It was the writings of great Church thinkers such as Augustine, Aquinas, and Newman who first introduced me to the intellectual heritage of the Roman Catholic faith. At that time, I was a young student on the campus of what was then a conservative Protestant Christian college. Reading these thoughtfully deliberative texts seemed like a provocative act. When I moved on to the papal encyclicals, I was fascinated by the way in which the Church outlined principles for how people of faith might relate to the world, particularly with regard to social issues and issues of justice that affect those on the margins.
Fast forward many years to early November 2015 and I found myself standing in the Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the heart of the City of Seven Hills. I had entered the basilica from a side door and it took a minute for my eyes to adjust from the bright light of the Mediterranean sun to the soft interior glow of the sacred space. I heard a dull roar to the right and looked over to see myself dozens of yards from a rope line that separated me from a throng of tourists. This was my third visit to the Vatican, but my first as a Catholic and certainly my first time on that side of the rope.
Mass at St. Peter's that day was the highlight of a special celebration of the 50th anniversary of Gaudium et Spes, which is considered a landmark document of the Second Vatican Council that promoted interfaith dialogue and reinvigorated the Church's approach to social justice. The Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace coordinated the Young Generations at the Service of Mankind that assembled members of the council, heads of institutes for social doctrine, representatives from international youth movements based in Rome, and a handful of selected young adults to represent the future of the Catholic faith across the continents. I was incredibly honored to be selected by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of USCCB, who had been invited by Cardinal Peter K. A. Turkson to send one young person from the United States.
During two days of intensive conference presentations and panel discussions facilitated by leading Catholic scholars, I became more familiar with the substantive message of Gaudium et Spes, which challenges Catholics and all people of good will to be responsive to what is happening in the world. Economists, political scientists, theologians, historians, and other experts spoke about pressing global concerns related to family, immigration, economics, technology, and good governance. Each of the young adult representatives was asked by Cardinal Turkson to present synthesizing remarks at the conclusion of the sessions. In this way, the council sought to create a "dialogue among generations."
The group also gathered at the New Synod Hall in Vatican City for a ceremonial handing over of the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes. The six young representatives received a parchment and, in keeping with the future-oriented theme, a flash drive containing the social doctrine. These were handed out by individuals who had been part of the 1962-1965 Vatican II council. I was particularly moved, as a layperson, to receive my materials from Alain DeLauney who was a lay expert on financial matters at the Council.
Being part of the Gaudium et Spes conference and celebration reinforced my initial pull to a faith tradition that creates space for thoughtful dialogue. The robust discussion and interactions with young people from around the world also reminded me that today’s young adults desire to practice a real, engaged faith. They are eager for a global voice—a prophetic voice—that can speak boldly and exhort world leaders and structures. Pope Francis is offering us that opportunity, to root ourselves in Scripture and Church teaching, that we might go forth to practice mercy, sustained by the Eucharist, and emboldened by joy and hope.
Bethany J. Welch, Ph.D. is the founder of the Aquinas Center in Philadelphia, PA and recipient of the 2014 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award granted by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
Learn more about Catholic Social Teaching in our new CST 101 videos, a collaborative video series between Catholic Relief Services and the USCCB that explores the 7 themes of Catholic Social Teaching.