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Richard G. MalloyFebruary 13, 2012

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.

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Lisa Weber
12 years 3 months ago
How often is church actually a welcoming place?  I think we need to work on that.
Rick Malloy
12 years 3 months ago
Lisa, Thanks for your comment.  I definitely agree with you.  A church that makes a person feel unwelcome seldom gets a second chance to make up for the missed opportunity.
12 years 3 months ago
A very insightful article. Since I am meeting with our young people's group tomorrow, I feel the Holy Spirit sent me into AMERICA this evening. Thanks from one of the Silent Generation.
12 years 3 months ago
Really a great piece!   I think encouraging young people to do volunteer work can help them open their eyes to their real worth.......they'll discover that indeed they are the loved sinners...(underline loved).  It is the experience of love that is transformative.   Fr Gregory Boyle, S.J.  wrote about it in his book Tattoos on the Heart.
Des Farrell
12 years 3 months ago
'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.'

There is a real hunger out there for the widescreen IMAX experience that having a spiritual dimension in one's life can bring. And as the parents of the under 40's suffer and die that hunger in their children will grow.
We (open-minded agnostics) try to feed that hunger with ecology or Buddhism or fly-fishing or sport or music but it's very difficult to return to Catholicism once one has walked away.
My apologies for saying this directly but the Arrogance of the church has caused this. It isn't the child predators that broke peoples hearts. That only caused rage. It was the closed door shuffling of criminals from one parish to the next, the denials and current halfhearted apologies that cut the final ties.
This Hubris has caused so much unnecessary pain, not just to ordinary mass goers but also to priests and nuns who work all hours with the poor and marginalized.
If there are readers here who can recommend books that deal with this illness that remains in the church I would appreciate a note on them but from recent comments made by cardinals I honestly don't see much change happening. 
And yet I know elderly priests who have spent every day of their lives doing nothing but good, offering Dignity to those with nothing left and I have to wonder, are they as disappointed with their leaders?
There's a quote from Francis Xavier in my local church, it begins 'Do not put on solemn airs' when preaching to the poor. I've googled it and cannot find it. Whatever speech or book that it's from, there lies the true future direction of Catholicism.
If Pope John xxiii really went for evening strolls in Rome I doubt he did so in full Papal Regalia. Recently I saw a picture of archbishops and each one was wearing a cross made of precious metals. Do any of them ever wear simple wooden ones? Isn't it time to tackle this image of Grandiosity head on? Didn't St. Francis try a couple of years ago?

Rick Malloy
12 years 3 months ago
Maureen and Norma thanks for your words of encouragement. 

And Des too, thank you for your honest and heartfelt articulation of what many throughout the church think and feel.  You ask for some books recommendations. 

Micheal Leach's Why Stay Catholic? may help your reflections ( http://www.loyolapress.com/why-stay-catholic.htm ).  The church is made up of many kinds, saints and sinners all. 

Annie LaMott's zany writings touch on how to stick with a church community.  See her Plan B (http://www.amazon.com/Plan-B-Further-Thoughts-Faith/dp/1573222992)  The church is all the people who strive to live out our baptismal call to love and service.

 Jeff Dietrich of the Los Angeles Catholic worker has a great collection of his writings over the past 40 years, Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity and the Poor on Los Angeles' skid row.( http://www.lmu.edu/libraries_research/marymountinstitute/Books_by_the_Marymount_Institute_Press/Broken_and_Shared__Food__Dignity__and_the_Poor_on_Los_Angeles__Skid_Row.htm ).  Would that we priests and bishops had such a clear witness and simple lifesyle. 

Jesuit Greg Boyle's Tattoos on the Heart is amazing (http://www.amazon.com/Tattoos-Heart-Power-Boundless-Compassion/dp/1439153027). 

Jesuit John Dear's many books, especially his autobiography, show someone who lives on the margins speaking the truth to power (http://www.amazon.com/Persistent-Peace-Struggle-Nonviolent-World/dp/0829427201). 

A wonderful story contrasting types of priests is an old novel The Keys of the Kingdom by A.J. Cronin (and a great old black and white movie with Gregory Peck) (http://www.amazon.com/Keys-Kingdom-J-Cronin/dp/0316161845). 

