A question that I hear very often, especially from grandparents is, “Father what can I do to encourage my children/grandchildren to go to Mass?” It’s a good question. I ask similar questions about parishioners all of the time. You’ve heard me speak about it.
There is not easy answer. We are long past ethnic Catholic parishes having an impact on the spiritual practices of younger people. Catholic school has statistically been a disaster. Religious Education/PREP/CCD is far worse but before we can address the solution, we need to understand what, rather who, we are dealing with.
Katherine Rowell Coolidge does spiritual interviews with people. Her first goal is to help people determine whether they think it is even possible to have a relationship with “any” transcendent being. Many, including 30% – 40% of Catholics, believe it is not. Only after that foundation has been established, does she go on to discuss what “their god” looks like.
I read an article that she wrote with one of her colleagues. They said that “One of the most illuminating things about the hour-long conversations they have had is that nearly all of the now heavily committed practicing Catholic or full-time staff they spoke to started life as a cross between an agnostic and a deist” They were raised as baptized Catholic semi-agnostics-Deists or true “Nones.” (A “none” is a person who, when asked on a questionnaire what their religious affiliation is, write, “none.
They were raised in cradle Catholic families. They had received the sacraments – at least through First Holy Communion – if not Confirmation. They usually attended Mass on the great feast days or at weddings, funerals, etc. However, their parents did not practice, faith and God were never talked about at home, and they never saw their parents pray. But those same parents still sent their children through sacramental prep.
They claimed the name “Catholic.” However, when they where asked about their experience or understanding of God when they were children, everything became very vague. They believed in God, but when they were asked “can you describe the God you believed in?” it immediately became clear that it was not the God of Scripture or the Church’s teaching. They were asked, ‘Why go to Mass?’ Answer was often, “Because it was the ’rules.’ It was just what you did.” It was not clear that they were even at the threshold of genuine trust that there was a transcendent, much less personal, god. It was just what “Catholics” did.
God was a distant, mysterious quasi -impersonal watchmaker-God for some. He creates the world. He winds it up to get it going. Then he pulls away and lets the world go on about its business. These interviewers found it really surprising that at least two of these cradle Catholics understood “God” as a creator/protector who was separate from and quite distant from Jesus. (This got their attention because they had heard half a dozen Catholics tell them stories lately of understanding “God” to be distant from and definitely “other” than Jesus.)
Jesus was even more mysterious than God. Jesus was a man who was closely connected with God somehow, had done good things, and should be honored and respected but why he had done those things and how what Jesus had done affected us was very unclear. What sacramental prep they received had not made much of an impression. Another (a millennial) described Jesus as the “face’ of God – whom he referred to most frequently as “a mystery”.
Only one cradle Catholic (now a priest) came from a practicing family, who had always attended Mass and had felt the love of God as a child. He had, by the age of 17, realized that what Jesus was God and that what he did was “for” us – but how and why that was so was not even clear to him.
Why do I tell you this? Because these are your family members, children, parents, friends, colleagues, non-practicing Catholic neighbors. Why don’t they attend Mass? Now you have an idea why? If we are going to have any chance of a conversation about god, religion, Jesus (much less sacraments, church, religious life, Ordination…) we are going to have to shift the way we perceive them and how we will approach our conversations with them. What hit the interviewers was that nearly all of these people – even the parish-connected, marginally-practicing Catholics would require what amounted to “far” evangelization rather than “near” evangelization.
Some were now disciples – prayerful, dedicated to daily prayer and regular reading of the Bible, committed to the church and parish mission. A few were apostles – people who are looking to go out and train others to be disciples. Some were still on the journey. A few had had extremely dramatic experiences of God’s presence and deliverance but the majority had not. Several reported first significant spiritual turning points in their late 20’s/early 30’s. For all of them, it had been a long, unexpected, journey that took a long time – sometimes decades.
The interviewers were struck by how far the majority had had to travel along their faith journey – whether they were baptized or not. Most were not millennials but younger boomers and older Gen Xers but they sounded like millennials in terms of their spiritual journey. If you want to have a fascinating conversation, approach Jason Carter or Meghan Nulty (St. Monica Office of Evangelization, Discipleship and Formation). Ask them to tell you about the conversations they are having with our young people AND the conversations they are having with their parents. You’ll find it fascinating.
The first take-away from those two interviewers? The majority of the Catholics linked to our parishes – especially those families drawn back to the parish for the sacramental initiation of their children – need to be approached like de facto “Nones”. Sacramental prep is really the first outpost of “far” evangelization in our generation.
Next week, I’ll go further into this analysis and offer some personal stories of people who have walked this journey.