Last weekend I had the privilege on spending time with nearly 100 college students who dedicate time throughout their busy academic years to ESTEEM, a program aimed at empowering young adult Catholics to grow in their faith and to begin a lifetime of adult lay service to the Church at a variety of levels. Now beginning its third year, ESTEEM (Engaging Students to Enliven the Eccesial Mission) asks young adults to consider their gifts and how they might offer them to serve the Church.
I was asked to serve on a panel that addressed how young adults live out their faith during a time that for many is marked by transition and uncertainty. I read excerpts from a couple of posts I had written for this blog, and invited students to engage in a dialogue with me and my fellow panelist about where they find joy and where they find challenge in being Catholic.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many students said that they find joy through service to others, a hallmark of our faith that is intentionally incorporated into the program. Some relayed that they had volunteered at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and others reported on the lively conversation they held with one another about the value of individual acts of charity versus the long struggle toward societal justice and reform. Again, unsurprisingly, many students voiced frustration at the seemingly subservient roles for women in the Church and the marginalization of gay and lesbian Catholics. The conversation was invigorating, emotional, uplifting, and challenging.
What I find remarkable about ESTEEM is its ability to attract young Catholics across the wide spectrum that comprises the current Church in the US. The Catholic journalist and author John Allen has observed that a particularly difficult challenge facing the church is the balkanization of liberal and conservative Catholics and the resulting refusal to communicate across tribes. He says that if ethnic lines were a hallmark of the pre-Vatican II church in the US, that ideological stratification may be the most potent feature of the current Church. Needless to say, this is not an encouraging trend when envisioning a strong and vibrant future.
ESTEEM is an antidote to this polarization, inviting young adult Catholics of all stripes to be together in work and prayer. Though there were some signs of the us-versus-them mentality present at the conference, with conservative students ranking Tim Tebow as an exemplar of Christian leadership and the more liberal participants extolling the virtues of service, that these students shared meals and ideas and worshipped together was encouraging in itself. Perhaps they will carry these memories with them as they mature and become active leaders in the Church, and our tribalization will give way to the unity Christ envisioned for the church.