were also morning and evening impulses at the events, and it did not bother me at all. On the contrary, I also liked to go to these offers. So, the question is what was different here? The youth associations see themselves explicitly as part of the church, they are themselves places of faith and community. Church is where believers come together. This understanding is an expansion of the classic understanding of the territorial principle. Youth associations and parishes are not competitors; they play for the same team. The aim of this offer is to give young people the opportunity to discover their own spirituality, to be able to speak their faith and to find a way to live their faith. Participation, self-organization, and democracy are “tools” for the youth associations in this sense: it is about taking young people and their concerns seriously. Specifically, this meant that all topics that interest young people should also be on the table.

When I am looking on the reflections that were borne out of the meeting of more than 300 young representatives from around the world, on a Pre-Synodal Meeting in March 2018 in Rome and the participation of 15,000 young people engaged online I could find there the same themes. The document is understood as a summary of all participants and they write: “There is often great disagreement among young people, both within the Church and in the wider world, about some of her teachings which are especially controversial today. Examples of these include contraception, abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation, marriage, and how the priesthood is perceived in different realities in the Church”. More as ten years later, still the same themes. It seems that nothing has been changed. How should young people feel taken seriously by the church?

They do not, as the document of the pre-synod clearly states: “It is difficult for young people to feel a sense of belonging and leadership in the church. […] The Church oftentimes appears as too severe and is often associated with excessive moralism. Sometimes, in the Church, it is hard to overcome the logic of ‘it has always been done this way’. We need a Church that is welcoming and merciful, which appreciates its roots, and patrimony and which loves everyone, even those who are not following the perceived standards.”


Even in my youth that created tension and disappointment. Yes, we were sometimes radical, we asked critical questions and we tested limits, but that is part of youth. A church who is uncomfortable with that and only waits that this will pass quickly will have difficulties to win young people. In the best of cases, she will reach resistance, but probably rather disinterest, but in the worst case, she arises fear.

When I see the young people from Fridays for Future today, it does not scare me, it gives me hope. I am glad that there is this youth that does not accept the status quo, that wants to change something and I start to think about where I am can behave differently. I would have liked this attitude from the church at my youth time. I can say that I am still in the church because I experienced what the church can be in the youth association. In retrospect, I can say that this KjG- feeling had something to do with community, with a seat in life, and it had a lot to do with the fact that form and content came together here. Something happened here, it was about acting socially and politically, it was about ideals, change, and criticism, and it was about self-determination, responsibility, and participation. These values are still important today. Of course, youth associations are also not a panacea. Maybe today’s youngsters do not like to be permanently involved anymore and new media have taken on a different role. However, it is still about ideals, change, criticism, self-determination, responsibility, and participation. Because young people are committed – the Fridays for Future show that – they still want to be taken seriously, they want to change something without just being smiled at and consoled. They clearly show and tell us that they do not need a church for being engaged or religious. But we – the Church – need them, and the Church should finally take them very seriously.

[1] During the CTEWC Meeting in Munich in summer, 2019 I was asked to speak at a conference in February 2020 of the Society of European Theology (ET) in Pécs (Hungary) about the question: How the church can serve as an oasis for young people and to share some biographical aspects. This text is an extract from the lecture.