Many campus ministers and others who work with young adults ponder why 20-somethings often seem estranged from church and religious practices. Why does Charlie Sheen’s way of life appeal more to the average undergraduate male than Jesus? Why do the ways of the Kardashians touch the souls of some young women more than Dorothy Day or Mother Teresa? In a world where Snooki and the Situation rule, how can we get the millennial generation interested in God and the practices of faith?
In February 2010, the Pew Research Center reported that members of the millennial generation (born after 1982) are much less likely to participate in or be affiliated with any particular faith than were members of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1982) or the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) at their age. Fully one-quarter of today’s young adults do not profess allegiance to any faith tradition. Compared with their elders, current 20-somethings find religion to be much less a needed or important part of their lives. While 56 percent of the Greatest Generation (born before 1928) attend religious services weekly or more often, only 18 percent of millennials do so. Forty-four percent of the Silent Generation (1928-45) and 36 percent of Boomers attend church weekly.
Judging by these findings, it seems many of the young are ignoring God and church. Sexual scandals involving the clergy and a plethora of other reasons are given for the alienation of young adults from the church. But maybe young adults want to find a way to connect to God. The problem may be that they are just afraid and confused.
‘Look Jesus in the Eye’
Amy Hoegen, an experienced pastoral minister, was leading a prayer exercise with students at the University of Scranton. She encouraged the group to pray, imagining Jesus right in front of them. “Look Jesus in the eye,” she counseled.
After the prayer time, Amy invited the members of the group to share their experience. One described what happened but studiously ignored the “looking Jesus in the eye” part. Amy asked, “What was it like to look at Jesus face to face?”
“Oh, I couldn’t do it.”
“Why not?” gently asked Amy.
Pause. Shuffle of feet. A glance at the floor. “Oh, I’m not worthy.”
What gave all of us on the campus ministry team pause was the next detail. Amy went on: “And I’m looking around the group, and all the heads were nodding. They all felt that way.”
A few weeks later, Rob, a stellar freshman from St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, a student who went on several retreats this year and is involved in many service projects, is hanging around the office late one night (these questions always seem to emerge late at night).
“Yo, Father Rick, how come before we get Communion we say that thing about not being worthy? That really sucks. Man, so many kids today don’t feel worthy of anything. Why reinforce it right when we’re receiving Communion?”
Is the problem that young adults feel unworthy of approaching God? Are the young afraid of getting too close to Jesus? If those are the issues, then pastoral approaches and responses need subtle to radical revision. We need to be asking why the students feel so unworthy and what we can do to let them know they are loved by God and worthy of God’s attention. We need to communicate that they can be in relationship with Jesus and the saints, no matter how good or bad they think themselves to be.
Cathy Seymour, who has been a campus minister at the University of Scranton for more than 25 years, connects the feelings of unworthiness before God with feelings of lack of worth in relationships in general. “What our students most want is to be closer to Jesus,” she says, “but they do not feel worthy. Just like what they most want is real, lasting relationships with another person, but instead they ‘hook-up,’ thinking they are not worthy, or ‘who would want me with all my flaws?’ They either feel they can’t be perfect, so ‘Why try?’ or ‘What if I make a mistake and choose the wrong person?’ The ‘how do you know’ question always comes up on the senior retreat. Unfortunately, drinking helps them forget their faults and overlook others’ as well, and hooking up precludes being real and the work they perceive it would take to become better, more desirable and committed to another.”
Guidance for the Over-Parented
The paradoxical reality is that this is the generation whose parents took the 1970s mantra “I’m O.K., You’re O.K.” to the max. Their parents made sure every kid got a trophy and that every report card affirmed their child. Today’s college students react in horror to descriptions of the corporal punishments my generation received. But most of us were not abused. In the 1960s it was called parenting. Wendy Gottlieb, a therapist, reports that the over-parenting today’s young adults received (from what she calls “helicopter parents”) gave them an inflated sense of self and self-worth.
I suspect many 20-year-olds are aware that they cannot live up to the false assurances of competency and character proffered by their well-intentioned parents. When these young people slow down, become quiet, stop texting and open themselves to God, they realize their intrinsically flawed humanity.
This is the classic dynamic of the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. When we meet the living and true God, our obvious distance from God’s holiness becomes readily apparent. The difference is that in the Exercises the confrontation with our sinfulness follows an experience of God’s love and grace. But in the lived reality of the 21st century, Catholic young adults who are tangentially connected to God and church too often realize their sin and sinfulness without having had that foundational experience of God’s transformative love.
