Winning Back the Youth of the Catholic Church

My Montclair State University group at SEEK 2015 this January

My Montclair State University group at SEEK 2015 this January

A critical problem arose in the Catholic Church over the past couple of generations: the faith has not been passed on from generation to generation. This phenomenon is particularly shocking because passing on the faith to the next generation has been taken for granted for practically the entire history of Christendom. Though some of the blame could justly be placed on the new and increasing attacks against the Church in the past century, most of the fault lies on the Church itself, in failing to proclaim the importance of the Gospel, present a relationship with Jesus Christ as the fullness of life, and encourage the family model of discipleship. If these problems continue, the very existence of the Church in the West could be threatened.

The first and most fundamental problem I see is that the Church hasn’t proclaimed the Gospel in a way that reaches the hearts of the people in the pews. The Popes have been great about reinforcing our need for Christ above all else, but by the time we start talking about the faithful in your local parish, the message seems to be lost in translation. The Gospel is the fundamental reason why we are Catholic Christians! It is our greatest treasure and basically the meaning to life. And yet when I ask Catholics why they are Catholic Christians, they can only muster that it was what their parents were. When people respond like that, they haven’t taken ownership of their faith. It isn’t something that they chose to live themselves because they were looking for purpose and hope in life, so how they think of their religion isn’t too different from how they view their ethnicity or nationality.

The most important things for a Catholic – scratch that, for all human beings – to know are the Gospel message and how to live in relationship with God. Without that, all Catholics will just go through the motions because they have this faith tradition but they don’t understand WHY it is important or HOW to live it out.

From my experience, as a whole, today’s parents have not been catechized well and do not prioritize forming their children’s faiths as much as their education, friends, or even sports. As a consequence, their children are barely getting catechized and rarely experience life in a family that strives to put Christ first. Growing up, most of the kids in my CCD classes didn’t know the first thing about faith, and definitely didn’t have many Christ-like role models, myself included. I recently helped out at a Confirmation retreat, and when I questioned the candidates about their prayer habits, very few of them said that they pray regularly. From my own experience as a child, I can verify that. That’s a huge problem. If you’re not praying, you’re not fostering a relationship with God. If you’re not in relationship with God, you’re definitely not on the right track to becoming a practicing Catholic.

How are Catholic children learning about the faith nowadays? Are they learning it at all? Take your average Catholic and ask them how to pray the rosary. Or ask them what the Immaculate Conception is. As a missionary who works with college students, I can tell you firsthand that even most of the students who regularly go to Sunday mass don’t know things like that, things that genuinely help them understand their faith and live it in a way that leads them closer to God.

But simply learning the facts of the faith are not the most important thing: encountering Jesus and learning how to live in relationship with God are the most important things. How many of our children know that they are called to live as disciples of Christ? How many of them know about the Great Commission and that all Christians are called to be missionaries in their own lives? These things aren’t taught best in the classroom, or even at Sunday mass – they are best taught in day to day life by their parents, God parents, and other role models. The results speak for themselves. If attending religious education (RE) classes for a year or two before Confirmation was working, we’d see Catholics living as disciples of Christ for the rest of their lives, and striving to bring others into relationship with the Lord. Instead, 85 percent of Catholics stop practicing the faith within 7 years after their confirmation. (Do the numbers sound high to you? Well, to this 23 year old, it sounds dead on. I was confirmed about 7 years ago, and of the 30 or so peers that were confirmed with me, I’d estimate that 5 or so continue to attend mass somewhat regularly.)

That such a crazy high percentage of Catholic youth stops practicing their faith as they grow up is simply unacceptable. Our bishops and pastors need to get serious about reaching out to the youth. If they are simply worried about parish debt and church merges, they haven’t seen anything yet. 50 more years of 85% of young Catholics leaving and we’ll be lucky to have a handful of parishes for each diocese. Jesus gave us a commission to make disciples of all nations, and here we are losing almost every young Catholic who was born in the Church. If this was a business, people would be getting fired. Since this is an even greater matter – eternal life – souls are being lost. We need to get serious at the parish level about reaching out to the youth.

The most recent popes have seen this problem of re-transmitting the faith in traditionally Christian countries like Europe and the Americas, and have called for a New Evangelization, trying to re-evangelize cultures that used to be taken for granted to be Christian. It’s great to talk about the New Evangelization, and the popes have made great points, but as for carrying it out, I haven’t seen it at the parish level much yet. At the parish level, all that I’m seeing are some youth groups with various success, CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) or RE programs, and very few adult movements.

(Note: To be completely clear, I’m all for youth groups and CCD/RE classes. I’m very proud of all of the people that sacrifice their time for the kids. I’d like to do the same myself one day.)

Youth groups are great if done well, they are a perfect opportunity for kids to be surrounded by other kids who practice their faith. I personally had a powerful experience in a youth group and that’s what encouraged me to take the next steps and make my faith my own. I think that we need to place a greater emphasis on youth groups in every parish because they are a natural way of living and sharing the faith among peers, and can be used to evangelize in an effective way to non-Catholics and non-Christians as well. Make sure that the pastor and any other religious are involved, as they can naturally witness to Christ in a unique way, and the children will think more naturally about their vocations if they see that the priest/sister is joyful and friendly.

