Father Richard Barrett answers readers' questions
1 would be very interested to have your views on why we have lost a whole generation of young people from our churches. Their absence is noted particularly at Sunday Mass where they can he counted on two hands. Why and when the loss of Catholic youth?
IWAS CHATTIN(i to a theologian about this problem recently and suggested in a moment of inspiration that the future may lie with the movements, such as Focolare, Faith, Neocatechumenate. Youth 2000, CAYA and Communione e Liberazione. Like a bottle of Heineken they could reach the parts that other beers cannot reach. I explained. The theologian responded: "Jesus Christ founded a Church not a holy huddle,"
This is a common objection among the clergy. Why the resistance to movements? They are popular on the continent. They are successful here in producing vocations. But British and Irish clergy seem to prefer a successful parish or diocesan operation. Still the reader has correctly identified a haemorrhaging of young people over the last 10 years. Some people might he happy about this, of course. They have argued that a fall in the number of vocations to the priesthood is a good thing a sign of the Spirit. So by the same token we should have to view the loss of the Catholic youth also as a sign of the Spirit. For these people it is a question of losing the chaff so as to be left with the wheat. Quality and not quantity is the measure of success.
To most level headed clergy and young people this kind of reasoning sounds like a turkey promoting Christmas. There should be no prizes given for spiritualising decline.
So why the loss of young people? Some blame the decline on the feminisation of Christianity. As one successful priest told me: "With the loss of boy altar servers the last bastion of male pride in the Church was sissified." Others blame youth magazine culture: how can The Tablet compete with the likes of Loaded, FHM, Q, Front, Minx, 19 and ('osmopolitan?
Others blame RE teachers in the Catholic school system; failure to teach the six precepts of the Church means that most young people are simply not aware they have an obligation to attend Mass on Sunday.
Some blame pastors for presenting the Faith as a hobby, a voluntary society built on conscience rather than one built on obligation. One thinks of the icons of conscience of the Sixties like Peter de Rosa who left the priesthood. Some blame the Church for an excessive concentration on sex to the detriment of more fundamental issues such as the existence of God. In one London parish, a priest preached his Christmas Day sermon not on the Holy Year but on the evils of artificial contraception!
Others suggest that Catholic RE syllabuses are the problem because they reduce Catholicism to moralising-with-the-Bible. Some blame parents they send their children to Catholic schools and expect teachers to do their job of raising the children in the Faith. A survey on church attendance conducted among young people in 1998 revealed that they were looking for a) a personal spirituality; b) more help with scripture; c) to belong before they believe; d) relevance to their work lives.
It is interesting that America has a very healthy population of young Catholics and their vocations are also doing well. So what is America doing right that we are doing wrong?
Of course the nice thing about Catholicism in America is that it does not apologise for its existence. Its bishops are not the kind that appear on TV craw-thumping and wringing their hands about the embarrassments of Catholic culture like fish on Fridays, ash on Ash Wednesday, papal infallibility or Eucharistic realism. It is a matter of confidence. In the British Isles we have media success stories like Fiona Fox or Cristina Odone, but generally the Church's pastors are not among them. American clergy are driven by the principle "nothing succeeds like
success". They plough energy and money into promoting Catholicism, especially among young people. Here we have had 30 years of official apology and retreat and nothing puts off young people more than the idea that they are part of a losing learn.
On a visit to one sixth form I was asked: "If the Church is so great, why was Jesus such a wimp?" The Church had communicated a vision of its founder as "a weakling, at best a philanthropist, the kind of person that today would be wearing a grey suit, be a vegetarian, work in a charity shop and probably belong to the nerds of society at the local community college". We had failed to present the Jesus who purified the Temple and confronted the religious authorities of Israel instead we had sold a Jesus of the Argus poster and furry pencil case. "Jesus as Wimp" will not win any converts or enthusiasts. except maybe among readers of Twinkle.
At the risk of killing a sacred cow, this failure of image may be a result of having spent too long looking over our shoulders at lesser forms of Christianity for whom Jesus really is little more than a very nice man. It is reported that when some young people wished to start evangelising on the streets of Glasgow a few years ago, the group was banned by the diocesan authorities there because of "the harm it would to ecumenism", So wimping out may be the chief cause for the failure of the Church in the British Isles toward young people. Here, the movements could do a lot of good.
As this response is clearly provisional. I would like to invite youth workers and interested others to contribute their thoughts on the reasons why they think young people no longer attend Catholic churches in the numbers they used to. Please feel free to write in to the Editor.