Yesterday, we posted about St. Patrick’s Day. At the end of that post I mentioned a booklet for teens throughout Lent and think it’s worth saying more. We have talked about presenting the faith to the youth before, and it’s a good idea to revisit the topic. In any case, what I saw was a little booklet in the chapel here about lent. It was directed at “teens and young adults.” It consisted of a short daily reflection from Scripture and a prayer. I looked at it for a moment and then thought about it for a while. And I always come back to this, but there is a major league style error in how the faith is being presented to the youth. As a young adult myself, I know that this is the wrong approach.
What kind of approach is troubling? The watered-down and extra-sentimental approach to religion that treats it like therapy. Granted, some people may like this because some people need this kind of therapy (although not all people who need therapy would benefit from this approach…that’s for sure). The book was very off-putting. For starters, almost every page I looked at said something along the lines of “YOU are precious in the eyes of God. Ever feel bad about yourself? Like you are unwanted or not important? Just know that God can heal your wounds.” If you didn’t know any better, you would think that Catholic teens all had self-esteem issues. Also, as a Catholic guy, I am personally offended. I mean, do the writers of these little booklets think that every Catholic guy is a wimp? I mean, I guarantee that whoever wrote this book didn’t spend on an instant on a boy’s sports team…ever…unless I guess they were the kind of guy that would make Scott Smalls from the beginning of Sandlot look like the epitome of cool. Also in the book are these pictures of these well-dressed, decent looking multi-cultured smiling kids. That type of picture that doesn’t represent reality at all and everybody knows it. The kind of thing that anybody would rightly laugh at and those with a little less maturity would probably draw in a few extra details to make it into a dirty joke. You can probably guess by now that there was no traditional Catholic art, no pictures of Mary or the Sacred Heart, no photos of those Spanish Crucifixes, the incorruptibles, or bleeding hosts. But then again, that would be judgmental and misogynist of course… or maybe the kind of thing that a ‘fanatic’ might die defending.
The problem is that these booklets misunderstand the Catholic religion. They misunderstand its truth and its beauty. The beauty of the Catholic religion proceeds from its truth because the Catholic religion gives us insight into reality that no other source can give us. What people, including teens need to know is not that they are good, but that they are not. What we need to here is that we have sinned and this is not just an accidental weakness, it’s our fault! Guilt is a good feeling, not something we want to get rid of. You may say “but guilt can lead people to despair.” True, but that is an excessive guilt without a theology of mercy. Most people don’t feel that much guilt, at least not in this culture because we have rationalized everything to make it okay. And if someone did feel that much guilt, telling them that they should just feel better about themselves isn’t what needs to be done. Insofar as it’s not an actual psychological issue which needs to be dealt with medically, the spiritual solution is to recognize that this comes from God, to trust in His grace which was merited by Jesus who died a horrible death for our sins. The solution is to be grateful for the infinite mercy which Christ offers in the sacraments and our need to trust in His providence because anything He allows to happen is for a good reason.
The fact of the matter is however that most people aren’t dealing with that much guilt anyway. The college life involves regular material sin and the people involved aren’t feeling bad about it. Someone mentioned to me that he needed to figure out how to better sleep with girls without developing any feelings, that was his main goal right now. Another girl explained how she was angry that after saying she supported abortion someone said to her “I thought you were Catholic.” The problem is that people aren’t feeling oh so guilty, they think what they do is fine.
I don’t know how to fix it, but I do know that the issue isn’t their self-esteem. The Church needs to reach all people, and of course a booklet in a chapel directed at teens isn’t directed at everyone but it’s not like every Catholic young adult is overwhelmed with guilt and self-image problems whereas everyone else is committing regular mortal sin and doesn’t care. Besides, even though the booklet itself may not reach those who aren’t going to the chapel, its message will. That is because once a Catholic leaves to enter into the world, he has to represent his faith. If I walk around talking like I just read the booklet, no one is going to take me seriously. Your average kid doesn’t care about this kind of thing.
The one suggestion I can offer is to present the faith like it really is. This isn’t a catechism, it’s a prayer-booklet for lent. So apply the general suggestion to the booklet. Teach people about Jesus’ passion and death and what it means. Teach people about penance for sin which separates us from God and has real consequences. Teach kids about what kinds of things are sins and maybe why. Teach the teens about how to overcome sin, through prayer and the sacraments. Teach them about the great saints who struggled with sin and how they overcame it. I know a number of people who are Catholics and gave something up for lent. We go to Mass together on the weekends. The group is just a group of people I live with who happen to be Catholic. They aren’t picked out in any other way (like it wasn’t a specifically Catholic group). We are just the Catholics who live together. And we are a diverse group, in many ways. No one is perfect, and no one knows everything about theology or anything like that. However, we are all taking religion seriously. None of us however, would benefit, and I say this with absolute certainty (at least about the guys) from these little lent booklets. For whatever reason, each of us goes to Mass. I know though, it isn’t because of a booklet like this.
If Catholics are serious about making sure young adults keep going to Church and taking religion seriously, we need to do something differently. Every ink particle used in that booklet could’ve been used to write a guide on how to say the Rosary. The fact that it wasn’t says a lot. Our Lady of Fatima told the children in 1917 that “souls are falling into hell like snowflakes fall in a storm.” She told this to three kids, three of the most important kids in the 20th century. Wake up, this is serious and unless we treat it like it is, the future of the Church will be very bleak.
St. Aloysius, patron of teens, pray for us!