Young Adults, Identity, Community, and Purpose: An Interview with Elise Italiano

In the days leading up to the Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed Elise Italiano, the founding executive director of the GIVEN Institute, on young adults and the Church:

You and Christopher White have a series at Catholic News Service that provides a forum for young adult Catholics to write about millennials and the Church. Do you see certain threads running through these articles, in terms of some shared goals and experiences? Have you learned anything or has anything surprised you in developing and editing this series?

We initiated the series with the hope of providing another opportunity for young adults to be heard by the U.S. Bishops ahead of the Synod. Many American dioceses encouraged young people within their jurisdiction to respond to the Vatican’s online surveys. We hoped that these columns would bring those responses to life through first-person testimonies.

After reviewing the contributions from our columnists for more than a year, I’d say that while young adults closely watch how their bishops respond to significant cultural, political, and ecclesial developments—and we’ve certainly had our fair share of them since the column started —they are primarily concerned with experiencing closeness, compassion, and concern from their shepherds. They want to know if bishops and Church leaders understand the circumstances in which they are coming of age, with all of the opportunities and challenges they face.

Our columnists shared pretty significant anxieties related to everything from financial burdens to loneliness to raising young children. At the same time, they generally seemed to hold out hope for a more promising future. By and large they crave an experience of authentic community and the support of mentors. They want to find both of these things in the Church, and they are ready to take on leadership roles alongside of bishops and pastors to make sure future generations have them.

At the Georgetown conference on polarization in June, you talked about the way that polarization and internal squabbling are distracting from the grave situation that the Church faces when it comes to young adults and the culture that is shaping their lives. Why are our peers being “carried out in spiritual body bags,” as you say?

I spent six years teaching high school theology to young women and spent several years interacting with college students through my work in public relations at a university.  From what I’ve witnessed, young people today have more choice and possibility, greater access to information and opportunity to connect with people than ever before.

Yet many of them are sad. They report feeling lonely and isolated. Suicide rates and addictions are at an all-time high. Young people are hungry for authentic connection, but there seem to be fewer and fewer opportunities to experience real community in the flesh. They know that consumerism and instant gratification don’t satisfy, but they can’t quite put their finger on what will.

Our Church leaders and commentators spend an enormous amount of time engaged in inside-baseball ecclesial battles.  When the Church looks inward for such a sustained period of time, it risks failing to take note of the people it’s supposed to be serving and to understand their reality.

For example, there has been a sustained, ongoing dispute amongst theologians and commentators about Chapter 8 in Amoris Laetitia.  Getting theology right certainly matters. But it can’t be all-consuming, especially because a generation of young adults is delaying or foregoing marriage altogether.  When we stay focused on the footnote alone, we risk putting energies into the necessary work of re-proposing marriage as a good to a generation which is highly skeptical of its possibility in the first place.

Many people in the Church still employ an evangelical strategy that presumes a certain level of catechesis, or acceptance of anthropological claims, or an understanding of theological vocabulary. I think it’s time to evaluate those presumptions and opt for a new strategy.

How can the Church—its leaders and everyday Catholics—slow or reverse this trend?

Today’s young people need a Church that is going to set aside the ecclesial divisions and help them learn what it means to be human. They need to know that there’s a God who loves them.  I think there’s a fear that if the Church were to get back to the basics of the Gospel, that we’d be forfeiting important theological nuances or points of emphasis that need to be worked out. But I think a return to the sources is a good idea. A culture that’s saturated by secularism is a culture that will eventually begin to crave something more. We need to approach our neighbors as if anything we tell them about the Gospel is their first encounter with its message.

What would you like to see coming out of the Synod on Young People?

I hope the Synod Fathers focus on three themes: identity, community, and purpose. Every young person is searching for the answers to the following questions: Who am I? Who do I belong to? Do I have something to contribute? The Church proposes that Jesus Christ is the answer to every human life. I’d like to see those present examine how well we are helping people know their identity in Christ; how well our parishes, campus ministries, and diocesan offices are fostering real community in which people feel that they are cared for; how well we are doing with helping people to discover that they have a unique, God-given mission that no one else can fulfill. I hope it’s an honest, humble, and hopeful assessment of how we’re doing.

How does the renewed focus on sexual abuse and cover-ups by the Church’s hierarchy affect the Church’s mission here in the US?

This summer pulled back the curtain on a great deal of darkness that was and is lurking in the Church.  In one sense, it has shed further light on the fact that the Church must be a “field hospital” to a critical, vulnerable population – persons who have been abused by clergy. The difficulty is that the Church was complicit in their vulnerability, and so the work of healing must be careful, steady, and thorough.  As our time and attention is rightfully drawn to serving them, our attention to other urgent matters will be divided. This will affect the populations the Church was serving this summer – migrant families at the U.S. Mexico-Border, young adults ahead of the Synod, and the on-going work to protect the unborn and support their mothers. My hope is that instead of giving into despair, Catholics will find renewed conviction and a sense of urgency and take up the task of protecting life and dignity in whatever corner God has called them to work in.

What is GIVEN and why is it needed? 

The GIVEN Institute (“GIVEN”) is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to activating the gifts of young adult women for the Church and the world. We inspire and equip the next generation of female leaders to “receive the gift that they are; realize the gifts they’ve been given; and respond with the gift that only they can give.”  Through leadership training, faith formation, and dedicated mentoring, GIVEN forms women for mission and for life.

The flagship event of the GIVEN Institute is the Catholic Young Women’s Leadership Forum. The event (to take place every 2 years) will bring together a diverse group of young adult women from across the country for a multi-day forum. It is designed for young adult Catholic women seeking leadership training, faith formation, and support to better understand and pursue their particular mission and/or vocation. Emerging leaders will have the opportunity to hear from and be mentored by leading Catholic women in both ecclesial and secular fields.

GIVEN was formed to serve young adult Catholic women, who are an underserved though critical demographic marked by a search for identity, community, and purpose. GIVEN’s programming is designed for women between the ages of 21-30, who are navigating a period of time between college graduation and vocational commitment or professional clarity.

There is a growing number of highly educated, talented young adult women who are looking to make this period of their lives fruitful and purposeful, who want to know that their gifts are needed.  GIVEN will identify, equip, and position these women to find a meaningful path for this period, one which also opens up possibilities for their future and enables them to find ways to put their gifts in service to the Church and the common good.

Many excellent corporate leadership development programs do exist; however, growth in leadership is often framed as something in tension or at odds with other vocational responsibilities. There are many Catholic ministries and apostolates which provide faith formation to women, but few, if any, explicitly invest in their leadership development.

GIVEN will bring together these elements of leadership development, faith formation, and mentorship to provide a comprehensive and transformative personal investment in the lives of future Catholic women leaders.

By investing in this demographic, the Church is also making an investment in its future. Throughout the course of this summer, many commentators noted that an incisive presence of faithful, skilled women would help the Church in its renewal and reform. But it’s also a matter of urgency for the life and mission of the Church.

The distinct phenomena of the disaffiliation of young adult women, an aging population of religious sisters, and a culture which undervalues marriage and family life will soon converge. From its earliest days, women have been the backbone of the life and mission of the Church. This is a critical time for the Church to inspire and equip the next generation of Catholic women leaders to put their gifts in service of the Gospel.