Friday, February 12, 2016

Passing on the Faith: Gotta Go Beyond the Family!

If the last fifty to sixty years have demonstrated anything it is that privatizing and the compartmentalizing the faith only serves to flatten it; making it both unappealing and ineffective. I would even go so far as to say that children rebel against this kind of faith. After all, do they not hear the words from the Dismissal Rite of Mass: “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”? Yes they do. But a privatized and compartmentalizes faith that is set apart from daily life and the public sphere runs counter to this liturgical mandate!

In the book, Young Catholic America, Christian Smith argues that between the ages of 18 and 23 the faith of young adults is often lost. At the very least religious participation in this demographic has gone into a steep decline. However, this should not surprise us in the least if their faith is not expressed and nurtured during the week. 

If Catholicism does not inform the totality of life and is thus reduced to going to Mass on Sundays and frequenting an occasional parish picnic, then it is hardly worth doing the bare minimum. And, unfortunately, fulfilling the least of their religious obligations, i.e. attending weekly Mass, is the first to go when young adults enter college. The problem is easy enough to identify: The high school years are a time when the identity of adolescents is closely tied to their social life. 

Having a family that practices the faith during the week- between Sunday Masses –is a must, to be sure! But a Christian social life goes a long way in bolstering the faith and values of youth. Rodney Stark, who wrote at length about conversions in early Christianity, emphasized the importance the early Church placed on fellowship and social networking. In his book, The Triumph of Christianity, he reminds us: 

“Conversion is primarily an act of conformity. But then, so is non-conversion. In the end it is a matter of the relative strength of social ties pulling the individual toward or away from a group.”  

This indirectly speaks to what Pope St. John Paul II said: “A faith which does not become culture is a faith which has not been thoroughly received,  nor fully lived out.”. In fact, one of the litmus tests for becoming a viable candidate for the Rites of Initiation during those early centuries of the Church was that they were expected to associate with other Catholics. Faith possesses a personal dimension to be sure; but it is also social and communal in nature.

The social ties that Rodney Starks refers to are certainly not the most important reason to be a follower of Christ. To love God for his own sake is the noblest motive for being a Catholic. With that said, however, social instincts and social motives are powerful.  We all know what peer pressure means for a child. And we certainly have come to learn through experience and studies in recent decades how compelling social conformity is.  

It can be argued that when a child only hears about the Good News from his or her parents- even though the parents are the primary educators and evangelists for the child –the faith will likely be perceived as a private affair; relegated only to the home.

Conversely, to have friends who share a common faith and social values with you- to have the faith validated, so to speak, outside of the home and outside of religious venues -is to reinforce the truth that our Catholic faith is all-embracing; that God is an important part of everyday life and in all sectors of life. 

This belief is wonderfully confirmed in the Shema, the centerpiece for Jewish prayers. It reads: “Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-8)

Having friends who share our love for Christ is an essential step in taking to heart the Word of God at home and abroad.  Just as important, it is an important condition upon which the faith is passed on from one generation to the next!


This article is the property of the Department of New Evangelization 
at the Diocese of Green Bay

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


Parents as Primary:

The Catholic Church has always taught that the parents are the primary educator of their children. After all, they are the image of God for their children. It is through this image that the child learns about himself, about the world and about God. Yet, this marital oneness is not the only way the knowledge of God is transmitted. No. Parents are duty- bound to educate their children in the faith. In the Declaration of Christian Education, a document from the Second Vatican Council, it says, “Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators. This role in education is so important that only with difficulty can it be supplied where it is lacking.(1965).

Only with difficulty can it be supplied where it is lacking,” is a prophetic understatement! It just so happen that in the last forty to fifty years the parent’s role in education has been lacking and as such, the proper formation of children has not been sufficiently supplied; this, because the partnership upon which education and formation rests between parents and the parish has not been honored.

Surrogate or Partner:

When parents, as the primary and principal educators, send their children to Catholic schools full-time or even to a religion class once a week, there is a very important agreement, sometimes unspoken, that the parish enters into a partnership with the parents in educating and spiritually forming the child. Decades ago, the local pastor or the parish formed a partnership with the parents only on the condition that the parents were practicing Catholics. If this condition was not met, the Church refused to process the child through the education system and the sacramental initiation program.

Today, however, even when parents are remiss in their religious duties, many parishes have adopted the policy to go ahead and try to partner-up with them in educating and spiritually forming the child. But studies have shown that when the parents do not observe God’s law and hence fail become active followers of Christ themselves, the child will eventually follow the same path as their parents and hence fall-away from the faith.

