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What do Catholic youth want?
by Jon Soucy
On January 26, 1999, tens of thousands of enthusiastic young people thronged to Kiel Center in Saint Louis at 5 a.m. to watch a 14-hour long Christian rock concert -- perhaps the largest and longest concert of its kind in history. Was this evidence of the great success of "Christian rock's" appeal to Catholic youth?
Well, no. Many were not impressed with the bands or the hype. But they stayed. Through wearying hours of loud, bland music and despite fatigue they stayed. Why? Because they were waiting for something: something the entertainment world could never provide. They stayed to hear words of hope. They waited to hear what that modern bearer of hope, Pope John Paul II, would say to them. When he arrived at the Kiel Center that evening, 100,000 kids cheered the "star" they had waited for since dawn. Then a hush fell as they waited to hear what he would say to them.
The Holy Father addressed the young people:
Sadly, too many young people are living apart from the light -- in a world of illusions, a world of fleeting shadows and promises unfulfilled. If you look to Jesus, if you live the Truth that is Jesus, you will have in you the light that reveals the truths and values on which to build your own happiness, while building a world of justice, peace and solidarity. Remember what Jesus said: "I am the light of the world; those who follow me will have the light of life." (cf. Jn 8:12) ... Jesus who has conquered sin and death reminds you: "I am with you always." (Mt 28:20)
He says: "Courage! It is I; have no fear." (Mk 6:50).... Christ is calling you; the Church needs you; the Pope believes in you and he expects great things of you!"
During his speech it was difficult to find a dry eye in the arena. Even a local television commentator got choked up. I was sitting in a friend's living room watching the speech on television, and all four of us in the room had tears in our eyes. Why? Because the pope knows how to speak to us young people. He knows our deepest fears and worries, and knows the Lord has the answers to our deepest questions.
The Holy Father addressed our aimlessness and despair in searching for happiness and success in the ways of the world. He reminded us that Jesus is the light we must follow and love in order to get out of the darkness into a new life of hope and happiness. And he told us to trust in Jesus and have no fear. Young people fear so much today -- everything from the breakup of our families to the fear of being "left out" by our peers, or unsuccessful in the eyes of the world.
Finally, the pope told us that he believed in us, something that many young people do not hear from our parents or anyone else today.
The contrast between reactions to the Christian rock bands and the pope's message was striking. Christian rock did nothing spiritually for us. But the Holy Father's message reached us at the core of our being.
This dichotomy is played out in parishes and Catholic youth gatherings across the country today. Some "youth ministers" seem to think the only way to reach youth and get them back to Mass is to make the Mass more "relevant", the priest "cooler", or the music more "with it".
But this approach attracts only a small percentage of Catholic youth (mostly very young teens). Most young people are not at all attracted by the "cool" appearance of priests or by rock music at Mass. Most are certainly not devotees of Christian rock (in fact, despite what youth ministers might think, most of us think it is one of the most "uncool" things out there).
The truth is, Catholic youth are just like any other youth: they're interested in listening to popular music, hanging out with friends, and in dealing with the ordinary problems and with the larger questions of life that they are beginning to face as they mature.
As a recent college graduate, I have a pretty good handle on what people of my generation need. We are the generation whose parents have divorced at an alarming rate. We are the generation that has seen our parents' generation's wealth, and we are unimpressed. We are a generation that feels unloved and aimless in a world caught up in sex, money, and power. We have inherited the leftovers of the Sixties. We have inherited the hopelessness, the pain, and the darkness that came with the sexual revolution and the "Me Generation".
Many of us face questions that people our age have never before had to face on such a large scale: "How do I treat my dad after he left us and is living with another woman? How do I deal with the pain of my parents' divorce? Why did my mom (or sister) have an abortion? Am I worthless if I don't make a lot of money like my dad?"
These are serious questions, and we are looking for serious answers. And the only one who can answer the questions deepest in our hearts is God. And the most effective way He communicates His love and His grace is through the Sacraments of the Church, which Our Lord instituted.