CCD and RE programs, on the other hand, are often being used for purposes other than which they were created for. Often they are being used as last ditch efforts to encourage young adults to live their faith as Christian adults, yet they are just one hour sessions in classrooms once a week. It becomes more like an obligation and a class rather than something inspiring and life-giving. I appreciate all that CCD and RE teachers do in trying to share the faith with children, but the problem is that one hour a week will not transform an individual’s life. (Sound familiar? Sunday mass has the same problem. We need our parishes to truly become communities of faith, supporting families and being active more than just Sunday mornings.)

By God’s grace, I am one of the anomalies. I’m actually a young person who found his faith mostly at the end of high school and in college. As I mentioned beforehand, youth groups played huge roles in my faith. I had the basics of the faith from growing up Catholic and going to CCD, but it wasn’t until I saw my peers also living out their faith that I had the courage to explore and live my own as well. In college, I had the opportunity to join a men’s bible study ran by guys just a year or two older than me, and learning how to become a man of God by their witness both in the bible study and in day to day life played a huge impact on my life. They encouraged me to not settle for mediocrity and challenged me to not only live my faith on my own, but to strive to lead others to Christ myself as well. A couple of events also played key roles. The first one was FOCUS Conference (now called SEEK Conference), where I was both amazed by how many other young Catholics there are in the United States and wowed by the wisdom of the speakers as they shared truths about the Church that I had never understood beforehand. The other event that sealed the deal for me was the Koinonia retreat program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. These retreats are almost completely run by students for students, though we of course have a chaplain and religious sister on every retreat for the sacraments and spiritual guidance. This three day retreat inspired me because all of the talks were by other young people my own age who had struggled with living out their faith themselves, and together we strove to pray for and support each other when we were back on campus together. I really can’t say enough about how important FOCUS and Newman Centers have been to my faith life, I wouldn’t be the person that I am today without their role in my life. Other groups that I’ve heard of or encountered that also seem to also be inspiring the youth are Life Teen, National Evangelization Teams (NET), Steubenville Conferences, Awakening retreats, Totus Tuus programs, St. Paul’s Outreach, genuinely Catholic colleges, and Catholic Christian Outreach (Canada).

With all of these things in mind, what’s the solution for the Western Church? How are Catholic youth going to encounter Jesus in a way that is lasting and transformative? Here are some ideas I have:

  1. Saints need to witness to Christ in their day to day life. We need to pray that God will send us saints, people who genuinely witness to Christ in all phases of their life, especially to the youth. People like you and me need to abandon our will to God and allow Him to work through us in whatever ways He wants. God wants to renew the world through us.
  2. Parents need to take the faith seriously and pass it on to their children. This is not something that we can take for granted anymore, since most parents aren’t prepared to do this in the first place. Parishes need to give support to parents and help teach them the faith and help them encounter Jesus so that they can do the same for their children. I’ve heard of great retreat groups that do this, but even more than a retreat is necessary… maybe getting small groups of parents together regularly to help encourage each other in this would be helpful? Separate men’s and women’s groups would work too.
  3. Children need to be encouraged to become saints. So many children desire to become police officers, doctors, presidents, and members of the armed forces, and we are proud of them for their big hearts and willingness to serve others. Why don’t we also encourage them to become saints? Becoming a saint isn’t beyond the reach of our children by any means! We can also encourage them to be open to other vocations like the priesthood and religious life in addition to being faithful fathers and mothers. Children want to do great things with their life, and to suggest to them that becoming a saint is unattainable is one of the biggest lies that a parent can teach their children. We must teach them who they are as children of God and how they are all called to be saints in their everyday lives, so that they can be St. Johnny the Fire Fighter and St. Alice the Doctor.
  4. A family should be a school of love. Unfortunately, in modern times there have been many attacks on the family, pitting husband against wife and parents against children. As a whole, the family seems to be more independent and isolated than ever before. This is not God’s plan for family life. Family life should naturally lead children to a life-long relationship with God. Parents have a unique and important role (that they claim at their children’s baptism) of raising their children in the faith. Parents give witness to Christ-like lives, teach their children what true love is, and teach them how to live as disciples of Jesus. The family should always put the salvation of their souls above all else.
  5. “The best instrument to evangelize young people is other young people.” – Pope Francis. Youth groups, bible studies, retreats, and conferences work because young people naturally respond well to other young people who they can relate to better. The trick is to make sure that when young people have that  “retreat high” that they have a support system that can encourage them to live out their faith after the retreat.

Despite the many issues that the Church faces in modern times, I believe that the youth can be won back to Christ and His Church if the importance of the Gospel is presented, personal relationships with Jesus are promoted, and parishes and families took greater responsibility for their children’s faith formation. Though the times are tough in the West for the Catholic Church, there is plenty of hope for the future as there are new movements throughout the Church that have been effective in bringing young people back to Christ. Let’s begin to take reaching out to our youth seriously. The very future of the Church and the world depends on it.

Where else has the Church done a good job in sharing the faith? What are some other ideas that you can think of? Comment below or tweet at me anytime, my handle is  @itschrisgoulet

God bless!