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