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Why are the young fleeing the Church?


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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 09/28/16

Perhaps it is so because we are unattractive, “un-credible” Catholics

So went a popular commercial in the 1980s for a chain of children’s toy stores. It’s a clever strategy for advertising toys; it’s disastrous for evangelization, and nearly suicidal for guiding youth towards spiritual maturity.

Recently, I’ve written about the juvenilization of American Christianity and about reducing worship to entertainment. These trends undercut our ability to meet our obligation to raise our youth to become Christian adults. Unfortunately, just as desperate parents may resort to bribing their children with sugar, many adults seem to think that the way to keep our youth in the Church is to bribe them with excitement and novelty. That’s foolishly dishonest, and it’s not working.

“Exodus: Why Americans Are Leaving Religion” documents how (especially Catholic) youth have been stampeding towards the church exits for 45 years, and they aren’t likely to come back. Yet (with some exceptions) the response to their departure has been to double down on more-of-the-same: “Louder music! More balloons! Brighter t-shirts! Let’s have fun!” (Yes, I’m resorting to caricature—but only for the sake of summary.)

In the West, our parishes and religious communities are graying and shrinking because we are not handing on the treasures entrusted to us. So we must ask the painful question: “Are we failing to lead our youth to spiritual maturity because we are not spiritually mature ourselves?”

Tozer warned: “What is natural and beautiful in a child may be shocking when it persists into adulthood, and more so when it appears in the sanctuary and seeks to pass for true religion. Is it not a strange thing and a wonder that, with the shadow of atomic destruction hanging over the world and with the coming of Christ drawing near, the professed followers of the Lord should be giving themselves up to religious amusements? That in an hour when mature saints are so desperately needed vast numbers of believers should revert to spiritual childhood and clamor for religious toys?”

In other words, we can’t give what we don’t have. Called to be good stewards and form youth for sainthood, we have to look at our own knowledge, practice and zeal. If the Church is unattractive to youth, perhaps it is so because we are unattractive, “un-credible” Catholics. That we don’t always practice what we preach is part of our fallen nature; that we fail to preach what Christ commanded is an act of willful disobedience.

Let’s start by admitting that our souls are in peril and the Church is in danger. We have cultivated habits of mind, heart and action (and inaction) that jeopardize our salvation. Malicious secularists want us silent. Vicious sectarians want us dead. And, worst of all, some self-identified Catholics, whether duped or duplicitous, want us to teach other than what Christ has taught. If we admit those facts, what then shall we do? Very simply, we can heed the call of Our Lady of Fatima: We can go to confession, pray, fast and do penance.

To be in denial about our sin, or even to diminish the dangers of our sin, would be the height of foolishness—akin to the shepherd losing a sheep and insisting that none is missing.  We can repent of our sin only if we admit that we have sinned, and only if we are convinced that sin is a luxury that we can never afford.

We are sinners, and if we persist in our sin, our salvation is forfeit. Now for some good news: We do not have to die in our sins! We can cross over from death to life by a good confession and uniting our poor selves to the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, and we can do so at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. And—best of all—we can become so like Christ that when we die we can see the face of God and live. We can be more Christlike when and as we worthily receive Holy Communion. There our own flesh and blood, and our own soul will be transformed as we receive our Eucharistic Lord in His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. Over time, and ultimately for all eternity, Our Heavenly Father will see and love in us what He sees and loves in His Only Begotten Son.

Our young people cannot follow us to where we ourselves do not go. Will they walk a path we ourselves decline to walk? We are losing souls God has entrusted to our care, and He will demand an account. Let’s start down the path of Christian maturity today, and call our youth to come after us.

When I write next, I will speak of specific practices of Christian maturity. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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