FACING THE FUTURE WITH HOPE AND JOY +Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. Pontifical College Josephinum, 3.27.19
I’m glad to be here tonight for two reasons. First, I admire – greatly admire — theJosephinum and the men it produces. The Church needs you because we urgently need more good priests, men of prudence and charity, but also of spine and courage, who understand the changing terrain of our times. In my life, the priesthood has been a deep source of joy and purpose, the gift of knowing with certainty why God made me. But it’s not a life for the weak or the lukewarm. Especially now.
My second reason is this. Cardinal Pio Laghiwas a mentor and friend who showed great kindness to me as a young bishop. When you’re a baby bishop, everything is new and a bit intimidating. Cardinal Laghi’s encouragement made a great difference in my life and ministry. He gave me my first zucchetto, pectoral cross, and mitre. I’ve never forgotten the debt I owe him. Delivering these remarks in his name is not just a pleasure, the pleasure of being with you, but also an honor. So let’s begin.
I chose tonight’s theme because it sounds better than “facing the future with confusion and anxiety,”and angerfor that matter, because I’m tempted to feel all three of those things a couple of times a week. There are days when everyone in the Church seems angry. Laypeople and priests are angry with their bishops for the abuse scandal, which never seems to end. Bishops are angry with priests for their bad example. And many bishops are also frustrated – to put it gently — with Rome for its unwillingness to acknowledge the real nature and scope of the abuse problem. Clerical privilege is not the problem. Clericalism may be a factor in the sexual abuse of minors, but no parent I know – and I hear from a lot of them – sees that as the main issue. Not naming the real problem for what it is, a pattern of predatory homosexuality and a failure to weed that out from Church life, is an act of self-delusion.
I once tried to explain the problems faced by faithful Catholics to my good friend Eric Metaxas. “Imagine you felt your salvation depended on staying inside a Church with apostolic doctrines, which is run by liberal Protestants.”
We Catholics have faced some version of that for most of my lifetime. In theory, the bishop is meant as the heir of the apostles to be the main teacher of doctrine. And a model of holiness.
The Cardinal Who Molested the Boy He’d Baptized
Now we learn that more and more of them were either implicated in sex abuse, or helped to cover it up. The former archbishop of our nation’s capital, Theodore McCarrick, was groping seminarians, and even molesting children.
The mainstream news source Catholic News Agency notes that several prominent churchmen were in a position to know about his actions. The Church settled legal claims against him in 2005 and 2007, yet he remained in office, even attending the Conclave that elected Pope Francis. McCarrick played a key role in the 2002 “Charter” meant to end sexual abuse, and may have influenced its decision to exempt bishops from consequences for sex abuse cases.
No wonder the bishops who covered for one of their colleagues aren’t willing to face down today’s fashionable evils. To confront the LGBT attack on Christianity itself. Who wants to risk a revolt on that kind of scale, when you have parishes to run? Nor are we talking mostly about pedophiles, who are no more common among the priesthood than in any other profession. The vast majority of sex abuse cases that occurred in the Church were of post-pubescent boys by gay men, not pedophiles.
Each week or month write your pastor a personal check. Make it out to him, not the parish.
No surprise that bishops find allies in pro-choice labor unions. And in money-sluicing Democrats who promise to keep the Church’s “charities” on life-support as government contractors. Remember when one brave bishop, Thomas Paprocki, ordered his local Catholic U.S. senator, Dick Durbin, to stop receiving Communion? That was after Durbin voted to keep on killing pain-capable, almost viable unborn babies. The very next week, the cardinal in Chicago, Blaise Cupich, did a Skype call thanking Durbin for his help on immigration. Just to make sure that Durbin suffered no political damage. And to slap Paprocki publicly in the face.
Imagine you felt your salvation depended on staying inside a Church with apostolic doctrines, which is run by liberal Protestants.
Cut Off the Supply of Canon Fodder
The only reason these Mainline liberal Protestants serving as Catholic bishops aren’t facing empty churches like their Episcopalian colleagues? That would be immigration. Some 40% of native born Catholics leave the Church. But Catholic numbers stay flat, instead of declining, thanks to Latin American immigration. One in four Catholic adults in the U.S. was born in another country. When many bishops tell us that immigration is the “future of the church,” they never say why. It’s because they’ve given up on the rest of us — the people who grew up here in their churches. Whose ancestors built the parishes they wreckovate. Who are still paying their bills with our donations.
