Why are so many young people leaving the church?
One of my favorite writers these days on matters concerning our everyday lives in church, culture, society, and government is Bishop Robert Barron from WORD ON FIRE MINISTRIES. He is an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
He has a vibrant online ministry with books, videos, and conferences. He is a great writer and speaker and makes the complicated understandable. The video I want to try and reflect on today is on why are so many young people leaving the church or not even looking at joining? It’s a complicated issue and one that is of great concern to the bishops of the US, and for us priests. I have had the privilege of living and ministering in many parishes, and places across the US and as a missionary, and am a priest for 40 years. I’ve been around, listened to other older and wiser priests and listening to so many young people who are in our churches until either graduation or after confirmation, why is it or what it is that is driving them away, and what keeps others from having an interest in joining us? These are important questions that we must address head-on and quickly. Statistics are showing for example when Vatican II closed in 1965 about 60% of practicing Catholics were attending mass on a regular basis. Today that number has dropped to only 20%, we know it because we can see it in our half empty churches.
You might be asking, where are they going? The fastest growing “religion” in the US are those who call themselves “nons” meaning non-affiliated. They don’t affiliate with any religion and basically state they are more of the mind today that God doesn’t exist or never has there been a god. For us who are leaders in our church this is very concerting. When asked most answer, I am into spirituality or spiritualism, not formalized religion. At first we might think well that’s good and not to say it isn’t; however, before to long with all the influence from social media, science, and atheists this belief that they are into spiritualism also fades away and thus the “nons,” and now the largest growing “religion” in the United States and across the globe. A few years ago, we thought our youth were leaving to join evangelical groups, “they were more with it,” however that too has faded. As one professor from a Catholic University said, “we are hemorrhaging” and we have no plan as to how to stop it. What attracts me the most to Bishop Barron is his sincerity, honesty, knowledge, openness, desire to listen to young people to understand what their concerns, “grips,” and questions are to hear their searching attitude and seeking understanding without judgment.
I went to Roman Catholic school from first through twelfth grade before heading off to college-seminary as I explored the idea of becoming a priest. I was 13 years young when the Second Vatican Council closed in 1965. By the time I entered the seminary in 1970 we were beginning to be introduced to the documents of the Council. I was an altar boy, had to learn Latin to become one and in those days the altar faced the wall with the priests back to the congregation. Then one Sunday we returned for mass and found the altar was turned around and now the priest was looking at us and we at him…what a shocker that was! Overnight that which had been so solid and normal was blown up, that opened the door for questioning everything about God, the Church, and indeed religion itself. If I hadn’t gone off to the seminary, I’m not so sure I would have remained in the Catholic church. So many of my classmates with whom I went to twelve years of catholic school did leave the church. I have been blessed that my journey took me into a seminary situation that was open to questioning and finding answers to our questions that ultimately strengthened our faith, it sure did mine. And to this day I invite, and encourage people to ask questions, and to seek answers. Unfortunately, far too often questions are asked but answers are not sought after, or answers are not given or even discussed.
To me this is one of the major hinderances to people staying or not even being interested in joining our church. No priest is perfect, nor do we profess to be, but to often we leave the impression that we are not encouraging or open to inviting our people to question their faith, doctrines of the church, practices, rituals, or I might say, “rules of the road.” In some sense we remain in the false belief that “they will come.” We need to open our eyes and see the truth; they are not coming and even worse we are looking at their backs as they walk away. And then we are left to wonder…..
This is about where we are today and its not a good place. I know my fellow priests are concerned but they are also baffled at how and what to do about it. Covid-19 and the closing down of our churches has only exasperated the problem that already existed before Covid-19. Zoom masses have been helpful for many but now as we reopen, we are becoming aware that they are not returning in any great hurry or numbers. Which begs the question, why not, even more urgent.