This creates an impossible situation because the Church ends up becoming a surrogate educator instead of a partner with the parents. In too many cases, when the child comes of age and goes away to college, the religious formation that was provided by the Church- while having no support at home -goes to the wayside. Is it not true that the apple rarely falls far from the tree? 

Missing in Action:

Christian Smith's book, Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults, In, Out of and Gone From the Church, confirms what many parish-leaders in the Diocese of Green Bay have been concerned about in recent years: the difficulty adults are having in evangelizing youth and young adults. As one adult faith formation coordinator said, "About 15 years ago young adults used to drift away from the Church but then comeback when they had children. Today, however, they are not coming back."
Smith's research reveals that 62 percent of Catholic adolescents attend regular services during their Catholic high school years. But this percentage drops to 22 percent in the emerging adulthood years (ages18-23). That is to say, the Catholic Church loses a significant number of young adults in the post-high school years. And the casualties involve those adolescents who attended Catholic high schools.
In fact, Sherry Weddell, in her book, Forming Intentional Disciples, had this to say: "As the Pew report put it, Catholics have the biggest 'generation gap' of any religious community in the United States. Sixty-two percent of Catholics sixty-five and older in 2008 said that they attended Mass every week, while only 34 percent of Millennials did so." (pg. 44) The question then becomes, what can we do?
Two Indispensable Principles:

In preparing for an adult faith formation program called, On the Same Page, I contacted a number of Catholic apostolates who have enjoyed some success in evangelizing youth: FOCUS, NET Ministries, Cardinal Newman Society, and Nashville Dominicans  to name a few. I asked them what they believed high rates of faith retention rested on. The two things they identified. First, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ needed to be in place if religious education was to bear any fruit. Second, parental support of that relationship was said to be of the greatest importance.

As for the first principle, The General Directory for Catechesis reads: "Only by starting with conversion, and therefore by making allowance for the interior disposition of 'whoever believes' can catechesis, strictly speaking, fulfill its proper task of education in the faith." (GDC, art. 62) Indeed, the way to the mind is through the heart. “If the mind alone hears without the heart’s cooperation, God’s Word does not bring forth all of its fruit.” (Dom Columba Marmion, Christ: The Ideal of the Monk 1926) And conversion, according to the GDC, involves "essential moments" when the person experiences the person of Christ; moments when the heart is touched by grace.

Before religious education or catechesis can truly be effective, a relationship with Jesus Christ is essential. Only then will the Mass, the Sacraments and the Church take on greater relevance for our younger generation of Catholics. As such, an intensification of evangelization, witness talks, spiritual mentoring, retreats, and pilgrimages as a precursor and supplement to religious education and faith formation is worth revisiting.

As stated, the success of parishes and Catholic schools in evangelizing and educating youth also rests upon the active support of parents. The faith and religious participation of parents largely determine whether or not their children as emerging adults will retain the faith. To be sure, the Church was never meant to be a surrogate in forming the child; only a partner.

When I asked Christian Smith what his opinion was about the underlying cause of the decline in religious participation among Catholic young adults, he said:

 “Well, it's really not that complicated. Most youth, if they have good relationships with their parents, generally end up looking a lot like their parents religiously. What is going on with Catholics is that, on average, Catholic parents are just less committed, invested, and involved in the Church and their own personal faith and practice. And so that's what the kids learn and follow when they get older.” (August 7, 2014)

It is only when parents take a leading role in evangelizing and educating their children can we, who work on behalf of the Church, hope to raise up a generation of disciples who are on their way.


This article is the property of the Department of 
New Evangelization/ Diocese of Green Bay

Friends and Foes of Youth In A Post-Christian Age

Josh Mitchell is a professor of political theory at Georgetown University and the author of the book, Tocqueville in Arabia: Dilemmas in a Democratic Age. He also helped with the founding of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. In fact, as a professor in Qatar from 2005 to 2008 and as a chancellor of the American University of Iraq from 2008 to 2010, Mitchell enjoys a distinct vantage point. With his teaching experience, he had become acquainted with how young adults in both cultures see life and the world. As for his American students, he has duly noted their strengths, but he has also identified the challenges they face. 

Professor Mitchell’s observations speaks to the underlying difficulty that parents and parish leaders are facing today as they attempt to evangelize young people. We live in an age of computers and smartphones, gadgets that can prove to be a blessing and a curse to a nation’s faith. Indeed, every strength has a corresponding weakness. And the weakness of being more entertained, more connected and more informed on a 24/7 basis is that it can have the unintended consequence of burying the human need for communion with God and neighbor.