Many of those bishops have virtually ceased to preach, teach, or evangelize the faith. They’ve decided to simply import people, who (wouldn’t you know!) just happen to join up en masse as liberal Democrats. So the Democrats are the allies. Nasty, “harsh” Republicans (so what if they’re pro-life and pro-marriage?) want to shut down the blood transfusion. Then everyone would see just how ghastly sick the patient really is.
Don’t Wait for a Pope to Fix Things
Lay Catholics have very little power to influence our pastors. Or our bishops. We used to wait for the papacy to fix things. To send letters to Rome, in the hope that the Vatican would rein in local abuses. We imagined that faithful orders and solid dioceses would simply outproduce the dying liberal religious orders and lavender seminaries.
But the orthodox popes who reigned from 1978 through 2013 only managed to slow down the slide.
It’s likely that they were naïve about a fundamental fact: if you’re willing to be a heretic, you’re probably game to lie. Hence ambitious ex-believers who wanted to rise in the ranks, to become say, Archbishop of Washington, D.C., were perfectly happy to mouth orthodox slogans while John Paul or Benedict was pope. They consolidated power, and when they saw their chance they struck by electing Pope Francis in 2013. (McCarrick was one of Francis’s longtime boosters, along with pedophile enabler extraordinaire, the far-left Cardinal Godfried Danneels.)
The Power of the Purse
One leverage, other than prayer, which faithful laymen have is financial. As much as they draw from the taxpayer, the bishops’ main source of income is Sunday collections. (They get 8%, every week, from every parish.)
How much will these bishops get? That is in our hands. Quite literally, in the checkbooks we hold. And there are things we can do. On a grand scale, I’d like to see faithful Catholics of means set up formal escrow accounts. (For the national initiative, we could lightheartedly take the name “St. Escrow’s.”) Those accounts will receive the monies those Catholics would otherwise have given to their bishops. Annually, a board of faithful laymen will review each bishops’ decisions, and pay him what he deserves.
For ordinary Catholics? Well, a very faithful priest in an appallingly liberal diocese once offered this suggestion. If you have a good pastor and parish, but don’t want to fund your bishops’ open-borders or big government activism — or his gay-dominated seminary — do this: Each week or month write your pastor a personal check. Make it out to him, not the parish. He can do it with it what he wills, and you’ll trust him to spend it wisely. The bishop’s not entitled by any law, canon or civil, to one red cent.
Time for a General Council, Like Nicaea?
On the macro scale, of course, I don’t know how to fix things. That’s in God’s hands. Based on my long study of Church history, I’d say that we’re in a crisis on the order of the fourth-century Arian heresy. That wasn’t solved by electing hardline popes and expecting them to pursue successful purges. It was addressed by repeated universal Councils of Church bishops. Those used to gather bishops, orthodox and heretical alike, and force them to hash out fundamental differences of doctrine. When they taught dogmatically, they trusted the Holy Spirit to guard their conclusions from error. Councils like that affirmed the divinity of Christ, for instance.
Such councils proved long, protracted, painful and divisive. But they gave us the clear tenets of the orthodox faith shared by faithful Christians. Christ told us that He would guard the Church from error in such instances. It’s time to take Him at His word.
A subject many Catholics are naive about. Kilpatrick’s article about Fr. James Schall’s collection of essays is very relevant to Catholic men of faith today. Knowledge of the truth, is true power, Ignorance is not bless….
One of the interesting aspects of Fr. James Schall’s refreshing collection of essays, On Islam, is that it provides a chronological record. The first essay appeared in 2003, the last in 2018. This allows the reader to see how our understanding of Islam has changed over those years.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t changed much at all. In 2003, we understood next to nothing about Islam, and in 2018 it’s still next to nothing.
One of Fr. Schall’s main themes is that we must try to understand Islam as Muslims understand it, and not as we would like it to be. Instead of adjusting our theories to fit the accumulating facts, we keep trying to force the facts to fit our theory. This, says Schall, is the main reason we have failed to stem the tide of terrorism. We still assume that Islam is a religion like our own and that terrorism is a misunderstanding of genuine Islam.
On the contrary, writes Schall, terrorists are arguably more faithful to the essence of Islam than peaceful Muslims. As he puts it:
The terrorists themselves do claim with considerable historical and doctrinal evidence, on Qur`anic grounds, that they are in fact the true interpreters of Islam.
I don’t mean to oversimplify Fr. Schall’s argument. His essays are chock full of solid philosophical, theological, and historical evidence for his conclusions. But one of his conclusions is that:
advocates of the Islamic State are Muslims who faithfully follow what this religion allows and encourages them to do… To look on them as heretics or aberrations results in policies that only make the Islamic State’s success more likely.
