Young Adults and the Church’s Need to Listen

So, I know this article in the current issue of America has been floating around online in the digital edition (which comes out a week before the print edition arrives), but I can be a little slow at times, often preferring to read the old fashioned paper format. This morning I read what I might characterize as one of the better articles on Catholic young adults that I have seen in a long time. I am usually very critical of essays about the Millennial generation and spirituality, because so much of it is misinformed, guesswork or caricature. But the essay, “You Are Worthy: Helping Young Adults Learn to See Themselves as God Sees Them,” by Jesuit Richard Malloy (of the University of Scranton), hits the nail on the head and, in what might strike some readers here as a rarity, I pretty much agree with the whole piece.

Perhaps the most insightful aspect of the essay is the pastoral illustration that Malloy presents to highlight the disposition of today’s college students to faith and prayer. Here’s an excerpt:

Amy Hoegen, an experienced pastoral minister, was leading a prayer exercise with students at the University of Scranton. She encouraged the group to pray, imagining Jesus right in front of them. “Look Jesus in the eye,” she counseled.

After the prayer time, Amy invited the members of the group to share their experience. One described what happened but studiously ignored the “looking Jesus in the eye” part. Amy asked, “What was it like to look at Jesus face to face?”

“Oh, I couldn’t do it.”

“Why not?” gently asked Amy.

Pause. Shuffle of feet. A glance at the floor. “Oh, I’m not worthy.”

What gave all of us on the campus ministry team pause was the next detail. Amy went on: “And I’m looking around the group, and all the heads were nodding. They all felt that way.”

A few weeks later, Rob, a stellar freshman from St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, a student who went on several retreats this year and is involved in many service projects, is hanging around the office late one night (these questions always seem to emerge late at night).

“Yo, Father Rick, how come before we get Communion we say that thing about not being worthy? That really sucks. Man, so many kids today don’t feel worthy of anything. Why reinforce it right when we’re receiving Communion?”

Is the problem that young adults feel unworthy of approaching God? Are the young afraid of getting too close to Jesus? If those are the issues, then pastoral approaches and responses need subtle to radical revision. We need to be asking why the students feel so unworthy and what we can do to let them know they are loved by God and worthy of God’s attention. We need to communicate that they can be in relationship with Jesus and the saints, no matter how good or bad they think themselves to be.

Is it any surprise that young people feel as though they are unworthy in the sight of God with all of the bickering and moral politicking in the Church and society today? Young people turn on the news, read their iPad news feeds and hear the generations ahead of them talk about how morally inferior kids are today and how a culture that has developed (positively in many ways, I would add) to embrace difference and diversity is really a guise for moral relativism and sin.

The Church will continue to fail young people as long as it treats them as broken, horrible sinners first and not inherently good people who were lovingly brought into existence by the Creator. The Church will continue to fail young people when its leaders focus on hate and division rather than love and acceptance. The Church will continue to fail young people when we, as the Body of Christ, continually fail to recall our Baptismal vocation to be in loving relationship with each other and all of creation.

Today’s readings from the Gospel of Mark and the Letter of James offers a powerful critique of the way the Church broadly engages (or does not engage) young adults. There is a blindness to what Jesus came to announce and continues to bring about in the world, we all need our eyes opened to the work of the Spirit in the world, but it doesn’t usually happen immediately. And the Letter of James, in no uncertain language, makes it clear that we must be “doers of the word,” which, as the end of this reading tells us, means caring for one another, especially the outcast, poor and marginalized! (James uses the example of “widows and orphans,” but we can easily read that today as “disaffected and marginalized young adults!”).

The Church most broadly, but especially its leaders, need to listen to hear these sorts of experiences of young adults. When they are made to feel unworthy to even imagine a relationship with Jesus, why would we be so surprised that 80% of them won’t come to Church?

Author Update — There has been some concern expressed in the comments below and elsewhere that this post might be understood as disrespecting the bishops. As the author I wish only to explain that this is not at all the intention and to express my sincere apologies if it was at all taken that way. I am seeking to highlight some of the excellent insights in the America article quoted above and point out the challenges that Fr. Malloy in that essay notes as well as raise some more questions. Today is indeed a challenging time for all Christians, but, as the article above points out, it might be especially challenging for young people. As always, I hope that this forum can be used to raise challenging questions in a respectful atmosphere and advance an ongoing conversation that enriches all sides of a particular issue.

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10 Responses to “Young Adults and the Church’s Need to Listen”

  1. Frederick Pratt Says:

    Rick’s book “A Faith That Frees: Catholic Matters for the 21st Century” is quite good. He was at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia for years – and was also very committed to the people of Camden, NJ.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this! I was struck by this line,

    “Young people turn on the news, read their iPad news feeds and hear the generations ahead of them talk about how morally inferior kids are today and how a culture that has developed (positively in many ways, I would add) to embrace difference and diversity is really a guise for moral relativism and sin.”

