In July 2011, after six years working in a seminary, it was a bit disheartening to see so many young people not practicing their faith and generally living like the status quo of society. I am the Catholic chaplain for a major university (Georgia Southern, with 22,000 students) as well as pastor of a parish, and even though we have four great FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionaries who are doing amazing evangelical work, the majority of Catholic students are still not present on Sunday, or on any other day. 

This is in stark contrast to the seminary, where all the men love the Lord Jesus and His Church, believe in her teachings and are quite serious in trying to live them out. Over six years, I had somewhat forgotten that there is a big Church gone astray out there in the real world. And I had forgotten how discouraging it can be for a priest to see this trend. Many of these young sheep are straying, and we priests are supposed to be the shepherds! Are conversions to Christ still happening among youth? 

A Conversion Story

converting youth
The seed of faith that is planted in our young people is sometimes like volunteer corn ... it may take a year or two, maybe even 10 years, before the seed sprouts. W.P. Wittman photo

Every priest has seen and heard stories like this one: Michael was the youngest of seven children and raised in a Catholic charismatic parish that was very ecumenically minded. Because of this, distinctively Catholic teachings and practices were downplayed, and praying to the Holy Spirit in a charismatic manner was stressed. He hated attending Mass and religious education classes, and really learned very little about Church teachings. 

By seventh grade, he had stopped going to Mass and spent his time smoking first cigarettes, and then marijuana. He was very attracted to the party lifestyle. Because he was the seventh child and the baby, his parents kind of let it go, just hoping and praying that he would eventually come around. But his partying just got more intense, and he began using psychedelic drugs throughout high school. He wore black most of the time, gave up homework and study completely and spent many hours “high.” 

Many of his friends were arrested for drugs, but he never got caught. One night in 11th grade, he consumed a dangerous combination of drugs and alcohol and had a horrible experience. Afterward, he realized that if he continued to do drugs in this way, he would either go crazy or die. Cold turkey, he stopped doing illegal drugs — and immediately lost all his friends! A girlfriend helped to bring him further away from the drug culture, but he was still drinking and never studying. Then they broke up. 

After graduation from high school (which he barely accomplished), he found himself with no friends, no college prospects and no girlfriend. He was depressed and wandering — and wondering where he was going. 

Three Words

One evening, when he was asleep on the couch, his father approached him and whispered something in his ear. He did not wake up but he remembered the words: “Jesus loves you.” Those three words triggered a change. He began to pray, go to Mass and read Catholic books and articles. The more he read, the more excited he got. Eventually, he went to confession, retreats, Eucharistic adoration, and spiritual direction. Each of these steps moved him further along toward Christ and the full acceptance of Catholic teaching on faith and morals. 

As the seminary vice rector and head of the admissions committee, I read the autobiographies every year of the 65-70 new seminarians coming to begin their priestly formation. I was always very inspired by the stories of their conversions. Some, like the one I described above, were dramatic as a man moved from deep darkness in the drug culture to the light of Christ. Others were less dramatic, but just as authentic. Though these sheep did not stray as far, they still strayed, suffered and eventually came home. 

All described the series of little steps the Lord asked them to take, small but wise decisions that moved them toward virtue. And not only did these young men return to the practice of their Catholic Faith, they discerned that God wanted them to give seminary a try as well! Reading these stories gave me a unique perspective that powerful, authentic conversions to Christ are still happening among young people today. 

Volunteer Corn

Many years ago when I was a child, I was standing in a soybean field with my father. We had been working pulling up cockleburs (weeds) out of the bean rows. Suddenly, I noticed towering over the soybean plants a long stalk of corn. I asked my father, “Why is there a stalk of corn growing in our soybean field?” He answered, “That is volunteer corn. That is corn that was planted last year or the year before, or maybe even 10 years ago in this field. For some reason, only God knows, that seed of corn did not sprout. Every year, we rotate the crops in our fields and this year, that seed has finally come up.” 

The seed of faith that is planted in our young people is sometimes like volunteer corn. All priests notice this in their parishes. There may be five children in the same family. All were baptized. All received the same religious instruction and guidance from their parents. Three of these children practice their faith fervently as adults, and the other two have not been to Mass in years. Parents then ask us this question: “Father, what happened? What did I do wrong?” 

