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Monday, August 27, 2012

Keeping Our Youth Catholic

Keeping Our Youth Catholic

          I recently heard Catholic speaker and author Matthew Kelly tell of going to an Evangelical conference to get ideas for a catechetical program he was developing.  He noticed that one of the breakout sessions was titled: Catholic Youth – The Future of your Church.
          This needn’t have been done with ill will.  The fact is that many Catholic young people leave the Church but remain open to Christ, and approximately half of Evangelical congregations are former Catholics.  It would be silly to think they wouldn’t prepare.
          This isn’t a problem unique to the Catholic Church, but since many of our youth are poorly catechized, they are easy targets for proselytization.  Our challenge as the Faithful is to do what we can to keep our youth in the Bosom of the Church.
          But how do we do that?  I have a few suggestions.  I am not a sociologist, nor am I an expert qualified to give a complete or authoritative answer.  What follows are ideas based on my own experiences and what I have heard from others who are presumably knowledgeable on the subject.  I believe that three areas we have to focus on are truth, holiness and community.
          Truth:  One of the great evils of our time is relativism, which I have spoken of before on this blog.  Truth, according to this view, either doesn’t exist, or it is subjective, so each person can define it for himself.  In reality, of course, Truth can be sought after, discovered and known by man, but it can not be defined by him.  It is a question of what really is, not what the majority decides should be.
          But our children are taught in an environment that takes relativism for granted from elementary school.  It is particularly applied to religion.  Many young people, by high school, take religious indifferentism as a given.  All religions are equal, they believe, and each person must decide which one, if any, best suits him.  It is not difficult to see, then, that the Catholic Church, with its moral demands, would be at a disadvantage among people who, as a group, have not yet developed a mature moral compass.
          There is another aspect to this notion of Truth, however.  Relativism is not satisfying.  Young people, for whom criticism can serve as a virtue as well as a vice, by nature know that it is not true.  One has to become a real academic to start truly believing such nonsense. 
And the fact is, many of our catechetical programs for forty years now, have been fluff.  They make few demands on the intellect or the will.  They teach the youth that Jesus loves them and that they should be nice, but they often do not give reasoned presentations of Catholic doctrines (if they mention them at all).  They make few moral demands and rarely even mention sin.  And “mortal sin” is definitely anathema.
Young people are looking for something to believe in, something to stand for.  Their idealism wants to become heroism.  And they want to be remarkable people who live lives of purpose.  Then they come to a religious education program to learn about the most remarkable purpose and Person of all, and they find little inspiration, and maybe even more relativism.  Should we be surprised if they are not inspired?
They may receive the lesson about Jesus, but know there must be something more to who he is and what He wants of them.  Then they come across an Evangelical youth group where the kids know very clearly what they believe and what they stand for.  It should be no surprise if they find that attractive.
The good news is that I believe all this is changing.  It never applied to all parishes, but the dumbing-down of religious education programs and lack of concern for doctrine had gotten very widespread.  The problem in most quarters, though, has been identified.  New programs with a focus on teaching the Truth and helping our youth experience it, are spreading.  And many parishes are working hard to catechize the catechists, who may have grown up in the “Fluff Era.”
If we want our young people to remain Catholic, we must teach them the Truth.  Nothing is as beautiful as Truth.  And there is no need to dumb it down.  Give it to them in a manner they can relate to, of course, but they are intelligent people who will respect being given the fullness of the Faith.
Holiness:  I said that nothing is as beautiful as Truth; and nothing is as attractive as holiness.  Why did Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa inspire so many people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike?  It was their holiness.  Love emanated from their being.  It was not hard to look at them and see Christ.
I attended World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002.  I didn’t go with a group, just by myself.  So on the day Pope John Paul II arrived, having nothing else to do, I got there early and decided to lie in the shade of a tree and read, which I did for about two hours.  This gave me a perfect plot of land right up front, about six feet from where the pope would be passing.  When he started coming, we all stood up, and I was excited but not particularly star-struck.
However, when that holy man drove by, blessing the crowd, and I saw the love in those aged eyes, I felt an incredible desire to be near him.  I grabbed my bag and started running at the fringe of the crowd, after the popemobile, in the hopes of staying in as close a vicinity to him as possible, for as long as possible.  It was quite an unexpected feeling, that some might call adrenaline.  Perhaps it was, but there is no doubt that it was inspired by being in the presence of a saint.
Our youth will have far more contact with us than they will with the popes or famous saints of our age.  But we can inspire them, too.  They, in many ways, are products of a cynical age, and they are yearning for authentic people to inspire them.
They want to believe that a remarkable life, lived joyfully in the Grace of God and service of neighbor, is possible.  Everyone needs someone who inspires them.  We Catholics have always known this, which is why the lives of the Saints have been told since the earliest days of the Church.
But all people, and especially the youth, are on guard for phonies, people who don’t really believe what they preach, or who don’t really live what they believe.  That is the quickest way to become irrelevant to them.
This was made clear to me a number of years ago when a mother of one of my students asked to see me.  I teach at a Catholic school and my class is always praying together and learning about God.  But it seems one day her son came into the room to get a playground ball at lunch time.  I was sitting down to eat at my desk and didn’t notice him, but he saw me saying grace before I started my meal.  She said that event, seeing me pray privately when none of the students were there, was more powerful to him than the religion lessons I had taught.  And that was something as small as saying grace.  But it told him I really did take seriously the things I was teaching him.
Of course, we will not be perfect, and our youth are wise enough not to expect perfection.  But they can recognize someone who truly loves Jesus, who tries to live in a manner pleasing to Him, and who humbly admits when he falls short.  People like that are magnets, drawing others to Christ.
So it is up to us, priests, parents, catechists and all the people of our parishes, to strive for holiness.  That authentic witness has incredible power.
Community:  We humans are all social beings.  And there are few things our youth need more than to feel like they belong.  It is imperative that we develop dynamic youth groups at our parishes.  This is everyone’s duty, not just parents’ or youth ministers’.  We all have to support that however we can.
Our children need to know that Church is a place where they belong, where they are safe, where they can meet friends, where they can grow, and where they can have fun.
          It is easy to get wrapped up in the doctrine and Sacraments (two things I will never underestimate the importance of), but forget the community.  Our kids need a place where they can be kids, with other kids their age, who share their interests, their values, their Faith.  If they believe that Church is a community in which they belong, they won’t be tempted to try out the Evangelical youth group down the street.
          As I said at the beginning, this article is based solely on my experiences and the wisdom others have shared with me.   There is much more that can be said, I’m sure.  I do want to finish with one last point.  I have been focusing on the parish level, but what about keeping our own children Catholic? 
          One thing we must keep in mind is a point Ken Hensley makes in his presentation, How to Keep Your Kids Catholic.  He cites a study which showed the number one reason young people left the Church is that they had an unhappy childhood.  Catholicism was passed on to them from their families, and they did not have happy memories of their families, so they dropped the Faith as one way of cutting those ties.
          It is imperative, in dealing with any children, and especially our own, that our relationships be characterized by love.  St. John Bosco once said, “Give them love and they will follow you anywhere.”
          It is true that many young people are being pulled out of the Faith despite the loving influence of their parents.  But I believe that influence leaves a life-long mark that produces an openness through which Grace will eventually triumph.
          On this feast of St. Monica, who won her son’s conversion through years of sorrowful prayers, may we resolve never to give up on any of our children.