At the height of the cult phenomenon in the 1970’s, Rabbi Maurice Davis, an experienced deprogrammer, reflected on his experience helping young people return to their families and mainstream society. He observed that most of them were dropouts from mainline churches and synagogues, and that what they had in common was a search for idealism, community and a sense of belonging. Thirty years later, the challenge Rabbi Davis posed to organized religion still provides a yardstick for judging the effectiveness of youth ministry in today’s church. Are religious educators providing for the next generation of Catholics the kind of instruction and enlightenment that leads to conviction and commitment? Ask anyone in the field, and he or she will tell you that there is no simple answer. Depending on your focus, you will see the glass as half empty or half full.
Do the students enrolled in Catholic institutions experience their education as a call to idealism? There is a good deal of evidence that they do. Administrators and faculty as a whole see their task as not only preparing young people to do the world’s work but also as promoting good citizenship and passing on a desire to make the world a better place. Service programs require students to engage in hands-on altruism, sharing their gifts with younger children, senior citizens and others in need. Religion textbooks support Christian values, promote morally responsible attitudes and behavior and lay out the church’s teachings on social justice. Retreats encourage communication and sensitive interaction as ways of improving the quality of interpersonal relationships in the school. These are all positive developments that point to a glass at least half full.
On the other hand, there is good reason to wonder if the impact of these efforts is more than skin deep. There are so many elements in the dominant culture that work in the opposite direction. Consumerism defines the human person in terms of possessions, power, pleasure and prestige; and success is equated with conspicuous consumption. Do our young people perceive the shallowness of this way of life? How many hope for something better?
Then there is what James Fowler has called the dominant myth of consumer culture—that you should experience whatever you desire, own whatever you want and relate intimately with whomever you wish. The organs of mass culture inculcate the values underlying this myth with such power and insistence that a countercultural religious message has a hard time even getting a hearing, much less making an impact. Many of those in our care, as well as their parents, value Catholic education simply as a vehicle of upward mobility. They barely suspect that it might offer an alternative vision of life. From this perspective, the glass looks at best half empty.
A Call to Idealism
To break through this miasma of moral mediocrity, we would have to present the teachings of Christ as an unmistakable challenge—indeed, as a call to idealism. But this is not so easy. The God of prophetic religion, the one who challenges our assumptions and makes demands, who denounces sin and calls to righteousness, is not popular today. He would not be welcome in many religion classrooms and youth retreats. He lost his standing long ago and was dismissed as a fire-and-brimstone leftover from the Old Testament. Much more acceptable is the warm, loving deity who does not make junk, who never gets cranky or tries to scare anyone, who wants no one to feel guilty and prefers that everyone have a positive self-image. Teachers and retreat directors who present this friendlier God have a much better chance of eliciting the kind of enthusiastic youthful response that guarantees adults emotional satisfaction. Jesus is an appealing figure, mainly because he plays the role of friend, the one that is so important to adolescents. But is he allowed, like a real friend, to tell them things they don’t want to hear?
Young people today are growing up in a society that shrinks from being judgmental. Many, both old and young, believe that the function of religion is to offer affirmation and encouragement, but not criticism We rightly assure them of God’s unconditional love, but many take this to mean that he loves them so much that he doesn’t care what they do. Such a God fits comfortably in a pro-choice world. The presentation of Jesus is often rather one-dimensional too. The accepting, gentle, tolerant Jesus is a popular fixture in peer presentations during youth retreats. Less well known, indeed a rather well-kept secret, is the Jesus we meet in the Gospels: the man of uncompromising honesty who reveals people to themselves and calls to decision, who summons to sacrifice, who cuts through rationalization and self-deception and is unflinching in his condemnation of dishonesty and hypocrisy. He repeatedly describes, in frightening imagery, the destructive consequences of sin. But these Gospel passages never make it among the readings chosen for student group liturgies. It is this Jesus whom young people need to meet, if they are ever to confront the contradiction between much of contemporary culture and their most generous instincts. Genuine idealists do not see the world through rose-colored glasses. They tell it like it is.
