This certainly is not going to be a popular subject, but I am going to ask questions that are going to be uncomfortable and for which I really have no answers. I am going to use my own diocese as an example. First, let me say that I am a big supporter of Catholic Schools and especially those to whom I have been assigned. Second, I think that youth formation is one of the most important things we do in a parish after the sacraments. In fact, I think it absolutely critical for the hope of the future of our faith and its continuance from generation to generation. The following are questions, musings, and perhaps grasping at straws to figure out what is next.
Several years back I was at a meeting for pastors and principals where the presenter was extolling the importance of Catholic education. In the talk, he mentioned that neither of his children practiced the Catholic faith anymore, but the formation they got was wonderful. I know many of my brother priests had a moment of cognitive dissonance. One would assume if the formation were wonderful that his children would still not just be practicing Catholics but actively involved as well. I was talking to a friend who was at a Catholic High School graduation where the principal was going on and on about what fine young Catholics the current graduating class is while knowing that about only 30% of the Catholic students were at Mass on the weekend. All totaled throughout this diocese ( a diocese of around 90,000 Catholics with 3 Catholic High Schools, 38 parochial grade schools, 100+ PSR programs, almost as many Confirmation programs, several parishes with full time paid youth ministers and many more with volunteer youth ministers) will spend upwards of 30 million dollars on our youth this year alone. Untold hours of volunteering, fundraisers, and such will happen. Many parishes will have to make very hard decisions about non-school activities because of tight budgets. In this diocese, we run above the national average of Mass attendance (nationally @30%, in the diocese of Jefferson City it is around 45-50%. But giving is usually just at or below what parishes need to pay bills. It is not as if we are not making an effort. Just for some perspective: I have been a priest for 14 years; this means in my short time as a priest in this smallish diocese, we have spent $420,000,000 dollars on youth education and formation.
Yet the vast majority of weddings I do the couples are co-habitating. I see a very small percentage of them at Mass on any regular basis. I am not saying this to condemn them, only stating facts. I can count on not seeing at least 50% of my confirmation students after they are confirmed, and about that many during the summer vacation break. The number of priestly and religious vocations coming out of our Catholic schools is anemic at best, and this is with a full time vocation director who spends time in each of the schools every year, in the high schools frequently, and is never at an end of finding new ways to get the message out. I am fortunate in that I will say I see 75% of our grade school students every weekend, but I know this is not the norm. I have seen parents scratch their heads...good stable catholic parents...wondering what happened; why is their child not following their example and not listening to what they know their children are being taught. We could only muster less than 100 youth for the summer programs we have...less than 100 from the entire diocese. It is particularly hard to get young men interested in anything having to do with faith and religion.
These are not bad kids. I sometimes look at what they say on facebook and see what their attitudes about faith become and it makes me weep. I see popularity and partying become the foci of life. I see dedication to sports and other activities crowd out faith. I see kids ridicule the one who actually does take faith seriously. We are losing them in so many ways.
Some will say that it is because of the horrid catechesis. Maybe, I know many catechetical series are variations of Christianized narcissism where the value of anything is measured by how it makes one feel. But I know there are very good series out there as well that are being used. It does not seem to make a difference. I have seen dynamic youth ministry and lethargic youth ministry without noticing a huge difference in the majority of a parish's youth. I have seen fine young Catholics come from apathetic and even antipathetic homes and apathy generate from strong Catholic families. I have seen fine young Catholic men run away like they were on fire when a mention of the possibility of a priestly vocation is mentioned. So, after 14 years and 420 million dollars, after seeing heroic and dedicated volunteers, priests, religious, and lay people give tremendous amounts of time and energy to our youth, after seeing a product (for lack of a better word) that does not measure up to the immense amount of time, energy, and resources, I have to wonder what is going on and how do we turn it around. Turn it around we must! (Sorry for that Yoda moment) These youth are the pool from which the next generation of parochial leaders, parents, priests, and religious will be drawn. How do we compete with (or more to the point combat) their culture of instant gratification, focus on only today, consumption with self-esteem, and engaging in behaviors that only numb the emptiness and isolation felt when these foci fail to produce on any lasting basis? I am not willing to write a single student off that I have ever had...not a one...not the ones who have left, grown cynical and bitter at life, not those who see faith as a childhood whim with no depth, not a one who prefers to be drunk, high, and sexually active. I can't. None of us should. I truly care about these young men and women and want what is best for them, even if they are misled about what is best for them, or could not care less about what happens to them. I am happy we are starting to make inroads in my parish, but it is the smallest of inroads and one that is very fragile.
So what do I do? I pray. I pray a lot. Mostly for guidance. Like so many things as pastor, I still feel like a newbie priest, trying to figure out with the grace of God the next step. I make an effort. I care. Whether that is enough, I do not know. But maybe the answer is to continue trying and challenging. Spiritus supplicet. But perhaps it will take all of us actively praying, encouraging, and setting good examples. There is an answer. Christ does not ask us to do something then leave us high and dry without His help to accomplish it. There you go, tonight's rambling.