Let us return to the question we began with, where are all the young people and why are they leaving or not interested in joining? Bishop Barron has some immensely helpful insights and gives just five, there are more, ways to approach this situation. He has four words to put this into a new and more exciting framework: 1.Good, 2.True, 3.Beautiful, and 4.Missionary. Basically, four founding principles on which our church (religion) was founded by Jesus Christ. Hang tight this will become clearer as we go on in exploring the questions…Jesus’ ministry can be best summarized in three words: service to others, which in turn can be stated in one word, JUSTICE. The scriptures of full of stories of how Jesus felt and what he did about the many injustices he witnessed within his own town and all around him, including in his own Jewish religion. Remember how he referred to the rabies (some) as “whitewashed sepulchers, blind guides.” He was extremely critical of religious leaders, as another scripture points out, “you heap up loads (laws) on the people that you yourselves cannot keep.” This attitude and behavior have come into our own time with the sad and unfortunate situation with pedophilia and even worse the cover up. And the influenced beyond the church in overindulging and infinite information that can be found on the internet = a home run for our youth.
Promotion of the GOOD = Justice; our young people have grown up in the time of mass shootings and murders in their own schools and neighborhoods. Kids go to school worried, and parents are frantic about why the government and the church doesn’t do more to stop this madness and make laws that will be enforced making it much harder for the irresponsible to even get their hands on guns. Reasonable gun laws can and need to be created with teeth in them that leave people trusting that justice can and will be served. However, we know all to well this is not the situation we are living in. For the most part the NRA owns the government who have the responsibility and the power to enact laws and their enforcement to bring these mass shootings of especially our young people to an end. The “sin of racism” (says Pope Francis) through the peaceful marches of BLACK LIVES MATTER movements has brought out this darkness in our nation and quite frankly, in our church into the light of Christ. And it is our young people that are leading the way to bring justice to our nation and church.
If we are genuinely concerned about the shrinking of our church and loss of our young people, we need to look with open minds, hearts, and eyes to see that they are leading the way in the fight against crime, murder, racism, hate, tribalism, where we live in fear more than any other time in our modern history. Our young have been wounded and we have paid little to no attention to their brokenness and sense that no one cares (except their parents). We hang signs up inside and outside the doors to our churches, ALL ARE WELCOME HERE. Ask the LGBQ+ community if that rings true for them….NO….ask the divorced and remarried who desire to receive holy communion if that rings true for them….NO….ask the young woman who is caught in an unwanted pregnancy and can only see one possible choice, abortion, if she is to have any kind of hopeful future….NO. You want me to go on…
Bishop Barron’s speaks of these concerns and problems among our young people and seeks, as I understand him, to find some common ground in which to create some clear, non-judgmental space for open discussion and work towards common ground and understanding without loosing our doctrine on the sanctity of life from conception until natural death. If we remain closed to this idea, we will continue to lose more and more of our young people until there are possible none left in the church to carry on the faith. Let’s be honest with ourselves, we are becoming an “older” church with membership and church goers dwindling more and more each year. I pointed this out in some statistics that I quoted earlier. I believe another reason for this breakdown is a reaction to Vatican II and how the pendulum swung from the far right to the far left and now we are lost and trying to find a way to humanly address these pressing issues of our time and place.
However, again the young don’t see the Church Magisterium being even open to thinking outside the box or recognizing that they, our youth have insights, wisdom, energy, willingness to work and live within the church. Church leadership must be willing to give them a chance and see that they can and want to contribute to solving the problems we all face today. If we are to be successful, there must be possibilities to work together to find common ground and solutions to these problems that not only threaten the church but all of society and the world. Read Pope Francis’ encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti, On Fraternity and Social Friendship.
“Wherever he (St. Francis) went, he sowed seeds of peace and walked alongside the poor, the abandoned, the infirm and the outcast, the least of his brothers and sisters….St. Francis urged that all forms of hostility or conflict be avoided and that a humble and fraternal “subjection” be shown to those who did not share his faith.” Pope Francis continues, “In writing this letter, the Covid-19 pandemic unexpectedly erupted, exposing our false securities…. Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.”
