For many years, this editorial board has lamented the lack of adult faith formation in our Church. It is more than an abstract concern: Publications like OSV Newsweekly are adult faith formation tools, but fewer and fewer Catholics now have regular Catholic reading of any sort, and only a relative number avail themselves of Bible study or faith formation programs like Christ Renews His Parish.
The lack of formation for adults now is bearing dark fruit: the dramatic drop off of religious practice for the next generation of Catholics.
According to this week’s In Focus, “Plugging teens into the Faith” (Pages 11-14), the children of Generation X — whom Emily Stimpson calls the “iGeneration” — are the least religious generation in American history.
Different from any generation in the past, the iGeneration literally has a world of knowledge at its fingertips. As part of a smartphone society this is a generation that communicates more, but understands less — especially where religion and values are concerned.
Christian Smith, in his new book “Young Catholic America,” makes the point that young Catholics are now virtually indistinguishable from non-Catholic youth in terms of their beliefs. Without proper religious formation, this generation is more likely to believe that all religions are pretty much the same, at least to the extent that they preach a message of peace, love and goodness.
And while they are skeptical about the idea of truths divinely revealed or overt catechesis of moral and religious precepts, they are strongly impacted by the dominant cultural values of our secular and skeptical age. Young people believe that science trumps religious faith, and the values promulgated in mass media and popular culture are adhered to with an often unreflective docility.
Yet it would be wrong if we simply write off this generation. There are many signs of hope, including an idealism oriented to justice and service and a hunger for role models exemplifying a generosity of spirit and authenticity of belief. While young Catholics may be indifferent to their Church, they are captivated by the witness of Pope Francis.
What he exudes is a generous openness to life and a moral authenticity that attracts attention. He lives what he preaches — a merciful and forgiving God, but also a God not afraid to challenge them to go out to the periphery and engage the world. As he told millions of young people at World Youth Day in Brazil: “What is the Lord saying to us? Three simple ideas: Go, do not be afraid, and serve.”
The crisis of our youth is really a crisis about us: Are we models of generosity and service? Do we live what we preach? Have we been evangelized?
If our parishes are not thriving centers of discipleship, how will we convince a generation hungering to make a difference that what we believe makes a difference? If we sleepwalk through our Catholic liturgies and consider faith a ritual for Sundays only, can we be surprised if our children drop the pretense and move on?
Those who work most effectively with young people know that it is first and foremost about witness. If a parish exudes a “joy of the Gospel,” it can engage the hearts and minds of its young people. If it has mentors for the young who are themselves evangelized, it can attract the indifferent and disaffected. If it has a real sense of community, it will become a home for a generation seeking to belong.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor