I don’t believe that there is anyone working in the Church today who would deny that the institution (the bishops and pastors, the schools, the religious communities, the parishes and their programs, etc.) has not been particularly successful in reaching young adults. 

youth
The overarching question for the “New Faithful” seems to be, “What does it mean to be Catholic?” The Crosiers photo

I don’t mean to say that there aren’t places or programs that are meeting legitimate needs or doing great work. Nor am I intending to critique those policies or teachings that seem to be veritable lightning rods within the Church and society at large. In fact, I’m fairly theologically conservative, and while I myself might wrestle with some things, I’m generally satisfied with what and how the Magisterium teaches. But as a 32-year-old man who has spent almost a decade in religious life and who is now working to develop and facilitate the education and formation programs in a parish with nearly 4,000 families (where the average age is 37), I believe that, in the last three or four decades, we have failed to form a responsible, conscientious adult Church. 

There has been a fair amount of ink spilled in recent years over the phenomenon of the “New Faithful,” a moniker applied to young adult Catholics who seem to want to “return” to a pre-Conciliar model of Church or liturgy or devotionalism or morality that is more or less at odds with the vision of many who are in positions of authority within the Church (i.e., the “power-base”). 

While I grant that this perspective might have some merit, I think it is important to understand that certain trends have nothing to do with seeking a return to some sort of Leave-It-To-Beaver 1950s model of Church. We, as an age group, can’t return to something we’ve never known. The larger issue is that those of us who are age 40 and below have a very different worldview and set of needs than those of the Baby Boomer generation and older. 

Recently I led the other members of my parish staff in a guided discussion of the book Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Adults Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable than Ever Before, by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist teaching at San Diego State University. The 12 members of the staff (including the 50-something pastor) were somewhat reluctant to commit to reading this book. It isn’t a “Jesus” book and our conversations about the first few chapters were sometimes quite tense. This was understandable because this group of Boomers was presented with the possibility that their understanding of life and faith as journey and their love of group processes (like faith-sharing or small Christian communities) were not only unappreciated by many younger adults, but were actually held suspect because of their perceived ambiguity and subjectivity. As the reading and conversations continued, however, these same staffers began to think of their children and grandchildren, and slowly the lights began to come on. Perhaps the young people in their lives and within the parish community did have different perspectives or needs that were legitimate — perhaps. Unfortunately though, for most of the staff, the conversations ended when we stopped discussing the book. 

Unlike the generations that were born before 1970, today’s young adults are basically independent individualists with a sense of self and self-esteem that is unrivaled. It might be argued that this stems from the self-esteem curricula that was introduced in schools in the late 1970s and which became a standard part of education programs by the early 1980s. 

This independence of thought and behavior is also an outgrowth of the experiences that many of us had growing up. As divorce rates increased and it became more common for both parents to work outside the home, we were left on our own (even as a child I knew that I was a “latch-key kid”), and in school we were taught to call an anonymous helpline (whose logo was a turtle) if we needed help when we were alone. 

Technology has also left an indelible mark on our generation. Whether it was a Walkman or an iPod, an Atari game system or a Wii, the isolation that resulted was the same. Even today, as we e-mail, text, tweet and use Facebook and MySpace, we are alone. Why would we need a community when we have been formed to believe that “I” am all I need to get by in the world? All of us have a venue for personal rants and opportunities to share every thought that comes into our minds if we so choose — who is to say whose version of the truth is better than mine? 

Thanks to the media, scandal, crime and intrigue have entered our homes, proving to us why we can’t trust yesterday’s leaders and role models. If the President can lie about engaging in sexual activity in the Oval Office, if one of the most popular athletes in America could murder his wife and “get away with it,” and if the same religious figures (and here I’m not just speaking about priests and religious of the Catholic Church) who condemn sexual excess are accused and convicted of sexual crimes, who are we supposed to listen to? Who can be a role model? 

In past ages it was the Church who offered a sense of calm, consistency and security, even in the most trying circumstances. And yet, the churches of our childhood seemed to have had more to do with butterflies and rainbows than the dynamic, very adult, demands of the Gospel. I think that, while the felt banners and clown Masses of past decades did have their place in the period following Vatican II, we as a group are ready for more. 

Although Americans age 40 and under are fiercely independent and do not typically hold community to be a great personal value, we are spiritually undernourished. Unfortunately the places where we should find the spiritual food we crave are not satisfying our needs. 

In my years as a religious in a very power-base-oriented community and my time in parish ministry I have come recognize a real desire for clear and concise explanations and apologetics. Without dismissing the faith and journey experiences of past generations, I can say without doubt that today’s young people are looking for real answers to their questions. 

The ambiguities and inconsistencies offered in past decades are not helpful. The overarching question however seems to be “What does it mean to be Catholic?” This question of identity touches on a very basic issue for our generation: If I am going to call myself a Catholic, if I am going to associate myself with this group, then I want to know what that means. It is only when we have this foundation to build on that our questions about morality, justice and spirituality can be asked and answered. 

Because we are a generation formed in the “information age” we have been taught to expect answers. Evoking the “spirit” of Vatican II doesn’t mean much to us because we’ve not known anything other than a Vatican II Church and world. And yet, when we stand up and ask for guidance or help or explanations, it often seems that the Church and its leaders are unable to provide for us, and our input and reflections do not seem wanted or welcome. 

If you tell us what it means to be Catholic, without watering down those points of Church teaching that might chafe us or challenge us, we might surprise you. The fact of the matter is that this is our Church too, and unless you tell us, without side-stepping the hard places and difficult questions, why this all matters, what it means to be Catholic, we will continue to look in other places and traditions for the nourishment we need. 

The challenge I extend is twofold: 

To those who find themselves in positions of authority (clergy, religious superiors, catechists and other lay leaders, parents), give us clear, unambiguous answers to our questions and allow us to engage you. Don’t omit answers and teachings just because they make you uncomfortable or because you don’t like them. Give us a chance to discern what the Church’s dogmas, doctrines and disciplines can mean for us. Although we may not believe that you have all the answers, we are much more open to believing that the Church, with her defined teachings and traditions, does. Let us begin to assume our roles as the Church’s future leaders. Give us a chance to shape the Church by letting us know what it really means to be Church. Trust us. 

I challenge my peers, other young adults — priests and religious, parents, single people, gay, divorced, whomever — to continue to challenge, engage and question. Don’t be put off by what comes across as ambiguity. Don’t check out. Remember that the answers, the ideals we seek, are there. Our Catholic tradition has a richness and a beauty that is not confined or constrained to one or two difficult issues. Remember that it is ok to disagree but it is never ok to disengage. 

In the final analysis, the issue is not “young adult ministry” or the “spirit of Vatican II” or the “New Faithful.” The opportunity we have is to explore how we are Church together and how we can better support one another, serve one another, love one another. 

If that isn’t happening, if we remain tied to limiting agendas, politics or party lines, then we are just failing God and one another. TP

BROTHER SILAS, O.S.B., is managing editor for Abbey Press Publications and Deacon Digest, St. Meinrad, Ind.