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Katie Prejean at Pre-Synod

Alumna Returns to Rome, Represents Youth at Pre-Synod

Prejean, Lopez and other pre-synod delegatesDate published: June 5, 2018

Between March 19 and March 24, pastoral leaders congregated in Rome for a pre-synod gathering of over 300 representatives from every part of the world. Two of those leaders were University of Dallas alumni Katie Prejean McGrady, BA '11, and Nick López, BA ’12 MTS ’16. The purpose of the gathering was to craft a document, to be presented to the pope, on the state of young people and religion worldwide.

“The young person of today is met with a host of external and internal challenges and opportunities, many of which are specific to their individual contexts and some of which are shared across continents,” the final document reads. “In light of this, it is necessary for the Church to examine the way in which it thinks about and engages with young people in order to be an effective, relevant and life-giving guide throughout their lives.”

Although she was able to take “a great selfie” with Pope Francis and graze the edge of his hand, the final document served as the highlight of the trip for Prejean, who became an international youth speaker after serving as a parish minister and theology teacher following her graduation from UD.

“I was stunned that some of the lines I submitted made it in, and I was so proud of the good work we’d done over the course of the entire week,” Prejean said of the document she helped craft. “It was surreal to hold the document, knowing this was what we had been sent to do, and I was very humbled to be there, in that moment, knowing we were answering Pope Francis’ invitation to speak boldly and honestly.”

Pope Francis’ call for a frank discussion comes as young people are far more likely to be nonreligious than previous generations, according to multiple Pew Research studies, a fact noted by Prejean and many other delegates.

Delegates agree that young people are averse to the “top-down” approach of religion and more inclined to grow from authentic personal relationships. Prejean cites the rise of social media and an overdependence on technology as mechanisms that make young people see the church as merely another option in an endless list of alternatives.

“Whether we’re talking about young people in Asia, the U.S., or somewhere in Europe, that seems to be a systemic problem — why go to Jesus when you have everything else available, and you know Jesus will probably just always be there?” she said. “Answering that problem and finding ways to connect young people with Jesus himself will be our task going forward.”

Prejean offers the image of the Road to Emmaus as a model for the current church and a potential answer to the lack of religious participation.

“I keep using the analogy of the Road to Emmaus. When those two disciples were walking along the road together, Jesus joined them, and walked with them, and they were able to share their hearts and listen to what he had to say, and their hearts began to burn within them,” Prejean said. “That’s the model of ministry I think we’re shifting to as a church: a walking with rather than a dragging along or a pontificating from the top.”

Her personal faith life was also informed as she heard the stories of youth ministers worldwide, particularly her roommate from China. As Prejean put it, her “neat little American-Catholic bubble” was burst. Through a conversation one particular night, she learned of the trials faced by Catholics under a communist government that oppresses freedom of religion.

“We stayed up late talking about what it’s like to live in a communist country and how the government’s oppression of religion, free thought and liberty takes a toll on a person’s spirit and intellect,” she said. “It was heartbreaking to hear how even the simplest things — like buying a plane ticket to go somewhere out of the country — can be cause for someone from the government to come knock on your door and demand explanations. So imagine trying to be Catholic, and faithful, in a place where freedom of any kind is not really an option.”

While this experience was largely new for Prejean, some things were identical to her undergraduate Rome semester. Old Bridge gelato was still her favorite, St. Peter’s Basilica is still as gorgeous as ever, and her UD education was indispensable.

“I really do think my UD education came in handy — and not just because I was able to speak to theological realities and argue theological points with precision and accuracy,” Prejean said. “I largely credit the professors at UD who helped me hone the skill of writing and taught me how to craft good, straightforward, ‘punchy’ sentences.”

Her education was not the only element of UD she experienced on the trip.

“On the last night we were all together, we had a huge party up at Castel Gandolfo, and the bus we were on drove right past the street that leads to the Due Santi campus,” she said. “Unfortunately, we had so little free time on the trip, we were unable to make a visit. But, I saw the palm trees and the vineyard from my window seat on the bus, and I did get to briefly say hello to Msgr. Fucinaro on Sunday evening.”

Prejean plans to use the lessons she learned in Rome as an undergraduate and as a pre-synodal delegate in her mission to walk alongside young Catholics and bring them closer to Christ.

In the photos: Top: López with Pope Francis. Photo credit: Paul Haring. Body of story: López, Prejean and other delegates. Photo courtesy of Katie Prejean McGrady.