Stemming the Tide

A topic that concerns me greatly is the seemingly unrelenting yet almost casual exodus of young people from the Church. On an average Sunday in many parishes it is not uncommon to see a preponderance of older people — a sea of graying heads. It is true that one still often finds families of the sort that have children preparing for First Holy Communion or for Confirmation. Yet many such families disappear soon after the youngest child has been confirmed. Where do they go? How many of them will ever return? Why do they think they were there in the first place? I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that single people in their 20s or 30s have become a genuine rarity in many churches. It is sad to say, but we have all but given up expecting to see them. This is very troubling, but it is more than that. It tells us we priests are not doing our jobs very well. 

We have sadly managed to raise a few generations who have lost their connection to the Catholic Church and can discern little of value in the Church. Part of this attitude, of course, stems from sources over which we have no direct control. Powerful and virtually omnipresent media regularly portray the Church as being corrupt, oppressive, and out of sync with the times (not to mention out of sync with reality). The effects of the scandals that rocked the Church a decade ago still reverberate, eating away at trust. A general decrease of religiosity and a corresponding acceptance of secular ideas pervade our culture, affecting people’s attitudes toward religion in general. A culture-wide trend toward relativism makes many of the Church’s stands on various issues incomprehensible. A vocal and aggressive atheistic minority loses no opportunity to ridicule faith of any kind — but especially the Catholic faith. 

Yet I am convinced that we cannot blame such factors exclusively. We must take part of the blame ourselves. If Catholic parishes were truly vibrant places of strong and joyous faith, they would never have become such easy places to leave. I remember the intensity of faith in the parishes in which I grew up, the sustenance that people used to be able to draw — seemingly effortlessly — from the Mass and the other sacraments. You could feel the faith in such places. It pervaded everything, supporting people in the challenges that life put in their paths. That feeling, that intensity, seem gone from many parishes. Can it ever be recovered on a large scale? 

This lack of intensity is very visible in the way many people participate in the Mass. They often do so in a lackluster, distracted way, a way that ought to be impossible for people who believe deeply in what the Church teaches about the Eucharist. How much responsibility do we priests bear for this? Could it be that our own approach to the celebration of the Eucharist has set the tone for what seems to be disinterest on the part of the faithful? 

But why should things have changed so greatly? Christ is no less present in the Eucharist than He was when I was a boy. The sacraments are no less efficacious. The faith is no different. Yet we seem to have failed in a large way to communicate that faith and all its attendant strengths and joys to the next generation. The faith, as they seem to receive it, is pallid, tepid and unremarkable. It cannot compete with the secular world; it is easily discarded. 

We live in superficial times, times in which people (especially young people) spend their lives being entertained by electronic devices and avoiding matters of depth. But the human soul cannot be satisfied forever by superficialities; it yearns for something more. As priests, we are keepers of the treasure that people don’t even realize they crave. We must find ways to make them realize it, ways that will no longer obscure the unfathomable value of what we offer. 

I am blessed to know many fine young Catholics, many who are devoted to Christ and to His Church. Yet they are a small, perhaps minuscule number compared to the overall number of young people who were supposedly brought up in Catholic homes. It is time for priests to admit that something has gone terribly wrong. It is time for us to search our souls to find out what we could have done to stem the tide but didn’t do. It is certainly time to work tirelessly to repair the damage to the Church we love so much. TP 

FATHER GROESCHEL is the director for the Office of Spiritual Development of the Archdiocese of New York and professor of pastoral psychology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York. He is also a founding member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.