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.