Morris L. West's The Clowns of God is the story of a Pope who tries to radically change the church  http://www.amazon.com/Clowns-God-Morris-L-West/dp/1902881842

A less known novel, The Last Western by Tom Klise is another novel that shows how the church could change with a different style shown by the leaders (http://www.amazon.com/Last-Western-Thomas-S-Klise/dp/0913592323)

Hope some of this helps.   Peace for you struggle and your journey.
Des Farrell
12 years 3 months ago
Thanks for the reply, I'll look into those, although the fiction I might leave till last. The Gregory Peck movie though I'll watch as I met him 20 years ago in UCD and he really did have the old school movie star charisma! 
Thanks again, d. 
12 years 3 months ago
As much as a sense of unworthiness is a problem for ALL young adults in the Catholic Church , I believe it is even more difficult for young women.  How can a woman believe she is worthy in a Church that rarely acknowleges women in word (our prayers) or presence (our liturgies)?  We really need leaders who stand in the shoes of young women and men and see the Church that they are seeing.
Nancy Walton-House
12 years 3 months ago
Great article and comments.

Another wonderful and highly effective way to engage young adults is the Contemplative Leaders in Action Program, "a two year cohort experience for young Jesuit-educated alumni to journey together in an exploration of the intersection of faith and leadership." The Program was started in 2007 by the Jesuit Collaborative. Magis at Seattle University, the first Jesuit college/university to offer the program, began their service fall 2011. Magis has 18 participants. My son is one of them and has greatly benefitted from the Program.

America Magazine in the 11/7/11 issue had a podcast, Forming Faith Leaders, on the program. It is at www.americamagazine.org/content/podcast/podcast-index.cfm?series_id=1296

For additional information, contact Magis at Seattle University (206) 296-2637; : magis@seattleu.edu www.seattleu.edu/missionministry/magis
Rick Malloy
12 years 3 months ago
Hi Susan.  A long time ago (April 1993) I published an article in U.S. Catholic magazine entitled, "Some of the Best Priests I know are Women."  As long as the Chuch refuses to listen to all women and fails to celebrate and fully utilize the gifts of half the people on earth, the longer the Church will have difficutly fulfilling the mission of inviting all to the table of the Lord where we recieve strength and courage and wisdom to work for the justice and mercy and peace of God's Reign.

Also, thanks to Nancy.  Another great Jesuit based program [If I can say so in an unbiased manner :) ]
12 years 3 months ago
Susan #8, visit www.saltandlight.org and click on Catholic focus, scroll down until you get to The Feminine Genius, click and see what you think.
Des Farrell
12 years 3 months ago
11. Norma, I think that website has been domain squatter'd!
12 years 3 months ago
Des, take heart.  Let's not reduce our Church to the flaws of some leadership.  She's much much greater than that......right now She is surrounded with every challenges you can imagine, both from outside and inside.....but I think it is the perfect time!  I would even dare to say that this could be a blessing.  When everything seems to be okay, we tend to get so complacent, and pretty soon we get addicted to comforts and a sense of entitlement to everything, that we forget the poor, the homeless, the derelicts, etc.etc.  The current disequilibrium is an opportunity to renew and deepen our faith.This is the perfect time to find our mountain or desert to listen and pray.  It's what Jesus did.  Also, it's the perfect time to find humor in our seeking and questioning on what really matters.  Fr. Jim Martin, S.J.  has some ideas!
Des Farrell
12 years 3 months ago
I couldn't agree more Norma and the writings of Fr. Jim and William J O'Malley have brought me to this magazine so they have a lot to answer for!
There's a Cistercian monastery near my sisters house and I sometimes take a walk through there to remind myself what words like silence and beauty feel like. 
I am certainly not anti-Catholic but, like many in Ireland, I am still trying to put into perspective, without any whitewashing, the horrendous betrayal of mostly working class kids by those from within the church. There's a quote from Pedro Arrupe about priests needing hearts as big as the world which must have bypassed some of the Irish seminaries. 
Another quote, which turns out to be a modern misquote, from Edmund Burke, comes to mind, 'the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing'. I have no doubt that the whip of cords that Jesus made would have gotten a second use on the backs of some of these criminals. I genuinely hope that they believe in the words of the act of contrition because they are going to need them.
Thank you for your comment. 
12 years 3 months ago
Des, I found this on youtube....Why Males Need Initiation by Richard Rohr.  You may find it interesting.  www.youtube.com    type in Richard Rohr/Why Males Need Initiation.

I think this info can help parents and those who work with young people.   By the way, he has other interesting talks.  You'll see when you have the page.
Des Farrell
12 years 3 months ago
Two thumbs up Norma, I've heard dismissive comments about Fr Rohr by the kind of people who shouldn't throw stones so I've picked up one of his books too!  The Franciscans tend to know their stuff! (stuff being a colloquialism for theological matters...)
Thanks again!
Jim McCrea
12 years 3 months ago

I'm not a kid - I'm 71. Years ago I decided to take the Incarnation seriously, so I say this just before receiving the Eucharist:


Lord I am worthy to receive you because You have said the word. I have been healed!


Enough of this constant Catholic harping on unworthiness. Jesus did it for us. Recognize this and be thankful for it.

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