Last Fall one of the ancient world’s larger entertainment venues, the Circus Maximus, hosted a prayer vigil with young Italians. There, in a stadium known for chariot racing, Pope Francis urged the raucous yet reverent crowd to keep running the Christian race, “attracted by the face of Christ, whom we love so much, whom we adore in the Holy Eucharist and acknowledge in the flesh of our suffering brothers and sisters.” “The Church,” he said,” needs your momentum, your intuitions, your faith.”
That need underlies his newest apostolic exhortation. Entitled Christus Vivit, the papal document responds, by way of summary and summons, to last year’s Synod of Bishops. It aims to remind young people, and all of us, “of certain convictions born of our faith, and at the same time to encourage [them] to grow in holiness and in commitment to [their] personal vocation” (no. 3).
Necessary on account of their age, that encouragement also serves a strategic purpose. If the future of the Church depends on engaging the next generation, we must attend now to strengthening their affiliation and participation.
It’s All About Relationship
An analysis of The Disciple-Maker Index, a parish-based survey completed by more than 128,000 people in twenty-four (arch)dioceses, suggests that those in the next generation (ages 18-35) experience parish life in ways similar to the overall population. Actually, more younger parishioners (57 percent) than older ones (52 percent) believe that the Church is critical to their relationship with God, though both these rates run rather low.
If, as we believe, the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1324-1327), then the critical Church relationship with the next generation will develop, primarily, through their active participation in a parish’s liturgical life.
Interestingly, 92 percent of the younger DMI respondents do attend Mass on at least a monthly basis. (If only they would get their peers to come along!) But just 21 percent report that they have invited someone to join them for Mass in the past year.
To be more inviting, parishes need to offer a worthwhile Sunday experience. In his Letter to Artists (no. 16), Pope St. John Paul II wisely claimed, using words of Dostoyevsky:
“Beauty will save the world.”
In that case, parish liturgical experiences should exhibit a divine aesthetic that distinguishes Sunday from other days. That beauty ought to be manifest in the church environs (art and architecture), in a “welcoming” people, and especially in the ritual celebration.
But the young don’t currently see it that way. Only 39 percent strongly agree that the Sunday Mass is a vibrant and engaging experience and that the homilies they hear connect their faith with their everyday lives. Just 21 percent of them participate in Eucharistic Adoration on even a monthly basis. Without experiencing the beauty of meaningful worship, young people may choose to spend their time elsewhere than in Church.
Called to Be Witnesses
Those who do show up on Sundays will be more engaged the more they understand. The ancient dictum – “lex orandi, lex credendi”—reminds us that praying shapes believing, and vice-versa. Parishes, then, have a responsibility to teach the Faith to future worshippers.
Currently, only 69 percent of young people strongly agree that the Eucharist really is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Without understanding the truth underlying and expressed in our worship, young people will be hard pressed to appreciate why we do what we do on Sundays, a frustration that may lead them to drift away.
Finally, through active participation in the liturgy and thoughtful understanding of the Faith, young people become poised for more. As the Holy Father puts it:
“Filled with the love of Christ, young people are called to be witnesses of the Gospel wherever they find themselves, by the way they live.”CV 175
To foster this, parishes need to work intentionally at assisting young people to grow in holiness.
However, only 42 percent of young people strongly agree that their parish helps them develop spiritually as Catholics, and even fewer (28 percent) strongly agree that the parish helps to form them as disciples of Jesus. Absent valuable opportunities to realize goodness in their own and others’ lives, our youth may question whether the effort to do so is really worth it.
Pope Francis has exhorted young people to run the race of their lives through their Christian vocation. Parishes are now challenged to invest in them, with experiences of praying, believing, and living that will manifest the grace-filled connection of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. When that happens, parishes can come back to life and thrive for generations to come.
The Ascension Blog thanks the Catholic Leadership Institute for contributing this article.
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About Fr. Tom Dailey, OSFS
Fr. Tom Dailey, a priest in the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales (OSFS), serves as a research fellow and spiritual advisor at the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne, Pennsylvania. He holds the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He writes a monthly column and does occasional podcasts for CatholicPhilly.com. Check out his feature on CatholicSpeakers.com
This last two paragraphs of this article were added on April 24, 2019.