    I do not feel that this current generation in unique here, other than the advanced technology at their finger tips. Consider the 60’s, for example, and you will discover young people who fit the above description far better than the current youth of the Church.

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys! Peace and good!

  4. [...] Dan Horan OFM, posted this interesting piece over at his blog: Dating God.  You can read the post here. Within Dan’s post, there is a link to Fr. Richard Malloy’s piece:  ”You are [...]

  5. This post has really stuck with me for the past couple of days–way more than I had expected, actually, as it has continued to simmer in the back of my mind. I understand that the Church needs to listen. It also needs to speak to this generation with an understanding that young Catholics today are bombarded with false information from the media and secular society that is not only neutral towards religions, but extremely hostile towards Catholicism. Your average adolescent who tells his buddies that he is Catholic will quickly be informed by his friends–who all have doctorates in the wisdom of “South Park”—that the Church is a bunch of pedophile priests who burned people in Spain and carry around pictures of mutilated babies. Another adolescent may come across the “Why I love Jesus and Hate Religion” video, only to be left wondering why she belongs to a Church guilty of all the misinformation Jefferson B. asserts. I guess, what I really mean to say, is that I strongly believe young people need a lesson in apologetics so that they can even begin to understand their faith and defend it in the marketplace. Here in Maine, their has been some discussion about giving public money to religious schools that meet standards. One of the common criticisms I have read is that students will not be taught about evolution in Catholic schools. Over fifty years ago, the pope stated that the theory of evolution is compatible with the Catholic faith. I went to Catholic school. We learned about evolution, of course.

    • Jared, Deacon Dan’s post and commentary have also been in thought. Agreeing with one’s thoughts on the subject, I would also submit that moral relativism is still a very relevant cause of angst for all generations.

      We have experienced in our life time since the sixties/seventies, a markable shift in social norms — one of which is rather anti-establishment — breaking the “rules”. (Perhaps, not since the French Revolution, but that could be a stretch). With that said, could not the situation actually be caused not from a “generational divide”, but more an evolution of progressivism? Perhaps it is the direct result of at least four decades of secularistic humanism, a lack of respect for tradition and history, and the sacred nature of life — lack of structure? Or perhaps, in all reality, it is just a continuation of one’s original sin and hubris? Is it not one’s own pride and human condition that makes us believe that our Father would sacrifice so much through His Son?

      ” Should we have the misfortune to commit a fault, we must exercise meekness even towards oursleves. To be angry with oneself after committing a fault is not a sign of humility, but of secret pride; it shows that we do not regard ourselves as the weak and wretched creatures that we really are.” — St. Alphonus Liguori.

      The unworthy factor is of great concern, but not necessarily for reasons mentioned in the post. While one might “blame” the Church for “self-esteem” ailments, I would submit that the “shame” and feeling of unworthiness is perhaps a good thing. It means that these young people at least have a conscience, part of their Imago Dei. (Did not Adam and Eve have shame in the garden?) Now, the challenge is not to make them “feel” good or be able to imagine looking the Savior of Man directly in the Eye, but to allow Him to lift our chin, embrace us — letting Him — and have Him tell us, “it is o.k., and that He loves us, and is always there for us.”

      This is not something I believe can happen solely on the clerical level or in the “box”: It must happen within the family, and at school. However, since we have also seen “softening” from the pulpit, or dare I say a lack of contructive, pastoral, catechical, and apologetic homilies, there is no wonder why we are having such issues today.

      Given the current state of affairs, and not to get too negative, I am at least hopeful of the future and believe that counter to the MSM, the Church is alive and well. She is changing, and mostly for the good, and I welcome the recent changes and/or sense of “orthodoxy”. But, I also recognize the challenges of the “ADD-like”, (with too much outside stimuli and information overload), millenial generation.
      PAX et vivat Iesus!

  6. Deleted by editor

  7. Thanks Brother Dan,
    After a decade of work with campus, national and international Catholic student movements, I am convinced that one of the biggest challenges to the church today is to find a way to empower and respond to all young adults, especially those who feel “unworthy.” Our task is to find ways of empowering and supporting young adults to help them, as the Council teaches, to become the first apostles to other young adults.

    This spirit of empowerment is what lies behind groups like the National Catholic Student Coalition (www.catholicstudent.org) and it’s international umbrella, IMCS-Pax Romana. It is also the gist of the US Bishops letter on campus ministry “Empowered by the Spirit” It is this task of empowerment that, in my experience, enables young people to feel worthy to approach Christ, as active members of his body.

    Sadly, official support and funding for campus and youth ministry has been cut drastically over the past two decades. The vast majority of college students in the US (as CARA highlighted a few years ago) have no access to specialized ministry. This is a tremendous pastoral challenge. Youth days and festivals will not replace the transformation and empowerment that comes from involvement in youth-led groups and the great work of campus/youth ministries.

    Keep up the good work Dan!

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