Discipleship is at the center of Catholic parish life. It’s the clear order – “The Great Commission” – given to us by Jesus Christ himself in Matthew 28:16-20:
“Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’”
One of the most important “discipleship” groups is our young people. Parents and grandparents are concerned about their children’s/grandchildren’s lack of interest in church, religion, Mass, etc.. There’s has been good, quality research into this topic in recent years.** Findings are quite interesting. The Pew Research Center’s studies on religion have not shown a rosy picture of church future, church attendance of young people. This was already prophesized by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI:
“Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures. Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world – that let God in.”
As a counter, some people have pointed to the “success” of youth and young adult events such as Steubenville Conferences, World Youth Day and Seek. People claim, “Look at how many young people attend. Isn’t this a move of the Holy Spirit among our young people? Well, yes… and no. For example, World Youth Day was initiated by Pope John Paul II in 1985. Its concept was influenced by the Light-Life Movement that existed in Poland since the 1960s. At this time, young adults celebrated over 13 “days of community” at Catholic summer camps.”
World Youth Day is about encouraging Catholic youth. It gives them the opportunity to attend Mass, receive catechesis, share their faith with other like-minded peers and grow stronger in their faith. (Personal note: I attended WYD as a chaperone in Toronto in 2002 and in Cologne in 2004). It was held in Sydney, Australia in 2008. A few years after that event, Andrew Singleton wrote: “The Impact of World Youth Day on Religious Practice – A School of Political and Social Inquiry” (Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, Online publication date: 04 May 2011). Andrew wrote: “WYD is an audacious initiative of globalized Catholic ministry to youth. Among its many aims is the desire to invigorate and further deepen the faith of young people. Elements such as the experience of community solidarity, religious instruction, worship, and religious experiences could all lend themselves to changes in religious practice post-WYD. However, little research in English has been conducted on WYD generally, and specifically on the impact participation has on the faith of attenders. Little research has been conducted on the ways in which specific religious encounters shape the trajectories of teen and young adult religion. I sought to investigate what impact attendance at such an event has on indicating an increase in attendance at Mass.”
For example, in 2009, Trinitapoli and Vaisey (p. 132–3) found that mission trips predict ‘increases in attendance at religious services … and prayer’. It is not clear, however, which dimensions of the trip (bonding with others, the religious preparations, a sense that God is present) are conducive to the change. Singleton’s article investigated the impact participation at this event had on Mass attendance specifically post-WYD. Data were from a representative online survey conducted five months after the event among registered 2,483 English-speaking attendees. Although open to all, the main target group of WYD is Catholic youth aged 15–35. His research probably reflected this.
The study revealed that change in faith practices is most likely among those with moderately high levels of pre-WYD religious practice, rather than those with the lowest or highest pre-WYD levels of religious practice. WYD is most efficacious for those whose commitment is moderately high, rather than for the least committed Catholic.
Given the cost and commitment required to travel from overseas (to Australia for example), it is expected these overseas visitors, with long distances to travel and from poorer countries, would be on average more religious than their more local counterparts. Why make the journey if not really committed? In addition, the odds of attending Mass more post-WYD increases if most of the person’s friends also attend Mass.
Next week I want to look a little more into these Youth/young adult events, present first-hand testimonies from these young people about their experiences and examine key implications that these have especially to parents and other adults.
(** Personal correction: An apology and credit to Sherry Weddell concerning last week’s insights. Although what I articulated was a joint effort between her and Catherine, the majority of the work and many of the conclusions outlined were initially Sherry’s work.)