What is the role of the Catholic Church in young people’s lives?

Young Catholics have a deep passion for justice work and are often driven by their faith beliefs to address social disparities and advocate for marginalized communities. However, they may not always agree with church leaders on how to best live out Jesus’ teachings. The Catholic Church plays a significant role in the lives of young people, shaping their values, beliefs, and actions. This article explores the role of the Catholic Church in the lives of young people, particularly in terms of service, advocacy, and addressing social injustices.

The Ignatian Family Teach-In: A Path to Service and Advocacy

One significant event that engages young Catholics in service and advocacy is the Ignatian Family Teach-In. Each fall, around 2,000 high school students from Jesuit schools across the country gather in Washington, D.C., to discuss issues such as immigration, poverty, LGBTQ rights, and marginalization. They listen to speakers who have worked to address social disparities and take part in prayer, Eucharist, and song.

During the Teach-In, some students visit the Washington offices of their home state lawmakers to present their arguments in favor of certain legislative actions. They also participate in public demonstrations, sharing personal testimonies about how specific laws or the lack thereof affect them, their families, communities, or peers. This event aims to inspire young Catholics to a lifelong path of service and advocacy.

Service Work as a Path to Understanding and Action

Many Catholic schools and parishes require their students to engage in volunteer work and service projects. These initiatives often involve helping disadvantaged communities near or within the Catholic schools and parishes. While these service requirements are essential, there is a need to help young people understand the underlying purpose and connection to their faith.

At the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, a predominantly immigrant parish in Washington, D.C., efforts are made to teach young Catholics about service work from a Catholic social teaching perspective. This approach involves introducing them to the face of Christ in vulnerable individuals and creating opportunities for reflection on their encounters. By contextualizing a person’s struggles within a social framework, young people can better understand the importance of justice work.

The Disconnect Between Church Hierarchy and Young Catholics

Despite the emphasis on service work, there can be a disconnect between what church leaders prioritize and what young Catholics see as meaningful actions. This disconnect is particularly evident in issues such as racism and LGBTQ rights. Some church leaders may not engage adequately with these issues, leading to confusion and frustration among young Catholics.

For example, the Black Lives Matter movement has sparked both support and opposition within the Catholic Church. While some young Catholics view it as a movement addressing systemic injustices and police brutality, some church leaders perceive it as conflicting with church teachings. This disconnect highlights the need for church leadership to bridge the gap and engage in meaningful dialogue with young Catholics.

The Importance of Forming Hearts Through Encounter and Reflection

Christopher Kerr, the executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, emphasizes the significance of forming young people’s hearts through encounter and reflection. While service work is valuable, it should not merely be a checklist or a requirement for confirmation or school. Encountering vulnerable individuals and reflecting on those encounters helps young Catholics develop a deeper understanding of justice and their role in bringing about change.

Kerr believes that Catholic social teaching should not be the church’s “best-kept secret.” Instead, young people should be guided from volunteer work to justice work. By engaging in both small-scale acts of service and larger-scale efforts to change oppressive systems, young Catholics can fulfill the kingdom of God’s mission.

Challenges and Opportunities in Engaging Young Catholics

Engaging young Catholics in the church’s teachings and social justice work can be challenging, especially in the age of social media and evolving communication methods. Church hierarchy may rely on written statements and documents to communicate their stance on social issues, while young Catholics absorb information through platforms like TikTok and other social media channels.

To effectively engage young Catholics, church leaders must adapt their communication methods and address issues in ways that resonate with young people’s experiences. This means acknowledging the realities of systemic injustices and advocating for change while connecting those actions to the teachings of the church.

The Legacy of the Jesuit Martyrs and the Call to Action

The work of the church in promoting service and advocacy among young Catholics is deeply rooted in the legacy of the Jesuit martyrs in El Salvador. These six Jesuit priests were brutally murdered in 1989 for their advocacy on behalf of the poor and marginalized. Their deaths served as a catalyst for mobilizing others against unfair structural systems, inspiring the Ignatian Family Teach-In and similar initiatives.

The Catholic Church has a unique opportunity to shape the values and actions of young people through service and advocacy. By actively involving young Catholics in addressing social injustices and challenging oppressive systems, the church can help them live out their faith in meaningful ways.


The role of the Catholic Church in young people’s lives is multifaceted, encompassing values, beliefs, and actions. Through initiatives like the Ignatian Family Teach-In and service requirements in Catholic schools and parishes, the church engages young Catholics in social justice work and advocacy. However, there can be a disconnect between church hierarchy and young Catholics on certain issues, emphasizing the need for dialogue and understanding.

By forming young people’s hearts through encounter and reflection, the church can inspire lifelong commitment to service and justice. It is crucial for church leaders to adapt their communication methods to effectively engage young Catholics and address the injustices they see in the world. Ultimately, the Catholic Church has the opportunity to empower young people to live out their faith and actively participate in creating a more just and compassionate society.