Our insistence on seeing Islam through Western eyes, says Schall, means that we will be blind to the larger picture. Thus, “each bombing, shooting, knifing, or truck-crashing incident” is treated “as an individual problem of some usually ‘fanatical’ or otherwise confused youth acting on his own.” The authorities can’t bring themselves to admit that each incident is part of a pattern—that these actions are motivated by a world view that is shaped by the Koran and the example of Muhammad.
Likewise, the West’s leaders will fail to understand Muslim migration:
The trouble is that such large numbers of young and mostly male Muslims in every Western country are not there simply because they are poor or have been expelled…They are there to expand Islam.
“The purpose of Muslim expansion,” he continues, “is not to assimilate into a new nation and culture but rather to change it so that it conforms to Muslim ways.”
And what is the overall purpose of the expansion? Schall answers with refreshing candor: “Briefly, the assigned mission of Islam is to conquer the world for Allah.” But this simple truth about Islam flies in the face of politically correct and religiously correct notions that all religions are peaceful and opposed to violence. To conquer the world for Allah? Religious people, we assume, just don’t think like that. Thus, we convince ourselves that terrorist acts committed in the name of Allah, have “nothing to do with Islam.” “Dealing with Islam,” writes Schall, “is a function of understanding Islam,” and until we admit some very basic facts about Islam we will be unable to meet the challenge of Islam. The result? “I think it very possible, if not likely,” he writes, “that Islam will successfully establish itself in many areas of Europe and America.”
As might be expected, Fr. Schall also addresses the Church’s role vis-à-vis Islam. In an essay on dialoguing with Islam, he suggests that Church leaders, like secular leaders, fail to see Islam for what it is. Instead, they prefer to look at it through Catholic eyes and have therefore convinced themselves that the two faiths have very much in common. But, says Schall, “What Islam and the Bible have in common is very little when it comes to doctrine … only with the greatest stretch of the imagination can we say that Muslims believe in the same God as Christians and Jews.” As a result, the dialogue is without resolution because there is precious little common ground. For example, when Muslim and Catholic dialoguers use the word “peace,” they mean entirely different things. According to Islamic tenets, true “peace” will only come when all the world is Muslim.
Quite obviously, Schall’s position on Islam is at odds with the policies pursued by many in the Church leadership. He asserts that Islam is not a religion of peace, but of conquest. He maintains that terrorists are not misunderstanders of Islam, but are faithful to the plain meaning of the Koran. Moreover, he suggests that many Muslim immigrants to the West are not coming simply to find jobs or escape violence, but to convert the world to Islam.
What, then, does he suggest as an alternative policy? His general prescription is to replace the utopian view of Islam with a more realistic one. A viable Islam policy must be based not on what we wish Islam was, but on what it actually is. Otherwise, things will continue as they have, and we must face the real prospect of a world converted to Islam.
Among other things, getting real means that Christians must insist that the Koran is not of divine origin. Moreover, they should do what they can to cast doubt about the Koran in the minds of Muslims. Why? Because the Koran is the key motivating force for jihad. The terrorism and the warfare will continue because that is what the Koran commands. The remedy, then, is not to assert that terrorists have misunderstood the Koran, but to assert that the book they follow is not from God:
The first step needed, then, is the affirmation, from the Christian side, that these views are as such false. They cannot be divine revelations.
As long as Muslims continue to believe that the Koran is the direct word of God, then the bloodshed will continue. It should therefore be the aim of Christians to disabuse them of this notion by means either subtle or direct. “What has never really been faced, even by the Church,” says the author, “is the truth content, or lack of it, in the Muslim world view…”
In the context of most current thinking about Islam, what Fr. Schall proposes here is quite radical. On the other hand, it also seems quite realistic. As Pope Francis put it in Evangelii Gaudium, “Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism” (232). Unfortunately, the ideas that many Catholic leaders, including Francis, hold regarding Islam seem to be based more on fantasy than reality.
In an essay entitled “On the Fragility of Islam,” Fr. Schall points out that the Koran is Islam’s weakest link. It’s authenticity as a direct revelation from God rests solely on the testimony of Muhammad. There is no other corroborating evidence. To the normal observer, says Schall, the Koran borrows heavily from the Jewish and Christian Scriptures: “Yet, if this historical origin is shown, then the Qur`an is merely the product of a confused effort to rewrite the Scriptures already in existence.”