What is particularly new about it is that to which evangelization must pierce through. Unlike the Old Evangelization of the Apostles and the Church Fathers, the New Evangelization has to contend with a myriad of distractions that inhibit the ability to be present in the moment. With these distractions, face-to-face interaction naturally suffers. They can easily occasion people to drift into their own little worlds. 

Though they may be in the same room, they are, nevertheless, by themselves. And this solitary existence where the need of the family is less felt, gives fresh ventilation to narcissism and loneliness that is latent in all of us. In fact, Professor Mitchell makes this observation:

“My American students update their homepage; they jot down and comment here or there for a 'friend,' spontaneously, of course; they all know and chatter about the latest television programs or games- and they fall asleep at night rehearsing their soliloquies to themselves, in a recurring loop that can be halted by the one thing many of them are most frightened to do, namely, involve themselves in actual face-to-face relations- not for a moment, but for an extended period...My students are more 'connected' than any generation in history of the human race. They nevertheless sense themselves to be alone.”

Just in the last ten years, our world has changed because the way we communicate has changed. I remember seeing a picture of St. Peter’s Square when they announced a new pope, namely, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2005 contrasted with 2013, when the announced Pope Francis as the new pope. As for the latter, it looked as though every single person were using the video capacity of a smartphone. Hardly a person in St. Peter’s Square was without one.

There are, to be sure, many positives about being well connected. The blessing of a smartphone is that it not only facilitates communication, but it can do just about everything a computer can. A good thing indeed! Yet, again, with every positive there is a corresponding negative. For instance, with texting, emails and the internet so readily available now, people are bound to experience a kind of chronic and insatiable curiosity. A curiosity about what, you might ask? A curiosity about the most recent text or email received. Although it is not true to say this about every user, it would seem that this curiosity continually draws us to our smartphones. And in doing so, we can lose sight of the people in our immediate surroundings. I would even go so far as to say it is becoming an addiction among many young Americans. These considerations, no doubt, has an impact on our ability to evangelize; especially the younger generations.

According to a
Wall Street Journal’s article in July of 2013, A Rising Addiction Among Youths: Smartphones, South Koreans are suffering from this addiction in epidemic proportions. In part, it reads:

“Earlier this month, the South Korean government said it plans to provide nationwide counseling programs for youngsters by the end of the year and train teachers on how to deal with students with addiction. Taxpayer-funded counseling treatment here already exists for adult addicts.”

But the article goes on to give us something very insightful: With an over reliance on texting, especially among the youth, interpersonal and nonverbal communication becomes impoverished. "Students today are very bad at reading facial expressions," said Setsuko Tamura, a professor of applied psychology at Tokyo Seitoku University. "When you spend more time texting people instead of talking to them, you don't learn how to read nonverbal language." Furthermore, strong relationships require a sense of being present to family members and friends. Without this attentiveness, our interaction with others becomes fragmented, rushed and superficial.

Yet, nonverbal communication is not the only thing that is compromised. The ability to think in silence for long periods of time is less attainable as well. This is important because thinking in silence is when our communion with God is most intense. What is more, the compulsion to communicate through the smartphone has great potential to distract us from doing things such as preparing for the day ahead, being attentive to our duties, and examining each day in light of our faith in Christ. It also hinders children’s creativity and productivity because the entertainment on smartphones, computers and X-boxes are already prepared for them. As such, seldom do children invent their own play. Seldom are they the authors of their own fun. Creativity is born out of silence and even boredom, but so is spiritual growth. In fact, it is in the quiet of our minds that the whisper of God is more easily heard and eternity is more frequently pondered.

In sum, the smartphone will benefit youth- as it well the rest of us –only if they are masters of it. But if they are compelled to use it at every moment, then not only will the voice of God be suppressed, but the heralds of the New Evangelization will be greeted with increasing indifference. After all, if the voice of God is not heard from within, neither will the voice of the Church be heard from without. To be sure, the latter derives its strength from the former!

We can expect, therefore, that out of necessity, the Catholic Church will have more to say and teach about this new form of communication. And although church leaders and evangelists should continue to affirm all that is good in this new technology, they will, nevertheless, inherit the mission of having to restore the love of silence and face-to-face communication. Religion classes in Catholic schools, faith formation classes in parish programs and youth groups alike will provide a great service to youth by accentuating the need for simplicity. Not only will families and communities be indebted to this new focus in evangelization, but the Church will too.


This article is the property of the Department of New Evangelization/ Diocese of Green Bay