Sacramental grace is key
The Eucharist, the Sacrament of Our Lord, speaks to us the answers to our questions and gives us strength to face our problems. Youth today, many of whom are victims of divorce, neglect, abuse, or a senseless lust for wealth, need to know the love of God in a concrete and visible way. Our Lord gave us His own Body and Blood at the Last Supper to sustain us in the Christian life.
What better way to know the love of God than to receive Him at Mass? That is why the most truly successful youth programs focus much of their energy on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. First, because the Mass is the heart of the Church. And second, because youth need Our Lord's love and His Presence in a special way in the modern world.
Not only is reception of the Eucharist important, but Eucharistic Adoration as well. We are seeing a real revival of Eucharistic Adoration across the nation as people try to find direction and courage to face the problems of life -- and to worship their Creator.
Adoration fills void
In a recent informal survey of students attending eight Catholic colleges in the United States, across the geographical and ideological spectrum, Adoremus found that Eucharistic Adoration is held on each campus. And it is growing in popularity as students come to their Lord for the answers the world cannot give.
A student from the University of Notre Dame commented, "More keep coming to Adoration each year". A University of Dallas student, when asked how Adoration was being received on campus, answered, "Really well.... The students and faculty love it". One student at Benedictine College remarked, "Coinciding with the increase in Adoration is the increase in the number of people going to daily (and Sunday) Mass, receiving the Sacrament of Penance, and attending daily Rosary."
One of the most interesting things the informal survey revealed is that Adoration is often initiated by students. In some cases, Campus Ministry signs on after seeing the success of Adoration. In others, Adoration is entirely student-run.
At Creighton, for example, the administration does not sponsor the Adoration; it is entirely run by the Knights of Columbus council on campus. At Notre Dame, one student, when asked whether the administration sponsors Adoration, replied, "Campus Ministry sponsors it, technically. They don't do much to promote it, though".
At Georgetown, the student Knights of Columbus group started the Adoration service, and they continue to run it as it becomes increasingly popular with students. When asked whether she thought Adoration would continue, one University of Dallas student responded, "Yes, because the students will not let Campus Ministry rest unless we have it. The students are so strongly in support that we will do whatever it takes to keep it".
We need repentance, penance
For Catholic students today, the Sacrament of Penance is as essential as it ever was. In fact, the Sacrament is needed more by our generation than previous ones, if that is possible, because of the rampant disregard for the sanctity of life and of human sexuality in our militantly secular society today.
Many Catholic youths fall easily into the traps of premarital sex, alcohol and drug abuse, and abortion. Many of us, knowing the Church's teaching on these issues, despair of God's forgiveness and end up spiraling down into a deeper and deeper pit of despair. We need to hear about the meaning of repentance and forgiveness. We need to be reminded that, in the Sacrament of Penance, we can receive God's forgiveness and the grace to fight the temptation to sin. We need to know that we are not cast away, but can be welcomed back into God's grace with loving arms. This is real hope -- real love.
Some youth ministries promote "hip" Confession services with much hoopla and a relentlessly upbeat tone. Some even promote illicit general absolution services. But I believe one of the most effective ways to get young Catholics into the confessional is the old fashioned way -- through a priest's homily. Priests must remind us that the burden of sin that we bear can be lifted from our shoulders in the Sacrament of Penance. They must remind us of our sinfulness and our need to confess our sins.
And they must also try to make Confession more convenient. We young people are not usually free on Saturday afternoons between 4 and 5 p.m. Most of us work, just like everyone else. If Confession were offered more often and at more convenient times, more young people would probably come.
One student at Benedictine College remarked, "In the couple of years that [Confession] has occurred every day before Mass, it is obvious that more people are coming to the Sacrament now than a few years ago when it was offered occasionally before Mass or by appointment".
Simple: offer it, and we will come. (At the Youth Rally in Saint Louis, confessional booths were set up in the hallways -- and priests said they heard quite a few confessions during the long day.)
The homily is an important vehicle in reaching young people today. Too many of us have grown up in parishes where homilies were, frankly, below par and uninspiring. My generation will not pay attention to a boring homily. But we are not looking for superficial, self-affirming homilies full of snappy anecdotes. We feel talked-down to by this approach. We are not looking for a long lecture about the authorship of the Gospels or the Babylonian Captivity, either.
