The young will return to Mass if properly taught, says Hugh David The yardstick of a good Catholic education for my parents’ generation was whether their children continued going to Mass on Sunday once we had left home and started our careers. At first my mother would ring with a weekly reminder on a Saturday evening, but didn’t always get the answer she wanted, and so would retreat into disappointed silence on the subject. She had a way of making silence convey disappointment.
But she could never quite contain herself when it came to Holy Days of Obligation. She had to give us a nudge. One brother was working as an estate agent at the time and was out of the office showing a client a house when the phone on his desk rang. A colleague picked it up only to be greeted by a woman’s voice, with a mild Irish accent, who said “it’s Ash Wednesday. Just you remember”, and then hung up. A lapsed Catholic himself, the colleague took some convincing that it wasn’t a message from the Almighty.
All this came back to me – with a smile, I should add – when reading about the results of a survey of young Catholic Youth Ministry Federation (CYMFed). It polled 1,000 self-identifying Catholics aged 11-25 (glad to know that 25 counts as youth now – I remember feeling very grown up when I reached that landmark). Just one in five felt that going to church was important, though that didn’t quite translate into Mass attendance, my mother will be relieved to hear. Some 54 per cent still went regularly.
It is hard to know how worrying this is. Your late teens and early 20s have always been a time for doing things your own way. And if you have spent the previous 18 years being given no choice about whether to attend Mass on a Sunday, then it may well be abandoned as a sign of being your own person, an act of rebellion against expectation. And, of course, we have all noted the absence of 18-25 year olds on Sundays in the pews.
That doesn’t mean, however, that 30-40 year olds are conspicuously absent. Cynics will no doubt say that this is precisely the time when people marry and start a family, and so are keen to count as practising Catholics in order to get their children into decent Catholic schools.
If only the onset of parenthood allowed you to be so organised and cynical! The shock of caring for a newborn baby or a toddler, the realisation that life has changed forever, sleep deprivation, grey hair and so forth all rush on new parents with such a force that plotting that infant’s educational journey, five, even 10 years hence, is – in my experience, at least – the last thing on your mind.
What you do feel drawn to, though, is the model of your own childhood. This is a positive. However much we may have kicked against it in our 20s, when we reach the wise old stage of our 30s, and find ourselves parents, most of us want to give our children what we ourselves had, and so instinctively return to Mass attendance. That, at least, has been the pattern of my life and that of many of my contemporaries in our parish.
The trick, then, is not to get too panicked – and make those threatening phone calls – when youngsters go through their years of rebellion against Mass attendance. It isn’t a sign of failure or, worse still, damnation. But that still leaves tough questions for Catholic schools to answer. If the Catholic community is digging into its pockets to help fund the Catholic schools’ network, then shouldn’t one of the fruits of that investment be youngsters who emerge at the age of 18 as committed Mass-goers?
I suspect it would be pretty hard to find a head teacher who wouldn’t want that to be so, but, equally, most would point out that the success of the Catholic ethos of the school should be judged by a great deal more than the Mass attendance patterns of its former pupils when in their twenties. For a start, education is for life, not just for the decade after you leave the classroom, so if we are to judge schools’ performance by the number of its exalumni who attend Sunday Mass, then we need to be measuring everyone from the thirtysomethings to the ninetysomethings. The seed planted during a Catholic education may take a long, long time fully to blossom.
And we also need to ask ourselves if Mass attendance is all. There is a member of my extended family – who better remain anonymous – who goes every day, but who would no sooner spare 20 pence for a beggar than give you a fright if she were a ghost. Mass attendance in isolation cannot be the only test of attachment to the faith. It should be how our Catholic schools teach our children to live their lives according to Gospel values that really counts.
What was therefore most encouraging about the CYMFed survey was how many Catholic youngsters it reported were embracing actively and with a passion Gospel values of compassion, justice and love for our neighbour. It is a picture that is repeated in reports from organisations such as Cafod and Progressio – young Catholics with a thirst for putting into action values they have learnt at home, at school and in their parish. That, surely, is a success story, and one that all parents and teachers should rejoice in.
Do please keep your letters and emails coming in – email@example.com. I would particularly love to hear from some of those 18-25 year olds about how well you felt Catholic school equipped you to live your faith in your adult life, in your workplace and in the world.