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Why Young People are Drifting from the Church

April 7, 2016


In our society’s almost dictatorial focus on the individual have we forgotten how to receive and how to be grateful?

A realization that I have arrived at through my prayer with the Community of Sant’Egidio is that our Lord was neither as influenced by nor as burdened by individualism as we are.  It can easily be demonstrated that individualism is a cherished notion in the modern American cultural landscape if not, in fact, the highest virtue we subscribe to.  We exalt the positives of individualism (and they are there certainly) but do we also recognize as readily the negatives?  I would contend that one negative derived from an uncritical adoption of the tenets of individualism is being obliged throughout life to carry the weight of the presumption that if something does not originate from me exclusively then it is not really all that worthwhile.

I remember in a previous assignment as a college chaplain how I would visit the art museum on campus once a week where the work of art majors would be on exhibit.  For many of the students this showing was their senior thesis.  Much of the work of these students was engaging, creative and very thought-provoking.  But a good amount of it was not and one would leave the exhibit with the perception and hunch that the student was almost straining under the compulsion to have to present his or her own unique perception of reality, particular viewpoint or feelings to the world.  Frankly, in this forced condition, their viewpoint was not all that interesting and often it was clichéd and just plain boring.  At these moments I would exit the exhibit with the words of a wise, old Benedictine monk friend ringing in my ears, “Get over yourself!”

This weight can work in a subtle way but it is there – the weight to always have to be unique, always original and to have to prove it!  This is quite crushing and just not humanly possible.  Christ did not seem to be burdened by this though.  Our Lord demonstrates his freedom (as well as his oneness with the Father) when he responds to Philip’s request of showing the disciples the Father in the fourteenth chapter of John’s gospel,

He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?  The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me; or else believe me for the sake of the works themselves. (Jn. 14:9-11)

Our Lord is quite comfortable in sharing that what he has to give comes both from the Father and out of his relationship with the Father.  He does not seem constrained by the presumption that everything has to be a totally original and unique thought originating from within himself alone in order for it to be authentic and worthwhile.  This freedom that our Lord demonstrates is in fact shared with the Spirit also.

I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you(Jn. 16:12-15)

These gospel passages lead the reader into the mystery of the Trinity but they also witness to the depth of freedom that our Lord enjoyed in his person with one such ingredient of this freedom being the ability to freely acknowledge what he has received from the Father.  Our Lord is the “free-est” person who ever walked the face of the earth – even being free of the negative weight of individualism.  Because of this our Lord could fully receive from the Father and he could fully live in gratitude.  We, on the other hand, not so much.

Recently, I have noticed a string of articles in response to a recent Pew survey on why younger people are no longer practicing their faith and leaving the Church.  I am not proposing this as the definitive answer but I do think a contributing factor in this trend is this negative weight of individualism and specifically how it limits our ability to recognize what we have received and to be grateful for that.  Many people will say that the Church needs to get better at reaching out to young people, preaching needs to be better and more engaging, we need to return to a sense of traditional Catholic identity or be more involved in pressing social issues that are of concern to younger generations … the list can go on and on.  I agree with these points and believe there is validity to them.  Yes, there is more that the Church needs to do and should do but I think there is another aspect to this equation and I offer this with the greatest pastoral sensitivity having worked many years with younger generations.  I think a number of younger people (as the wise monk would say) need to get over themselves and, frankly, just need to grow some backbone when it comes to their faith.

A number of times now I have had a young couple approach me for marriage preparation with one of the two being Catholic and the other one from a different Christian faith tradition only to hear them say that they plan to attend a different church once married, almost as if it is no big deal.  This then leads generally into a full discussion where I ask them if they are able to recognize how their faith tradition (Catholic or not) has helped to shape who they are.  What I have come to realize is that more often than not they do not recognize this.  This is quite damning but, I hold, not so much for the couple themselves (as I have come to see them more as victims in this equation, although some as willing victims) but rather the milieu in which they have grown up and live in.  We focus so much on the individual in our society that we fail to help people learn how to recognize what we have received and how we have been formed through outside influences including our faith.  We fail in helping one another realize that we are more than just ourselves.  I encourage the couple to realize that part of what they love and are attracted to in their fiancée is how his or her faith tradition has helped to shape who he or she is.  To summarily toss aside one’s faith tradition or ask the other person to do so or to plan to do so later as a married couple as if it does not really matter is a profound disservice and demonstrates a sad lack of awareness.

Many people suffer from this lack this awareness.  We focus so much on the individual and the illusion of how we are self-made that we forget how much we have, in fact, received, we forget how to receive and we lose the ability to be grateful.  It is a sad state of affairs really.

Yes, the Church needs to do its part but the young people also have a role to play.  They have choices to make.  I do not believe that the younger people choosing to leave the Church are necessarily innocents lacking responsibility in this whole regard.  Maybe their choice reflects how much they themselves have bought into the illusion of individualism where they cannot recognize nor be grateful for what they have received just as much as it might demonstrate certain lacks on the Church’s part.

In all times and seasons the Church must look to the Lord for wisdom, grace and insight.  The Lord’s willingness to acknowledge his reliance on the Father and the joy he found in that is a salvific corrective to the illusions of individualism with its crushing burdens.  Christ knew what he received from the Father, he knew how to receive and he knew how to be grateful.  Christ was neither as influenced by nor burdened by individualism as we are.

The words of my Benedictine monk friend are not meant to be hurtful and are actually quite pastoral if understood in a slightly different nuance, “For the sake of yourself, get over yourself and, yes, grow some backbone in regards to your faith!”