I have never been to a WYD and I do not know a lot about it. I do know however a lot about how Catholicism is presented to youth in general. In my life, I have had a handful of good teachers in this area, but I can also say that as a whole, the style in which the youth are taught Catholicism (and I can say this is especially true in youth retreats), is very harmful and it makes youth evangelization a complete failure.
I have talked about this before, specifically in my post on the Feast of the Sacred Heart…see HERE
Today, I’m going to revisit the topic again from a slightly different angle. How is Catholicism presented to youth (in general)? and why is this a failure? I’ll save possible alternatives and solutions for another time.
For starters though, I want to briefly define failure. There are two kinds of failures at Catholic youth evangelization. The first is the outright failure which just plain turns people away from the faith. The second is the semi-failure. This second is more subtle. Sometimes, there are efforts to teach young people the faith that are not turn-offs and do not lead people away mocking the Church. In these instances, sometimes people feel better about God and Christianity and themselves. Other times, they do not have much more to say on religion itself but come away fulfilled and more “spiritual.” Although this may be better than nothing, I think in the long run it is harmful. The reason is that the youth will replace real Catholicism with a vague form of feel-good spirituality. Yet this new religion that has replaced traditional Catholicism is deceiving: its tenants are often filled with anti-organized religion themes, vague notions of pantheism, a de-emphasis on true Christian spirituality, and a replacement of moral demands with the “invitation” to “be nice.” I’d say that in both cases, people are not led closer to God and ultimately to heaven, which is what this is all about, isn’t it?
That is problem number one with evangelizing the youth: What is it all about? I have never once gotten a good answer from the youth teachers on this point. What does Catholicism have to offer? Why should I care about my relationship with God? Let me be clear on this, and it should not be a controversial point: Whenever anyone does anything meaningful, it involves work. When anyone does anything that involves work, they need motivation…Why am I doing this? If Catholicism has no purpose, it will fail in terms of selling to the youth. Now, some people evangelizing to the youth do recognize this to an extent. These teachers, although seldom explicitly, do provide an answer to “what is the purpose of all of this?”
The first answer is the second problem in youth evangelization. We are told of the fulfillment of the faith. We are told it gives us hope and friendship and on and on. The problem I am getting at is that real purpose in religion has been replaced with a sort of emotional satisfaction we are supposed to get out of it. This however will always fail in the long run for a few simple reasons. First, many people simply do not get emotional satisfaction out of the faith because spiritual things don’t always effect our emotions. Second, there are many other ways to be happy, find a community, and share feelings (if you are big on the feelings part). The Church offers nothing special for that, other than probably a slight badge of weirdness (not for Catholicism itself but for being part of the new, i.e. non-traditional, overly emotional Catholic youth programs). Third, the elements of the Church that do in fact elicit an emotional response, for example traditional artwork brings about awe, traditional writing and theology: admiration, the true explanation of life’s purpose: meaning, etc. are almost always ignored. Fourth, emotions wax and wane and in the demanding life of a Christian where we must take up our cross, we need more than emotion. Further, we live in a world which butchers our offspring in the womb, are we really a faith-friendly place where feelings of “nice” are going to get us through?
As a corollary to all of this overly emotional Catholicism, there is a strong feminine flavor. Now I can’t speak for girls on this, so right now I’ll speak about evangelizing young men only. If we are okay with feminizing the faith, that is a problem. If guys do not see a problem in the modern day way we hear of “Jesus is madly in love with you” we’ve lost all hope. I do believe (and hope, for the Church’s sake) however many guys are turned off by this kind of talk. Although not all would articulate it like this, they deep down would find the way the Church is presented as repulsively un-masculine. We do not need to be told how special we are, how loved we are, how “beautiful we are on the inside” or how to “just be yourself, love yourself and forgive yourself first!” And of course, we are told all of this by people representing the Church and then people who hate the Church bash priests for the abuse crisis! Does anybody who teaches guys (at any age!), especially youth guys, this kind of garbage really think it helps!?!?
So we are told about how great we are and how loved we are. Then we talk more and more about love, love, love, and more love. Not Christian love, oh no. We are not told about the virtue of charity or how God loved us enough to die on the cross for our sins so that we could receive the gift of salvation which we became positively unworthy of through sin. God forbid these things are mentioned next to that sacred word love! How judgmental! The life of Christian virtue has been replaced with the vague notion of being nice and “looooooving.” I talked about in my post linked above how prayer has been replaced; it should come as no surprise to us that virtue has been as well. Lots of teens, yes Catholic teens included, are guilty of all sorts of sins. We all struggle with all sorts of temptations. No one is an exception to either of these truths. Teaching that being a Christian is all about this wishy-wahsy stuff is what leads people to do evil. Yes, let me be clear, I am NOT saying that it simply fails at preventing people from doing evil, oh no, it positively drives people to sin. Sin is bad; it leads to misery here and now and ultimately hell. However, sin is tricky and sly. Sin hardly ever seems as bad as it is at first glance. Instead of reminding us of the ugliness of sin, teachers of Catholic youth give us subtle go-ahead signals and rationalizations for our sins.
But no! You cannot mention sin to kids! This term is far too archaic! We need to meet youth where they’re at! There are a few phrases in the English language that make me want to wring someone’s neck and this is one of them. Let me tell all adult teachers of Catholicism a few things:
1) What you need from young people is respect, not peer-like friendship
2) You are not cool, you never were, you never will be
3) If you do manage to pull it off and seem vaguely “cool,” then we have no respect for you
4) We recognize there are some things which aren’t meant to be incorporated into Church-life…and yes rap is one of them, and no before you ask not all of us even like it to begin with
Obviously everyone needs to be taught Christianity from a standpoint that is relatable and makes sense. I am not saying we should be using the same conversion techniques that St. Paul used with the Gentiles on modern day youth. But I am saying there is no need for incorporating weird dances or “down with it” language. We are young people, not extraterrestrials.
Finally, Catholicism is never presented as true and thus never interesting. Catholicism has a lot to say about life and reality. Catholic answers can be given to every “hot-button” issues of the day. Teachers of youth Catholicism: talk about the life issues, the political issues, miracles, life after death, religion and science, etc. Some people are interested in some things, other people other things. There are some kids that just don’t care about any of this. However, I’d say most do care at least to the extent that they’d be interested in talking about these things in some circumstances. We need to draw youth in. Even if they do not always agree with the Church on every issue, they (as a whole, not each individual) will still be interested in having many of the discussions that need to be had. Sure, not everybody is going to be concerned with every topic but most people are concerned about a few. There are two major problems in ignoring these big time topics: First, if we do not hear of the answers from the Church, we will only hear answers from people who are against the Church in entertainment or in education. Second, if these are never brought up, teens will become even more bored and they will continue to consider the Church as useless and outmoded.
I’ll conclude by saying this: It may be difficult to evangelize to the youth. I don’t want to accuse anyone doing their best of ill-will. I’ve also had a handful of good teachers in this area over the years. However, overall, the style of youth-evangelization is very weak and it does not lead to more adult Christians. I probably sound harsh in this post but that is only because I really think something needs to be done to revamp youth evangelization. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that we can trust our concerns to St. Monica, who led through her prayers and suffering her entire family back to God, including her restless son, during much adversity.
Exemplary Mother of the great Augustine, you perseveringly pursued your wayward son not with wild threats but with prayerful cries to heaven. Intercede for all mothers in our day so that they may learn to draw their children to God. Teach them how to remain close to their children, even the prodigal sons and daughters who have sadly gone astray. Amen.