Evangelizing through example in the parish, home

One could summarize the entire body of Scripture that we heard during the Easter season in one word: Evangelize! After the death of Jesus when chaos ensued, there came a time of great clarity of mission. Go and make disciples of all the nations (Matthew); Proclaim the Gospel to the entire world (Mark); Preach repentance and forgiveness of sins (Luke); Feed my sheep! (John).  The Apostles had the singular responsibility of being the living witness to Jesus’ ministry and Resurrection. In the two millennia that have passed since the moment Jesus rose from the dead, the urgency to run from the tomb to tell the world seems to have petered out.

There is one essential requirement for evangelization; we must talk to someone about Jesus. Spreading the Christian message requires conversation, not lecture. We need to claim and confess our faith for ourselves and others. This is not easy for most Catholics because the conversation needs to be done between adults and, let’s face it, Catholics are uncomfortable with “Jesus-talk.” We took Jesus’ command to evangelize and turned it into a child-centric program. We prefer to echo the faith while standing before a group of little children, and as soon as they show any signs of becoming adults we send them away. The vast majority of our parishes have little involvement with youth over the age of 15, and even less contact with those in their 20s. Without the opportunity to talk about God and Jesus Christ within the walls of the Church the teen-agers have no alternative but to take on the views of the dominant culture. 

Each year the Diocese of Fall River gathers the high school youth that have been selected by their parishes to receive the Pope St. Pius X Award. The awards came about as we ushered in a new millennium in the year 2000 as a way to encourage youth to be committed disciples of Jesus. Each year young people emerge in our parishes with the zeal and commitment to service that generates hope for the future of our Church. In the years since we entered the second millennium we have witnessed the exodus of the millennial generation from the Church. Will these enthusiastic young disciples stay in the Church as they emerge into adulthood, or will they become part of the overwhelming statistic of that enormous demographic known as former Catholics? This depends on how much they get to talk about Jesus.

Sociologists have been studying the religious practices of youth for the past 10 years, following the same sample from their early teens through their emergence into adulthood. The majority of the youth who had been raised Catholic later dropped their Catholic identity when they became adults. They left the Church, not to become atheists, but because they discovered that religion was just one more choice in a life already overfilled with too many choices. They simply lost the ability to talk about God’s singular act of love that was Jesus Christ. While we should despair over their loss, it is more prudent to look at the young adults who stay, and ask why.

One of the most important influences on the faith of a young person emerging into adulthood is their parents. The National Study of Youth and Religion found that an emerging adult continues to identify as Catholic if his or her parents valued and modeled a rich, multifaceted, and consistent religious faith. This is especially true if there is a close relationship between the teens and their parents. Those teens who feel closer to their parents are more likely to adopt their religious faith. Families that talk regularly about religion and attend Mass have a significant impact on the religious practice of the emerging adult. The findings in this study dispel the myth that the loss of faith is inevitable and random, but it does tell us that unless we engage the parents we will lose the child. 

Most Catholic youth are growing up in homes where there is either religious pluralism or no religion at all. Keeping the faith alive in a young person requires Jesus talk, but it is not happening at home. It is difficult enough to try to evangelize these parents, but if we jettison the youth out the door when they are young teens we only aid and abet their abandonment of the faith. Jesus, the Holy Spirit, sin and redemption are not just words but are the non-negotiable foundation of our faith. They are presented to children at a very young age, but by the time they reach their early teens these concepts disappear from their conscience. Parishes that prioritize ministry to the youth and support for their parents are in a better position to foster their Spiritual maturity. The teens we nurture are the adults we will need to run from the tomb with the Good News of Jesus Christ for the next generation. 

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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