We are looking for soul-searching, powerful homilies that tell us the whole Truth: homilies that remind us that there is help for the hurt that we bear; of the love God has for us and the healing that only He can give in the Sacrament of Penance and in the nourishment of the Eucharist.
To all the priests out there trying to sound "relevant" to youth: the best way to be "relevant" to us is to show us that God has the answers to our questions, the healing for our deepest hurts, and the love and nourishment to fill us with hope -- at the core of our beings.
We are not interested in Father's knowledge of the latest movies or the Billboard charts. We are looking for something the movies and the Billboard charts could never give us. In fact, the culture we live in is the source of most of our problems. Many of us are hurt, abused, neglected, feeling worthless, and we need to know the love of God. We need to know the friendship of Jesus. And we need to know that the way to the peace and healing we need so badly is through the Sacraments of the Church and the development of a personal relationship with Jesus in prayer. We long to be told that there is an objective reality, a right and wrong, that we can come to know and understand so we can order our lives and be happy.
Tell us about eternal life
And please tell us about eternal life. Most of us have grown up hearing homily after homily about social justice without ever hearing about our destiny if we but remain faithful: everlasting bliss seeing God as He Is. We need to be reminded about the ultimate purpose of human life: to know, love, and serve God in this life and be happy with Him in the next. What peace it would bring to us if priests but told us this at Mass!
It's all there, in the old Catechism that most youth ministers have relegated to the back of the closet, if not the trash. (It's also in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is equally neglected.)
Know God through the Sacraments, prayer and study; love Him by obeying His commands; and serve Him by serving others. That brings happiness, not money, not power, not sex, not the cult of the self. Tell us that, please. We so need to hear it.
So many of us wander through our "sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll" culture, searching for the purpose of our lives. The only "answer" the world gives us is that there is no objective Truth, and that we can do whatever we want as long as we don't hurt anyone else. This does not satisfy our search. But too often we come to Mass on Sunday, only to find youth ministers trying to make the Church more and more like the world, full of cacophonous music and fabricated "community", apparently thinking we will be impressed and come back to Church.
As one liturgist commented recently, "'Upbeat' music cannot possibly be the only style with which teens can identify!" (FDLC Newsletter, Feb. 1999-March 2000, p. 3).
We need to know the Other
The truth is, we want Church to be strikingly different from the world: we need to know the Other, and to have Mass draw us into that world of the Other, of His love and healing. We will come to Mass if we feel that there is something special there, something that we can't get anywhere else: something for our souls. Something True. Rock bands, churches that look like meeting halls, and "cool" priests do not attract the vast majority of young people. Solemnity, beauty and a sense of the sacred does.
We are moved by beautiful music that stirs the soul, lifting us to a plane higher than the world of our everyday lives. We appreciate beautiful images -- stained glass, paintings and statues, which every church should have -- for these remind us of Our Lord's sacrifice, of the Blessed Virgin's love, of the witness of the saints, and the glory of God. We long for deeper understanding of Christ's Truth -- the Truth that makes us truly free. Make our churches and Mass like a porta coeli, a Gate of Heaven, leading us to a world without anguish, without fear, without worry, and without loneliness, a world full of God's love.
We don't want "cool". We don't want shallow affirmation. We want true love, forgiveness, and peace. We don't need entertainment. We need truth, beauty and goodness.
Please -- make the Catholic Church a place where we can find them. Then, with God's help, we will find the Light of Christ -- "the light that reveals the truths and values to build [our] own happiness, while building a world of justice, peace and solidarity", as the Holy Father promised us in Saint Louis.
Jon Soucy, a native of Belleville, Illinois, is a 1999 graduate of Georgetown University, where he was a leader in the effort to restore crucifixes to classrooms at Georgetown. For the past year, he has been Editorial Assistant for the Adoremus Bulletin. Beginning in late June, he will be working for Bi-State Development in St. Louis. We are grateful for his contribution to Adoremus, and ask God's blessing for his future.
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