Important research into religious practice in our country over the last several years has led us to see a fact that we already sensed anecdotally: namely, that a significant number of young people who are now coming into adulthood, or who have recently done so, do not care to belong to any organized religion, and don’t accept faith as an important part of their lives. There has been a significant shift in attitudes over a relatively short period of time. This poses a challenge for us, since each generation of Catholics has traditionally looked to the next one to take up positions of responsibility in the life of the church.
Q: While it appears the overall demographic trend for younger generations’ involvement in the faith is downward, there are obviously some counter-trends. What signs of encouragement do you see?
As the studies show, many students and young adults don’t express an attachment to any church. From my position in our church, however, I meet thousands of young Catholics who do not follow that pattern. Rather, they are really listening to the invitation of our Lord to be his disciples and his friends.
They are responding with a certain amount of enthusiasm, even if that sometimes comes with a bit of hesitation or skepticism. We are blessed in our archdiocese to have mentors who are very devoted to walking with young people as they make their response to the Lord and learn the ways of discipleship.
We certainly see that in our schools and our youth programs. Then there are the more extraordinary opportunities like the March for Life, events sponsored by FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), Steubenville conferences, National Catholic Youth Conference, and the like. These are opportunities where young people can come away with their peers for a few days and experience a kind of immersion in the life of the church – that is, a life of prayer and celebration, in learning and reflection. These moments can really be turning points for young Catholics, leading them to reflect on how they might dedicate their lives to something that is truly great.
Q: Speaking of those larger events, this year you once again joined young people from our archdiocese at the March for Life in Washington, D.C. How are events like this important for you as our archbishop?
I am always grateful when young people in the church welcome somebody as old as I am to participate in these events with them. It means a great deal to me, and I gain encouragement and energy when I am able to spend at least a little bit of time with them.
The March for Life has really become a young person’s event. People from across the country go to the march in Washington, and a large number travel there by bus from our archdiocese. I am grateful to the adult chaperones and the priests and other leaders who make it possible for so many high school students to participate.
As much as anything, the trip to Washington becomes a kind of pilgrimage. There is great religious formation available – opportunities to pray, to celebrate Mass together, and to reflect on our faith. Then, of course, there is the opportunity for our young people to give witness to the sanctity of human life and to God’s plan that the dignity of every person be respected throughout our country.
Q: What do you think these young people most need from the rest of us in the church?
I think the most helpful thing we can offer is an authentic witness of our own faith. New disciples of Jesus learn discipleship from those who have already dedicated themselves to following the Lord and serving him. The particulars change from generation to generation, but young people – like the rest of us – are looking for authenticity. If I encourage people to follow Jesus, I presume they are going to look back at me to see if I am following him, to see if he really has made a difference in my own life.
As more mature adults in the church, we ought to look at younger people as those who are being called by Jesus for their own sake, not just as those who can take care of us, or to fill our ranks or our programs. We ought to try to love them as the Lord does and see how valuable they are in God’s sight. We want them to have what we have: We want them to know the Lord and to understand how to shape their lives around that most important relationship.
Q: There is often a temptation among parents and other concerned adults in the church to try to come up with something new that will attract and win over young people. But it seems from what you are saying that witness and accompaniment are the most effective means to that end.
As in other aspects of our culture, I think that when we try to formulate programs or to think up something for young people in the church, we tend to be fighting the last war and to offer things that might have been effective for ourselves, or at some point decades ago.
So what we can offer to young people in the church is the opportunity for them to speak for themselves. We should encourage them to talk about the desires of their heart, to talk about their own experience of prayer and service, and validate that. They have their own experience of the Lord calling them, and from their own generosity and with their many gifts they will be able to live the Gospel in a more mature way and enrich the whole church.
We sometimes make the mistake of saying that younger Catholics are the “future of the church,” but anybody who is baptized is very much a part of the church now. The church depends on every baptized person, no matter their age.