Coming soon, Point 2. True
Blessings to all,
The video that you are watching was made at St. Bernard Catholic Church on Divine Mercy Sunday. May God’s mercy and unconditional love surround you always. Father Dennis
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
I’ve been doing a lot of reading these days from Pope Francis’ book, Let Us Dream, many articles in AMERICA magazine, reflections from Fr. Richard Rohr, Bishop Robert Barron, and others on the signs of the times we are living through. look around and see what’s happening in our country with the lies and conspiracy
theories, assault on the Capital on January 6th, recounting of ballots over and over looking for something that just isn’t there when each state has certified its ballots; Covid cases are coming down while many refuse to get vaccinated including Catholics in spite of our Bishops encouraging us all to get vaccinated, and the list of woes goes on and on.
The Entrance Antiphon of today’s liturgy, “O Lord, hear my voice, for I have called to you; be my help. Do not abandon or forsake me, O God, my Savior.” With the litany of woes I have listed, we could become disheartened, over-whelmed by all the problems we are facing both inside the church, in our country and around the world. However, we are a people of HOPE, as we read in St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians 5:6, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” That is quite a challenge and certainly isn’t easy. It calls for a belief in Jesus who died and rose for us to give us New Life, to be with God face to face for all eternity. That was Jesus’ promise to the apostles and down through the generations to us.
Pope Francis begins his book addressing the crises we have been living in not only since Covid-19 but long before. He calls “this time as a reckoning.” He poses to us the question, how are we going to come through this crisis? He says to enter a crisis is to be “sifted.” All the ways that we have been living and found everything to be in a certain order that we have all become use to and settled into. A crisis of this proportion that we have been living through throws our categories and ways of thinking into chaos, what were our priorities and lifestyles are challenged. It’s a time of reckoning that calls for a choice that you can’t avoid. “The basic rule of a crisis is that you don’t come out of it the same.” Pope Francis
Personally, I’m tired of hearing, when are we going to get back to normal? What was “normal” about systemic racism, bigotry, poverty, hate of our brother and sister, mistrust of others who are different than oneself in the color of their skin, the language they speak, the way they dress, the music they listen to; as the old saying goes, the rich get richer while the poor grow poorer by the day, perhaps even by the hour. Francis goes on to say, in a crisis of this proportion “You have to choose. And in making your choice you reveal your heart.” (Let Us Dream) The basic rule of a crisis is that you don’t come out of it the same. If you get through it, you either come out of it better or worse, but never the same. In times of crisis people reveal themselves good and bad, they reveal themselves as they are. Some spend themselves in service of others as we have witnessed in our health care professionals who literally laid down their lives to save others. And some get rich off other peoples need. During the worst of Covid the rich and super rich grew even more wealthy with over a trillion dollars in new money. This is disgraceful and makes a sham of Jesus’ command to care for the least of our sisters and brothers.
While CEOs raked in millions in bonuses, we witnessed lines as far as the eye could see waiting for hours in the hope that something will be left for them when they reached the front of the line, and sometimes many who waited in hope for hours were sent away with nothing to feed their children. Child poverty rose to over 20% during Covid bringing it to an all-time high. How can this be, we are the riches country in the world (granted that doesn’t consider that 80% of the majority are middle class and many more live below the poverty line.) I know what it means to be poor and to have to live off food stamps, government cheese and butter, having to put back a candy bar because the money was needed to pay for the loaf of bread. What is to happen to those children and the families that have been out of work for months who cannot afford to pay the rent or the mortgage?
While the former Administration kept telling us, it’s like the flu, its going to disappear, to date over 600,000 Americans have died of Covid. When the Trump administration kept telling us it’s not going to be so bad, waisted valuable time telling the lie while daily thousands were dying many without the presents of a loved one. Nurses were holding phones up to the ear of the dying to hear the voice of a loved one telling them they loved them and would miss them. I had a favorite aunt, who was like a mother to me, the last of my mother’s siblings died during covid while family members could only look on from a distance. My aunt had asked me to say her funeral and I promised I would. That promise went unanswered as I was not able to travel do to restrictions of Covid.