Fr. Schall hopes that the eventual publication of a critical edition of the Koran by German scholars will make many of these problems evident. Possibly so, but there is already sufficient evidence in any standard edition of the Koran to cast doubt on the authenticity of the revelation. The Koran is almost completely lacking in chronology, continuity, and structure. At the same time it is full of mind-numbing repetition and formulaic prose. It strains credulity to believe that it was written—as Muslim scholars claim—by the Author of Creation.
Fr. Schall’s hope is that when all the many contradictions and incoherencies of the Koran become clear, “Islam may be as fragile as communism”:
Can we expect, as it were, a John Paul II effect, which saw a seemingly unbreakable communism suddenly collapse because its ideas were finally recognized as incoherent and evil?
Schall realizes that Islam is far older than communism and more resilient, and he admits that its fall is unlikely to come as quickly. Nevertheless, there is hope. Until the Iranian Revolution of 1979, there was a good deal of evidence that Islam was losing its hold on the Muslim world. Turkey had become a secular state, and many in Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and other Muslim nations found Western values more attractive than Islamic ones. Sadly, this laxity of faith was the catalyst that spurred the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaida, and other groups dedicated to returning Islam to its original zeal.
But memories of better, less-Islamic times remain. Recent events give hope that what has happened once can happen again. In the last several months there have been numerous large demonstrations throughout Iran calling for an end to the theocratic regime. And last week in Paris, 100,000 people participated in a “Free Iran” rally. One minor news story is also telling. A recent study of thirty three deradicalization programs in the UK showed that all but two were either ineffective or counter-productive. The two effective initiatives were “one defying political correctness and tackling difficult issues head-on and the other directly addressing extremism in religious [Islamic] texts.”
The effective initiatives sound rather like the approach Fr. Schall advocates: tell the truth about Islam, and challenge Muslims to look more closely at the problems of the Koran. The ineffective initiatives resemble the ones the Church leadership has been pursuing; No one can accuse them of tackling difficult issues head-on. Indeed the only issues they tackle with gusto are Islam-approved ones such as the anti-Islamophobia initiative. If Western leaders and Church leaders keep insisting that Islam is fine just the way it is, there will be very little incentive for Muslims to reform their faith or—if it is irreformable—to leave it.
If and when Church leaders come to the conclusion that their current approach to Islam is both ineffective and counter-productive, they will find in Fr. Schall’s gem of a book a clear guide to a more promising direction.
August 15 marked two important events for New York-area Catholics this year. It was the feast of the Assumption of Mary. It was also the start of the Subway Series between the New York Yankees and the New York Mets. The Diocese of Bridgeport decided to celebrate both, with an event billed as “Baseball with the Bishop,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Young adults of the diocese were invited to attend the game. The group began the evening with Mass in Bridgeport, Conn., before boarding a charter bus bound for the Bronx.
In Yankee Stadium, section 427 is filled with young adults, who are cheering on their ball club alongside other young men sporting Roman collars. Bishop Frank Caggiano has come down with an illness and is nowhere to be found (as a Mets fan, perhaps the thought of being in Yankee Stadium was the cause). But none of the young adults in attendance seem to mind. There is a sense that they will see him another time.
In the top of the ninth, the Yankees have a one-run lead and one out to go, but John Grosso’s focus is divided between the game and telling me how much he loves working for his boss—Bishop Caggiano. “Working with him is an absolute joy. He loves the church, and he loves young people—and he’s so good with young people because he’s a real person,” Grosso says. Grosso is the director of social media for the Diocese of Bridgeport. As a 20-something himself, his perspective is helpful for determining what style of ministry might be useful for young people. As we talk, his eyes dart back and forth between me and the batter’s box. “Our goal is to make ourselves a little bit vulnerable, by putting ourselves out there in situations where you wouldn’t expect to see the church.” Like at a Major League Baseball game.
This type of outreach can be effective: Tanya Adler, 20, came to the game in response to an invitation. She motions toward her friends, Rich and John Kelly. “Yeah, we’re baseball fans, and we heard this announced after Mass and thought it would be cool to come out and meet the bishop.” The Kellys are brothers; one is a graduate of Fairfield Prep and the other is beginning his senior year there. Adler was raised Protestant, but she attended Catholic schools and goes to Mass occasionally with the Kelly family. Though she is not Catholic, she feels a pull to be more involved in church. “I’m not as active as I should be in a parish,” Ms. Adler said. “But it’s a work in progress. I’ll get there.”