Rabbi Davis’s young cult members were also looking for community and a sense of belonging. The cults were very skillful at providing these at a time in the lives of recruits when their adolescent search for identity had reached a critical point. On the brink of adulthood and independence, they lacked clear goals and direction, an interiorized set of values and a feeling of connectedness. The cults offered these, but at a heavy price. Their members submitted to being enclosed in a cocoon of isolation from society, renounced all healthy critical judgment and exchanged their individuality for total security. This artificial existence was reinforced and made comfortable by a community of peers who were unceasingly together and provided affirmation and acceptance. As far as we know, most members eventually left the cults. Some were rescued in rather dramatic fashion and deprogrammed, but the majority just outgrew the experience. The cults had filled a temporary psychological need that passed with time and maturity. There comes a point where young adults want to join a world peopled by others besides their peers.
This leads to an interesting question about contemporary Catholic youth ministry. High school and college religion courses, religious retreats and parish youth groups are certainly very different from cults. They do not as a matter of course indulge in the kind of behavior modification that we call brainwashing. But they do share one troubling characteristic with cults. Their effectiveness is often temporary and lacks lasting impact on minds and hearts. Even the most successful leaders in youth ministry acknowledge a troubling limitation. The enthusiasm of teens and young adults for religious expression in communal prayer and worship does not seem to last beyond the peer experience. They do not bring their vitality to the adult community by participating in the church’s sacramental life or sharing their other gifts, including their capacity for creativity and leadership. As a result, Masses in the parish look more and more every year like senior citizen get-togethers. Some may see in this a judgment on the adult community, but that would be too facile. Not all parishes are stodgy and sterile; some of the most vibrant still suffer from a lack of youthful participation.
Could there be some deficiencies in contemporary religious education and other facets of youth ministry that might account for their disappointing half-life? Or, to put it another way, in what positive directions might they go to extend their effectiveness and make more lasting contributions to church life?
A look at youth retreats may give us a clue. Since the close of the Second Vatican Council, various forms of retreats have grown and flourished in the church. They have done a great deal of good and have gained well-deserved popularity. Youth-to-youth ministry helps retreatants to open up to one another, remove their masks and go beyond acquaintance to genuine friendship. These experiences often help to improve the quality of relationships and community in schools. But the question arises: Do the retreats help them to open up to anyone besides one another? Do they include a search for the living God? Is there a conscious attentiveness to God’s word? Is there a spirituality at work here that is open to transcendence and mystery? At the end of many a good retreat, they feel dramatically closer to one another. Do they also feel closer to God? They know one another much better; can the same be said of Jesus? If they don’t, can it be that their exercise in promoting interpersonal relationships is a laudable secular enterprise, with no explicitly religious dimension, Christian or otherwise?
Many will dispute the relevance of such questions. But consider a related issue that has troubled us for a long time. There are many young Catholics who are unable to relate, in prayer and worship, to those not of their own age. One solution has been to have youth liturgies responsive to their needs. These are routine in educational institutions and are arranged in some parishes as well. They meet a genuine need but raise questions in their turn: Does this not indicate a rather limited sense of community? One way or another, it is evident that there has emerged a younger generation of Catholics who are quite distant from the sacramental life of the church. Ask them why, and they will tell you that they feel left out, that sacramental participation is not for them a felt need, that parish liturgies are boring, that they don’t get anything out of them. There is at work here a rather impoverished notion of sacraments: If they do not provide an immediate and palpable emotional return on their investment of time, as they did on those youth retreats, they are dispensable. Can religious education do anything to dispel this cloud of unknowing?
Nothing Less Will Do
These observations and suggestions are not offered as simple, cure-all answers to the problem of youthful religious alienation; the issues are too complex to admit of easy solutions. But they may provide some insight and the beginning of a fruitful conversation. Meanwhile, religious educators, in their desire for positive feedback, must resist the temptation to stay away from some hard sayings. They have to persist, in season and out of season, to tell young people what many of them do not want to hear: that consumerism is a shallow way of life, that religion is a community affair, that the Eucharist is a non-negotiable element of Christian life, that you can’t write off the church and call yourself a Catholic, that God not only loves them but also makes demands, that Jesus is more than a pal, that some of their moral choices might be wrong, that premarital sex is not a right, that social justice is not optional, and that we are called to measure up to what God wants, not the other way around.
That’s a big order, and it may cost us some disciples, but Jesus had the same problem. It’s a risk that goes with the territory. Nothing less will do, if we are to offer our growing children genuine idealism, authentic community and a real sense of belonging to Jesus Christ.