Today, I had an interesting conversation with a high school theology teacher. We talked about teens’ tendency to distance themselves from the Church and how difficult it is to sell them on the idea of organized religion. Our conversation gravitated towards the viral YouTube video posted last year “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” With almost 23 million views, it is easy to conclude that this video resonates with younger generations. In Lisa Hendey’s session at the University of Dallas Ministry Conference titled “Saints for Slackers, Seekers and Sinners,” she gave some interesting statistics about the state of religion and Catholic Church in our country. Only 23% of Catholics go to Mass every week. One-third of adults who are raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholic. According to the Pew Research center, 33% of American adults under 30 describe themselves as having no religious affiliation what so ever. Of these religiously unaffiliated adults, 68% say they believe in God and 37% consider themselves “spiritual.” An overwhelming majority say they are not seeking to be affiliated with a religion because “religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.” I don’t know about you, but I find these statistics to be sad and overwhelming.
I’m not a cradle Catholic and I don’t have the experience of growing up in the Catholic Church. I grew up in a church where a relationship with Jesus was at the heart of everything that was taught and preached. This environment encouraged me to seek out this relationship and eventually led me to fall head-over-heals in love with the Lord. My relationship with the Lord filled the God sized hole in my soul and the inner desire for something greater than this world was wholly met in my personal encounters with Jesus. When I went searching for Jesus outside of the church where I was raised, I landed in the Catholic Church and discovered His presence in the Eucharist. For me, the Eucharist was the cheese to my macaroni. Finally, I found Jesus truly present to me in a physical way and he was inviting me to receive his body into mine. He and I were finally one in body and soul. This experience is the greatest of my human existence.
As I have embraced the Catholic faith and community, I realize that I am not normal. I do not have a normal path into the Church and that provides me with a unique perspective. I find comfort in the Catholic Church’s history, longevity and endurance. The Catholic Church is the church founded on the rock of Peter. This is the church that has endured for 2000 years. This is the church that has and continues to be the largest distributor of charity in the world. From the Catholic Church, we have the bible and well-developed Christian theology along with other countless treasures. And, obviously, the Church’s greatest treasure is Jesus present in the Eucharist. Therefore, it is hard for me to understand why people choose to step away from it. Now, don’t get me wrong. I know the people who run the church are not perfect. In fact, some have erred GREATLY in their personal and professional lives and have hurt others in ways I can’t imagine. And although that is really terrible and hard to forgive, it doesn't take away from the Lord’s presence in the Church- His presence in the Eucharist. How can one walk away from the Lord Himself?
I am reading a book called The Holy Longing by Ronald Rohlheiser (1999 by Double Day and Company, Inc.). He makes a great point about choice. He says every choice is a renunciation (p. 9). When we choose something, we are turning our backs on all the other possibilities. At times, that is why it is so hard for us to choose. I see this in the teenagers I teach. And truth be told, I even see it in myself. I don’t like to make commitments, especially social commitments until the last moment because when I commit, then I am closing the door on all the choices I haven’t even seen yet. I think this is true for a lot of people my age and younger. We don’t want to choose because we don’t want to be tied down just in case something better comes along. I sometimes wonder if our modern culture has perpetuated this behavior. Because of the progress of technology in the past two centuries, we are connected in ways we haven’t been connected and the choices before us seem endless. Has this mindset been a factor for the 33% of adults under 30 who do not affiliate with a religion? Are the endless choices more attractive than choosing a life with Christ and sharing this life with a community? Do they even know what they are losing by not choosing this life?
The key factor in my own experience with the Catholic faith is the personal relationship I have with Jesus. I don’t think it would be fulfilling or even possible for me to practice the faith if I did not have this relationship. I wonder if that is what people who walk away from the Church lack. Maybe they never developed this relationship. Maybe they always just “went through the motions” and never made a connection. I can see how that could make faith meaningless. What is the point of receiving Jesus in the Eucharist if you are not engaging him in a relationship? If the Eucharist doesn't mean anything to you, then receiving it can seem rather pointless (although he is still present and bathing you in grace regardless of your lack of faith). How sad that 77% of Catholics do not have a strong enough relationship with Jesus that they do not hunger for the Eucharist on a weekly basis.
So, what do we do about this? Where do we begin? We can view these statistics as a great tragedy or a great opportunity. In general, I think people are looking for something greater than this world. They believe in a loving God who offers peace and hope. But they just don’t know where He is. There are too many choices, and therefore, renunciations. And it is hard to see the beauty of the Catholic faith through the lens of this modern culture. It is a tragedy that so many are looking, but it is also an opportunity. By living a joy-filled life in the faith, we become instruments of the Holy Spirit. Christ can reach through our lives to touch other hearts. The harvest is great and Christ is calling us to be his laborers in the field. All we have to do is respond to the love He pours into our lives.
In my own ministry with youth, I emphasize two things- they are loved by God just the way they are and that God desires a personal relationship with them- so much so that he sacrificed his life for it- so much so that he continues to make that sacrifice at every Mass so that he can be physically present to them. If a young person doesn't connect with these two basic truths, then they are more likely to become the 77% of Catholics who don’t go to church, or worse yet, the 33% of adults who do not affiliate with any religion. Love and relationship with Christ are essential to passing on the faith and helping others find purpose, true joy and happiness. So, let’s spread the fire by loving as Christ loves and living this joy-filled life in authentic and purposeful ways.