Think about the Good Samaritan, walking along came upon a man who had been robbed and beaten. Not unlike so many stories we heard during the worst of this crisis. First a priest came upon the man and crossed over to the other side of the road, then a Jewish rabbi also crossed over. Finally, a Samaritan came upon the man and took him to a nearby inn to be attended to. He gave some money and told the inn keeper that upon his return if something was still to be paid, he would. Jesus poses the question, who was the person who did the right thing; we all know Jesus’ answer. To truly be a good Samaritan we must enter the world of the wounded man, the Samaritan throws himself into the situation, into the other’s suffering, and so creates a new future for both. The sick man was restored to health and the Samaritan was truly his brother’s keeper giving new life to himself and the other.
This story that Jesus tells is a challenge to us, what are we willing to do to help someone who is not our neighbor, the stranger who needs our help? Are we going to pretend that we don’t see Lazarus laying at the gate of the rich man, as he did? Ask yourself, how often have I turned a blind eye to another who was in grave need, that I had an opportunity to do something to help and enter into that person’s world of being left behind, neglected, whom we have come to call the “throw a ways” of our society?
We must pose to ourselves the question, “What would Jesus do?” I know personally I have asked that question of myself and to be honest I too have failed. However, each time I fail I look ahead with eyes wide open to whatever comes to me on any given day that I do not fail the opportunity to be the Good Samaritan. If only we would open our eyes and see that God presents to us many opportunities daily to “see” someone who needs our help. We can not expect come judgement day to say as the rich man did, “…but I didn’t see him.” I don’t believe that to be an excuse that God is going to accept, remember what happen to the rich man when he died?
We are a church of broken people, that is no excuse for not doing our share to help our fellows who are in great need. Jesus died to show his love for all humanity. We are created in his image and likeness. We are his own. God doesn’t have favorites, he loves all equally, yes sinners too for we are all sinners. In the words of Pope Francis when asked by a reporter, “how would you describe yourself? Francis said, “I am a redeemed sinner.” We can rejoice in our brokenness because we have been saved by the blood of our savior, Jesus the Christ.
There is a lesson to be learned in this crisis of Covid-19 that has affected and infected all of humanity as far as we know no one is exempted from the ravages that this virus has inflicted upon humanity. Especially the poorest of the poor right here in this country, but even more so in those countries around the world that don’t have the means that we have to get the care that we need, the medicines and the vaccine that will give us a solid chance at not getting sick unto death.
The United States has always come to the aid of those who have so much less than us, our common Christianity calls us to do so. Just this week President Biden took to the G7 meeting in London the promise to provide 500 million doses of lifesaving vaccine. With that he was able to leverage 500 million more from the other G6 nations bring the commitment to One Trillion. It is still not enough but it’s a start. This is who we are, we care for our brothers and sisters around the world. To those who have been given much, much will be expected.
We are living in a time of great challenges and opportunities to go beyond our selfishness and our “individualism” as Pope Francis calls it. Acting individually, I put myself before all others, that adage that I heard already when I was a kid by a former President, “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” What happens when you have been left behind and have no bootstraps, perhaps you don’t even have shoes. Our individualism smacks Jesus in the face. Our me first attitude has been a noose around our neck that is destroying our society, our church, and our ability to see the needs of others as great or greater than my own. God created us with a heart big enough to care for all whom we come in contact with, but we have turned our backs on our sisters and brothers; we have crossed over to the other side of the road.
“This is our moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities - what we value, what we want, what we seek – and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of. What I hear at this moment is similar to what [the Prophet] Isaiah hears God saying through him: Come, let us talk over. Let us dare to dream.” Pope Francis