Fidelity to our religion and authentic conversion are great mysteries, and every person is absolutely unique. All people receive several gifts from God that guide their faith (for better or for worse): the gift of family, the gift of personality, and God’s gift regarding the amount of faith infused at Baptism.  

St. Paul wrote: “I planted, Apollos watered, but only God causes the growth.” As priests, it is good for us to remember that praying for the young is even more important than all the wonderful (and necessary) youth programs we offer. Only God causes the growth! Because every young person is unique, some seeds will grow more slowly than others. 

Certainly we want to offer excellent youth programs in our parishes, programs that supply good information about Jesus Christ: opportunities to pray, to learn Scripture, to come to know Jesus in the Eucharist, opportunities to serve. To challenge youth to become saints must be a part of our efforts, even when they roll their eyes and walk away!  

We cannot force them to come. We cannot obviate the gift of free will. However, as priests, neither can we submit to what I call the “four D’s of the Devil: discouragement, dismay, depression and despair.” Satan wants us to give up and to think that it is hopeless. He is the “father of lies” and he is working very hard, conscious that we are on the verge of a new springtime of Christianity. 

God, I Can’t, You Can, and You Promised

A retreat master once taught me a great prayer, which he called the prayer of Moses. After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, he found he could go forward no further because of the Red Sea. Behind him, he could see the clouds of dust as Pharoah’s chariots approached. And all around him, the people griped and complained! Certainly Moses must have been powerfully tempted to succumb to the four D’s of the devil. But instead, he looked up to Heaven and said (in so many words): “God, I can’t, you can, and you promised.” 

What a great prayer! And as we all know, God answered that prayer with the greatest salvation story in the history of the world, until the coming of Jesus. The Red Sea opened, and the Israelites walked through on dry ground. “God, I can’t, you can, and you promised.” I say that prayer every single day, again and again, especially because I have this tendency to want to take credit for things that God does! 

I say that prayer as I work to bring Jesus to the thousands of young people in my university. We priests must remember that Jesus is the Savior. We trust in Him! He loves these young people more than we do, He died for them and He wants them in Heaven a million times more than we do. And sometimes all it takes for that stubborn volunteer corn seed to finally grow is a gentle word from their priest, “You know, Jesus loves you. He is waiting for you to give you happiness.” 

Conversion Story Continued

After that painful process of conversion from the drug culture to the culture of Christ, Michael Paris eventually discerned that God wanted him to become a diocesan priest. Because he had not studied in a long time, school was a challenge. But with God’s grace and his hard work, he finished four years of college seminary and then four years of theology.  

Father Michael Paris was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., in 2011. He had come a long way and suffered much, but the grace of Christ had seen him through. Blessed John Cardinal Newman once wrote: “We learn to do good by having done bad.” The purgative way almost always leads to the illuminative way. All priests have seen this again and again: sometimes God has to break a heart in order to get into it. 

How Do Priests Fit Into This Equation

The great Catholic author Walker Percy once wrote: “The hero of the modern age is the parish priest.” Why would he say this? What did he mean? Because the parish priest remains at his battle station, praying, teaching, preaching, absolving, consecrating, tilling the ground, fertilizing — worrying like a good shepherd should, that so many have strayed. 

Sometimes feeling overwhelmed, but always trusting in Jesus, the priest prays, “God, I can’t, You can, and You promised!” At his battle station and ready, when that volunteer seed finally bursts open and the young person comes down to the church, seeking Christ, seeking forgiveness and peace: “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” 

Conversions to Christ are still happening among youth, and with the New Evangelization upon us, I believe that they are about to increase. Circumcision of the heart is a requirement of the Gospel, and broken hearts require spiritual physicians. We priests will be there for them when they come. We have what they want and what their heart and soul desires. As Pope John Paul II said, “Jesus is the answer to which every human heart is the question.” 

The New Evangelization will require apostles in every vocation. I believe the Holy Spirit is about to turn up the heat in the hearts of our youth. 

“Lord God, I know not how to speak; I am too young”. . .Say not, “I am too young”. . .to whomever I send you, you shall go. . .” — Jeremiah 1: 6-7.

FATHER BRANNEN, a priest of the Diocese of Savannah, was vice rector of Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary (1915-2011), and is currently pastor of St. Matthew Parish in Statesboro, Ga., and chaplain at Georgia Southern University.