The trick is to get them to understand the truth in “I’m not O.K.; you’re not O.K.; but that’s O.K.” The good news is that we are not perfect. We are not even all above average. Yet the consolation is that we do not have to be perfect. Only Charlie Sheen has “tiger blood” and “Adonis DNA,” and look where it gets him—into rehab. The truth is that God loves us precisely as “unworthy” sinners. God comes to save us from our sinfulness. God transforms us into persons who can believe, hope and love.
What can we do to foster among the young the twin dynamics of overcoming fear of God and dealing with a sense of one’s unworthiness and sin?
First, challenge young adults more directly and deeply. Their coaches yell at them, while we teachers “ask” them to do the assigned readings. If professors could be as tough as coaches, we would see less grade inflation and more real engagement with the life of the mind. Meeting challenges will foster in young adults a sense of self-worth. Making things too easy leaves them, on some subtle level, knowing “they are missing the mark,” which is the literal meaning of hamartia, the Greek word for sin in the New Testament. Thomas Merton wrote in Love and Living:
The function of a university is, then, first of all to help students discover themselves: to recognize themselves, and to identify who it is that chooses.… To put it in even more outrageous terms, the function of a university is to help men and women save their souls and, in so doing, to save their society: from what? From the hell of meaninglessness, of obsession, of complex artifice, of systematic lying, of criminal evasions and neglects, of self destructive futilities….
How drastically Catholic universities would change if we took seriously, and made our students take seriously, the task of saving one’s own soul and in doing so saving our society. Priests and other campus ministers need to challenge students to meet the demands of discipleship.
Second, preach a God who loves us and who not only calls us but also demands that we love one another. Many college students today know infinitely more about how to work a cellphone than they do about simple, bedrock theological concepts. Too many think of God as the all-powerful punisher, condemning them for what they are doing “wrong.” They have too little sense of a God who rejoices in who they are and in the good they do. Ours is a God who gives us the graces, that is, the power to truly love one another.
Real love always includes the hard work of naming our sinfulness, asking for and receiving forgiveness. Amy Hoegen and Brian Pelcin, both married campus ministers, were teaching a class for the Rev. Jack Begley’s marriage course. Ms. Hoegen noted how deeply struck the class was by the section they presented on forgiveness and redemption. The idea that we can be forgiven and redeemed was not only attractive to the students; it came as news. Most in the class did not seem to know that God’s forgiveness is part of the deal.
Third, teach transformation. Many students think their sexual hooking up and wild partying have stamped them for life. They need to learn what the anonymous author of the spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing realized: “It is not what you are, nor what you have been, that God sees with his all-merciful eyes, but what you desire to be.” Our young need to know that God can change and transform us, no matter what we have done in the past. St. Athanasius said, “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” God does not transform “perfect” people. God loves, saves and transforms sinners.
Religion as Recipe Book, Not Rule Book
Real religion, the practices of spirituality that routinely and concretely connect us to God and others, can foster a sense of the grace of God transforming us daily. Young adults need to be led to experience religion more as a recipe book than a rulebook. Authentic religion frees and empowers. Young adults (and most thinking, responsible adults of any age) will ignore religious institutions and ministers who make religion an oppressive force. Un-Christian dynamics make too many fear God instead of running toward God. And real religion, the deep and transformative binding of things together, does not always happen inside a church building.
I recall a student I met during the years I lived and worked at Holy Name Parish in Camden, N.J., and taught at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. After graduation, this fellow’s 2.0 grade point average from the business school was not making his phone ring with job offers. He was feeling really bad about himself: no job, nothing to do, drinking too much, as he had during his college days. He called up Dan Joyce, S.J., who was also working at Holy Name. Father Joyce got him working in Sister Helen Cole’s Camden summer camp. This graduate, it turned out, was a genius at working with kids. All the Camden kids wanted to hang with him. All the campers wanted to ride with him. Everyone loved him, and he found his true self in that inner-city setting.
This young man finally found his worth. That he missed all the opportunities for service while he was at St. Joseph’s amazes me. But it is in meeting the challenges beyond our comfort zones and growing that we feel our intrinsic worthiness. The multitude of service venues on Jesuit campuses force college students to look themselves in the mirror and see who they actually are. The lesson is that “in serving one another we are set free,” as Sean Connery’s King Arthur tells Richard Gere’s Lancelot in the film “First Knight.”
Students need to meet the challenge of experiencing Jesus in service to others and in prayer. In doing so, they will discover their true worth. The Christ of God has come among us and remains present in the Eucharist to transform us in the reconfiguration of ourselves and our world. Go ahead. Look Jesus in the eye. In that divine gaze, we will see not condemnation but the reflection of our deepest, truest self.