At 24, I am well within the demographics that are of interest to John Grosso and his team, and I certainly understand what it means to be a spiritual work in progress. I go to Mass (most) weekends, try my best to pray during the week and have a small faith-sharing community in my parish that sustains me. But I wonder if I am a success story. I have spent plenty of time parish shopping—it took me a while to find a sacramental home. I have been the youngest person in the pews too many times. I can no longer count the number of churches I have walked in and out of without anyone saying hello and asking what my name was, or if I was new.
It would have been really easy for me not to search as long as I did for a solid community, to become yet another story of “I was raised Catholic, but….” I would like to think that it was a powerful conversion experience that I had as a teenager in youth group, where I felt with the conviction of Paul that I was loved unconditionally by God, that pushed me to find a faith community. On my more cynical days, I think I would have quit this a long time ago if my profession as an editor in Catholic media did not keep me engaged in my faith on a day-to-day basis.
Some of my colleagues hope that many of those young people who have been raised Catholic but have fallen away from the church will return when it is time to get married. I am not so sure. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, in 1990 there were 10 million people who referred to themselves as “former Catholics.” Last year, that number was more than 30 million. As for returning when it is time to get married? Well, those numbers do not look great either. There were 326,079 weddings in the church in 1990. In 2016, the number fell to just 145,916.
There were 326,079 weddings in the church in 1990. In 2016, the number fell to just 145,916.
The Vatican is also concerned. Pope Francis has announced that next year’s general assembly of the Synod of Bishops will focus on the topic “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.” Young people ages 16 to 29 have been invited to participate in an online survey in preparation for the bishops’ meeting in October 2018. More recently, Pope Francis has called for a pre-synod meeting of young people, to be held March 19 to 24, 2018, to hear firsthand their hopes and concerns.
This is the latest effort, but not the first, that the institutional church has made to encourage participation among young people. St. John Paul II announced the first World Youth Day in 1983, and since that time, the event has attracted millions of young people to gather at locations around the globe. Yet, despite the success of such events, parishes, high schools and colleges still struggle to successfully reach a wider swath of individuals from this demographic. Many church ministers are working to re-examine the church’s relationship to youth and young adults. There is a reason that Pope Francis called this synod now.
Forming Faithful Leaders
It is April, and in the shadow of the Shrine of St. John Paul II in Washington, D.C., lay ministers from across the United States, all committed to working with young people, gather to discuss how best to serve a new generation of Catholics. They are here as participants in the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry’s National Diocesan Directors Institute. The institute sponsors any new diocesan director of youth and/or young adult ministry to come to Washington for a week of training and fellowship.
Tomorrow they will don business attire for their visit to the offices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, but tonight many wear a more laid-back look—graphic tees, jeans, sandals—common to youth ministers, a role many of them held before taking their jobs in the chancery.
Doug Tooke, 41, stands in the front of the room, finishing up a presentation. As social hour begins, he walks away from the mini-fridge with a bottle: “My wedding ring is a sign of the sacrament I share with my wife, that I am the paterfamilias for my five beautiful daughters,” he pauses, “and it also opens beer!” Tooke is the master of ceremonies for the week. Doug is funny, charismatic and has what is commonly referred to a “big inside voice.”
Mr. Tooke has been involved in youth ministry for a long time. In 1998, he signed up to be the youth minister at St. Matthew’s parish in Kalispell, Mont., which at that time had a population of 14,000. He has been serving the youth of rural Montana ever since, and in December he was awarded the National Youth Ministry Award for Diocesan Ministry in a Rural Population.
Earlier, during a session on planning diocesan youth events, Mr. Tooke asked the ministers in the room to recall an event that had a significant impact on their own faith and vocation. After they discussed the question with their neighbor (this really was a room of youth ministers) he asked if anyone would like to share. Hands immediately flew up around the room (it was also a room of extroverts).
“World Youth Day,” one woman tells the group. “There was something about sitting in a field with thousands of people at a Mass being translated into five languages, with everyone listening in their audio receivers.” Another person mentions a social justice mission trip, and how she has seen some of her teens go off to Ivy League universities and then graduate with service-oriented jobs because of what happened on a trip. Another mentions a Steubenville Conference and looks around the room to see if she has to explain any further. People nod along, signaling they understand that she is describing a charismatic youth conference, one of 23 organized by Franciscan University of Steubenville and held throughout the country, that attract more than 50,000 Catholic teenagers each summer.
But as great as all these global and national events are, they may not be enough to create sustainable ministries in their individual dioceses, Mr. Tooke says. Too many places have an attitude of “Let’s put all of our resources into one annual event that shows we care about youth ministry!” instead of investing in sustainable, parish-based models.
“Retreat high” is a phrase common in youth ministry circles. It refers to that feeling of emotional or spiritual consolation that comes from an intense ministry event. But no high lasts forever, and youth ministers, who are often faced with tight budgets and differing amounts of ecclesial support, must figure out how to help youth build an ongoing relationship with God and a relationship to the church that sustains them the rest of the year. Many navigate a tension between experiential spiritual programs like World Youth Day, diocesan youth rallies, retreats and service trips, and the difficult and necessary work of developing localized models that give young people a deep faith and the relationships that will last them through the transition to young adulthood and beyond.
It can be hard to build and expand a ministry when not everyone agrees on what that ministry should look like.
But the decision between local and national events is only one of the tough choices made by youth and young adult ministers. Funding and other support for programs often is largely dependent on whether the pastor or bishop sees youth and young adult ministry as a priority. And it can be hard to build and expand a ministry when not everyone agrees on what that ministry should look like.
“For some bishops, youth ministry is just pro-life ministry. For some, it is not a priority at all,” Mr. Tooke told me, as we chatted between sessions. Other participants echoed this sentiment. That evening I observed a conversation in which one attendee was raving to another about how much he appreciated the support his bishop gave him, how the bishop had an open door policy if the minister ever needed to chat about practicalities or talk vision. His conversation partner looked down at his shoes and grumbled. It was clear he had not had the same experience.
A Changing Church
Christina Lamas, 38, understands what it is like to come up against skepticism or resistance when working in youth ministry—a feeling not limited to members of the episcopacy. “There’s a fear of the unknown. People are intimidated by not knowing what to give a young person,” she tells me.
Ms. Lamas embraced the unknown and trusted in what she felt was God’s will when she moved across the country from Los Angeles to Washington to take on the role of executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry. As a Latina with more than 20 years’ experience working in youth ministry at both the parish and diocesan level, she brings with her a vision rooted in where the church is heading, both demographically and pastorally. As the American church creeps toward a majority-Hispanic population, the young church is already there. Sixty percent of Catholics under the age of 18 are Hispanic.
And yet according to a 2014 report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry, only 26 percent of responding dioceses had a director of youth ministry for Hispanic Catholics.
Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, assistant director of the Secretariat for Cultural Diversity in the Church at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and director of the V Encuentro, thinks the church has failed thus far to minister to this group of “perceived minorities.” “Second- and third-generation Latinos have been left behind,” on a national level, he says. He blames this on the traditional youth group model. Parishes, perhaps out of good will, often integrate Latino youth into the existing youth groups without providing any ministry that is designed for immigrant communities. “There is an openness to working with immigrants, but not with cultural-specific ministries,” he says. The church in the United States must be careful that, as it seeks to evangelize new populations, it does not ignore the one right in front of it.
Growing With the Faith
For Catholic youth ministers in the United States, there are more resources and national structures than those who are unfamiliar with the terrain might realize. There are a number of widely attended national events and organizations to connect and train youth ministers from around the country, not to mention a healthy market for resources and curricula. That is not necessarily the case for ministry specific to young adults, geared toward people ages 18 to 35.
Large archdioceses like New York, Washington, Chicago and Denver have had some success in reaching out to this population, often by empowering the young adults themselves to lead. Yet across the country, there is still no broader consensus on what specifically is working and how to replicate it. “It’s the Wild West. Everyone is trying to figure it out because no one really knows what they’re doing,” Paul Sifuentes, associate director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana, told me over dinner at the conference for diocesan directors of youth ministry. Cecilia Phan, the coordinator of young adult ministry for the Diocese of Orange in California, replied saying this was a shame, because “so many young adults don’t know what they’re doing in their life!”
Despite some positive examples to point to, the statistical reality remains stark. According to a study from St. Mary’s Press and CARA to be published in January, among those Catholics who choose to leave the church, 74 percent do so between the ages of 10 and 20. And 87 percent of them say that it is for good. As youth face the transition to young adulthood, long-term connection is needed.
As youth face the transition to young adulthood, long-term connection is needed.
The Diocese of Bridgeport is one diocese trying to make those connections. The diocesan website sends a clear message about its priorities, including “Youth/Young Adults” among the main tabs on its menu.
