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Irritating or Inscrutable?

June 20, 2017


To anyone but a young seminarian, perhaps, the banner was innocuous enough. But we were young seminarians. It was hanging in the cafeteria of the convent where we made our first-year retreat. The large bubble letters read, “You are Eucharist to me.” It elicited from us plenty of mocking, and probably an unfair bit of self-righteous anger. Something about this slogan, in all its vagueness and all its blandness, represented everything we were rebelling against by becoming priests.

In the years following the retreat, after the conferences we heard that week were long-forgotten, those five words remained stitched-in-felt in our minds. They even served as a sarcastic refrain every time we heard something that we thought echoed a similar sentiment: “Well, it doesn’t really matter if the priest changes the words of the Mass, because, after all, you are Eucharist to me.”

I will not dispute that my classmates and I often fit the stereotype of immature, conservative, sometimes elitist seminarians. One could even argue we displayed the worst traits of millennials, combining our know-it-all orthodoxy with the knee-jerk sensitivity of “generation snowflake”. It didn’t really matter what the banner actually meant to say, we were triggered by it.

But allow me to defend my peers for just a moment, or at least explain where I think we were coming from. In his book The Collapse of Parenting, Leonard Sax points out a widespread failure among parents today to “enculturate” their children. Enculturation, he says, is “the process of acquiring all the skills and knowledge and mastering all the customs and behavior required for competency in the culture in which you live.”

According to this definition, for the most part, we millennials are cultural infants. Many of us lack basic life skills like cooking, maintaining personal finances, fixing things in the home, etc. Even more of us lack basic knowledge in history, literature, and the arts. And, most pertinent to the generational divide within the Church, few among our generation have any fluency in the language, customs, and doctrines of our own inherited religions.

I think, at its root, that this is why we seminarians bristled at the bland mantra of the banner: it glosses over, and thereby obfuscates, a basic but crucial teaching that most of our peers don’t believe or understand, namely that the Eucharist is Jesus. A generation ago, maybe you could have taken this understanding for granted, but certainly not now.

That is why, to the millennial who has discovered the treasure of the Eucharist, often despite a lack of reverence for it among his peers and elders, the slogan seems like just one more dismissal of the importance of the Real Presence. Meanwhile, to the majority of our peers, who remain un-enculturated in Catholic belief and practice, the banner might as well have been written in bubble-letter Sanskrit. Like much of the religion millennials received growing up, it is either irritating or inscrutable.

Now ask yourself why teenagers that are told to write their sins on slips of paper and throw them into a fire, but that have never learned the Act of Contrition by heart, are left with no desire to avail themselves of the Sacrament of Penance. Or why confirmation retreats that end with a Mass designed by the retreatants, in which they choose the readings, decorate the priest’s chasuble, and sing their favorite popular songs, leave kids with no particular love for the liturgy. Or why children who sing “Happy Birthday to Jesus” on Christmas, but who have never been taught the meaning of the word “Incarnation”, are more interested in Santa Claus than the Christ child.

It is not because any of these things are objectively heterodox or intentionally misleading. It’s not even that some of them are flat-out corny. Rather, it is because, like the slogan, “You are Eucharist to me”, they are deconstructions of the tradition, often with the purpose of distilling belief and custom down to their moral message. They seek to skip right to the lesson of the exercise without actually teaching the exercise itself.

This doesn’t work. It is like your parents telling you to “follow your passion”, but never teaching you how to change a tire. Or your teachers telling you that “learning is a lifelong endeavor”, but never teaching you how to discern a good argument from a fallacious one. Some may find it counterintuitive, but simple rote memorization of the Ten Commandments, or a firm grasp of the difference between mortal and venial sin, will probably be more useful for a child in learning the meaning of God’s mercy than will throwing a crumpled piece of notebook paper with the words “I hit my sister” into a bonfire.

When I was in seminary, there was much talk of a “pendulum”, which swung far left in one generation and far right in the next. The secret, it was assumed, was to land somewhere in the middle. I disagree. The fact that millennial priests (and pretty much all millennials who are committed Catholics) favor clear markers of Catholic belief and practice and not vague simulacra thereof is not because our generation is more conservative – it obviously isn’t – but because these things give us a culture. They tell us who we are, what we believe, and how we should act. That is what all millennials – conservative and liberal, theist and atheist, habited nun and bearded hipster – are desperately looking for. If Catholicism is to survive at all in modern American life as something other than a fringe cult or another shrinking association of like-minded do-gooders, it will be because it presents people with an integrated set of beliefs, behaviors, and customs.

What is needed now is culture, and it is needed badly. To have a culture people must be culturally fluent, and cultural fluency doesn’t happen by osmosis. Neither does it grow out of vague exhortations to responsible behavior, especially ones that lean on symbols whose meaning is ambiguous. It happens through enculturation. We need to train our children (and many of our adults) in the Catholic faith. Once they have it, let them deconstruct it, mold it, even reject it, but for God’s sake let them have it. Don’t skip steps. Show your work. What happens may surprise you.