“Youth and young adult ministry really is his passion,” Evan Psencik said of his boss, Bishop Caggiano. Mr. Psencik is the coordinator of youth and young adult ministries for the diocese. He says it makes a difference throughout the diocese to have that kind of support and energy coming from the bishop. “As a pastor in a diocese, when you see that there is something that your bishop is very passionate about, then you as a pastor feel like you need to be there,” Mr. Psencik said.
The support has also given him the freedom to experiment with new programs. One example is a retreat he hosted for high school seniors along with recent high school graduates who are now in college. Some young adults in the diocese came up with the idea, hoping the retreat would provide an opportunity for teens to discuss and pray about the transition to college alongside those who have experienced it. “A lot of those kids who were in youth ministry, they go off to college and they come back and they’re still trying to hang on to that youth group because they don’t know where to go,” Mr. Psencik said.
At 29, Mr. Psencik has enough experience in the youth and young adult ministry world to observe some changes. “In the late 90’s-early 2000’s, [when Psencik himself was a teen involved in youth ministry] there was this shift, that was like ‘Oh let’s take young people and let’s do youth ministry over here, and let’s do teen Masses and really take young people out of that and put them over here’,” setting them apart from the rest of the parish environment.
This movement to keep young people separate was not confined to Catholic youth ministry. Fuller Youth Institute, an institute in California that trains and provides resources for youth ministers across denominations, refers to this as the “kids’ table” model of youth ministry.
“We put all of the young people at ‘the kids’ table’ and then, when they got out of high school, they went to a church that was not the kids’ table and they didn’t feel a part of it because we never really showed them how to be a part of the bigger church,” Mr. Psencik said.
The negative effects of this model become clear in transition moments, whether from high school to college or the workforce, or from college to the workforce.
“Sometimes [a young person will] get to a college and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I’m really excited. I was in youth ministry, I went to my Steubenville conference, and I’m excited,’ and they might get to their university and it’s not a Catholic university,” Mr. Psencik said, describing a typical journey for someone who struggles with a transition out of youth ministry. “Or they show up to the Newman Center and they go, ‘Oh, it’s just all the weird Catholics who can’t find dates, so I’m not coming back here.’”
A Time for Change
Julie Lai, a senior at the University of San Diego, is looking ahead to her transition out of the college faith experience. She is involved in the campus ministry there, and she is also active in young adult programming in local parishes. She feels that youth and campus ministry thus far have given her a “confident and mature” faith. She is considering participating in a faith-based service program after graduation. Ultimately, she would like to work in social media for the church in some way.
Even with Ms. Lai’s experience and intention to stay involved, looking toward a faith life after college can be daunting.
“I am concerned transitioning out of college because I fear a lack of dynamic Catholic community,” she said. “There aren’t many dioceses which do young adult ministry well.”
Bishop Caggiano agrees that the church needs to do more to integrate youth and young adults into parish life. “There isn’t enough effort [in the church] to connect all of these dots, so that we are all working together to create a continuum that allows a person to meander through transition, and not get lost in the cracks,” the bishop told me. “I think as a church, we’re beginning to recognize that.”
For young adults it can feel really daunting if someone doesn’t literally introduce themselves and literally welcome them to the Mass.
Esteem is one program that helps to emphasize just how big the Catholic community can be. It is a national effort present at nine universities in the United States and designed to help young adults transition from the comfort of Catholicism on campus to the realities of parish life. It can be particularly helpful for individuals who do not live in cities with vibrant young adult programs. Esteem strives to give college seniors the tools and the space to have a conversation about faith and the awareness to go out into the world after graduation and find a parish that they want to be a part of. Participants take part in a mentorship program, in which young adults are paired with a “real-life” adult Catholic. There is also a curriculum that empowers students to identify what they value in a parish or in a liturgy, so that they are able to find a parish that fills their needs.
Megan Colford, an alumna of the program, worked for Apple after graduation before taking the reins of Esteem as national director. She identified a number of issues that a young adult could encounter when they transition out of college and into the working world.
“I know one of the biggest things that [young adults] struggle with is that they’ve been going to Masses where their friends are, where there’s hot chocolate afterward; there’s great music and great preaching directed at them,” Ms. Colford said. “And then the only parish that they see, if they go to the neighborhood parish, doesn’t have that same vibrancy or isn’t as youth-oriented. I think people really get disheartened by feeling like they lose the fun or the connection of going to Mass.”
Another issue is simply recognition, the feeling of not being known. Young adults come from an environment where their friends and their campus ministers know them by name and know them well. “You can think you’re as welcoming as can be, but for young adults it can feel really daunting if someone doesn’t literally introduce themselves and literally welcome them to the Mass,” Ms. Colford said.
A Model Parish?
A difficult fact to reckon with is that the parish model itself is less appealing to young people, who are unlikely to be connected to a single parish. The Archdiocese of Chicago is among those places trying to find a solution.
For young adults, “the parish shouldn’t be the starting point for ministry—it should be the end point,” the Rev. Peter Wojcik, 36, director of the Office for Parish Vitality in the archdiocese, told me. “We’re working to create as many starting points as possible.”
One of those starting points is the archdiocese’s Theology on Tap events, which were founded in Chicago more than 35 years ago. These events, which typically include a guest speaker, drinks and appetizers, have become a popular model for young adult events around the country. The archdiocese recently asked parishes to collaborate in organizing these events regionally, so that the efforts and expenses are shared and the events are not competing with one another. It is a model that has brought some success. The kickoff of the new format, which featured America’s national correspondent, Michael O’Loughlin, and Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., of Salt and Light TV, was held in a downtown bar and drew over 600 people, the highest turnout in over five years.
The archdiocese hopes to direct young adults toward faith formation and service opportunities. It has launched a Scripture study program that has more than 200 young adult participants throughout the city, and will soon launch an app that will offer a listing of all service-oriented events around the city in one place.
The Archdiocese of Washington has also found success in transitioning away from a parish focus toward a regional one. Jonathan Lewis, 31, the director of young adult ministry and evangelization initiatives for the archdiocese, learned some useful lessons from his own experience of being a young Catholic in a state of flux. At one point in his life, Mr. Lewis moved four times in five years and was often traveling three hours one-way to see his girlfriend, the woman who would become his wife.
“Does my transience in that stage of life preclude me from fuller responsibility in the church?” Mr. Lewis asked. He believes the answer is no, but also believes that most parishes are not set up in a way that easily accommodates people in this stage and state of life. “Our parishes are built for stability,” Mr. Lewis said. “They’re built for people who have mortgages, who have kids and school schedules, who know where they’re going to be…. If they move, they move in the same neighborhood.”
To combat this, Mr. Lewis says the archdiocese is engaging in what he calls an “ecclesiology of locking arms.” The archdiocese has set up six regional ministries across the D.C. area. Mr. Lewis says this has helped parishes to support one another by sharing volunteers, resources and programs and to survive transitions. The benefits of this model can be difficult for parishes to understand at first. It can be a challenge, he said, convincing parishes to “give up a little bit of visibility in their own parish, to think bigger, in a more regional, universal, sense of the universal church.”
It is clear that these new ways of thinking about evangelization are needed. According to a 2016 study from the Public Religion Research Institute, since the early 1970s, the Catholic Church in the United States has experienced a 10 percent net loss of people who identify as Catholic (the next lowest was mainline Protestants, with a 4.5 percent loss). This emphasizes the urgency of the situation and the need to find some answers for the many questions left to explore—how to redouble efforts directed at young adults who have left while also focusing on better formation for the next generation; how to find sustainable parish-based models for engagement; how to provide culturally sensitive ministry in a growing church. Yet in the midst of uncertainty, the church has many laborers, of many ages and backgrounds, in the vineyard, who are willing to take on the necessary risks of evangelization.
The church has many laborers, of many ages and backgrounds, in the vineyard, who are willing to take on the necessary risks of evangelization.
“It’s easy to point fingers: parish, parents, society,” Ms. Lamas told me, but she said she refuses to despair over the situation. “God is working in the midst of all of that. I hope there’s a new desire to do things differently for young Catholics,” she said.
Bishop Caggiano agrees. “I think this is the moment the Lord has given us,” he said.
“It does feel like a kairos moment,” I replied.
“Absolutely,” he said, “And if we get this right, there will be generations after us who look back and say, we have been able to build what we built because they had the courage to ask the right questions.”
For Mr. Lewis, the story of Jesus walking with the disciples on the road to Emmaus serves as a good foundation for the conversation to come. “Jesus walked with them on the road to Emmaus for seven miles. But it was away from Jerusalem, so he walked the wrong direction for seven miles…just to be with them, and to draw near to them,” he said. “Are we willing to leave our churches to walk away in the ‘wrong direction,’ so that we can encounter people and walk with them in that journey, so that inspired by that encounter with the Lord, they return with a heart burning within them?”
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “Ministry and Millennials,” in the October 30, 2017 issue.