The Spiritual Lives of Our Young. Kyrie Eleison.

Featured image: students in Parkland, Florida, where the recent school shooting took place, gather for prayer.

It is striking that the demographic study Statistics for Mission reports that just under half of Church of England parishes have 5 or less persons under the age of 16 on any given Sunday. This dynamic is repeated in other UK denominations as well. The United States fares somewhat better, but sociological studies by Pew and CARA show constant slippage among Christians there, too. Being in Greece I can say the dynamic in European Orthodoxy is different, but not much better. Both from the view of institutional life and faith there is certainly a problem from the perspective of adults in the pews, synods, and cathedras.

Students from Stoneman Douglas High School watch from the gallery as the Florida House of Representatives votes not to hear the bill banning assault rifles and large capacity magazines. The session was opened with a prayer for the 17 murdered students.

I purposefully say from the “perspective of adults” after reflecting upon the words of Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Douglas Stonemam High School who survived the most recent American school massacre. In her words,

“Us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and are prepared to call B.S.”

In like manner survivor Alex Wind, stated even more clearly,

“We feel abandoned by adults and their incapacity to act.”

A recent study indicated just this attitude in the world of faith as well. Youth workers in churches have little reported impact upon the faith life of young persons. The greatest indicator of faith are the words and practice of the family – and the lack thereof – in the young person’s life. Point stop.

I think Emma and Alex are onto something. Perhaps we need to be emboldened to call “B.S.” as well on our shallow religiosity we too often feed to our young – a disengaged and disengaging litany of things to know that are not portable into their daily framework of life experience. To this extent maybe the Vatican’s “listening sessions” preceding the next Synod dedicated to the lives of young persons to be held in 2018 will be fruitful. But it will only be judged to be so if the adults actually address the hopes and fears of the young as they are.

“Us adults” have been very good at deciding ahead of time what the young need to hear – and at times with little cognizance of what their lives actually consist of. Even parents can miss the ‘feel’ of their children’s daily lives.

That participants for the synod in Rome to discuss the lives of young people have been pre-selected by episcopal conferences does not bode well. We don’t need another example of a church speaking at youth with the same repeated answers and excuses. Our young are tired, and disheartened, and in the worst cases, dead, and this is an immoral, and sad, and dangerous thing. And we adults are to blame for the culture we have built and enabled, by action and omission, from Florida to Syria.

In regards to our youths’ spiritual lives the pastoral minister Hannah Barr recently put it this way: Conversations about the spiritual life with young persons must be based upon the real experiences of the adult mentor (reciprocal), they must treat the topic and young person as important (authentic), they cannot be rule-giving, but must accept the tensions in the life of the young as they are (honest).

These various studies suggest that if our children end up leaving faith a large part of the problem is ours. As the most recent American tragedy has shown us, our youth are aware, watching, and articulate – good on them – I am with them. But the Church needs to learn to be with them too, in new profound ways. And this is what I think we can do:

Youth in 2017 joining the Saint Anselm Community at Lambeth Palace for the year.

I’m convinced that one of the most poignant foundations for Western Spirituality is the Prologue to the Rule of Saint Benedict. Benedict is onto something when he writes,

“And so we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord. In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of love, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14). For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love.”

Archbishop Justin Welby blessing the 2017/2018 members of the Saint Anselm Community.

I don’t think it is coincidental that in the UK, ministry to the young is succeeding where “schools of spirituality” are being established. This includes The Community of Saint Anselm at Lambeth Palace under the patronage of Archbishop Justin, The Community of the Tree of Life, Leicester, The Iona Community off the coast of Scotland, Wellspring Community in Peckham, The Community of St Margaret the Queen in the Diocese of Southwark, Moot in the City of London and St Frideswide’s religious community opening in Oxford. In the United States and Canada other communities include The Community of Jesus, The Jeremiah Community, Saint Hilda’s House, and Rutba House.

Often termed New Monasticism, many of these communities offer to young adults a one year experience of commitment aimed at growth in the spiritual life. Taking the model of reciprocal, authentic, and honest, what is put on offer is not indoctrination-plus, or a type of CCD on steroids, but Christian questioning, spiritual guidance, and liturgical prayer. The point is not to make priests, monks or nuns, or devout married folk. The point is to give the highest of Christian experience and wisdom as gift to the young—to grow them in the spiritual life. If I were to put it in the astute language of Fr. Richard Rohr, it is enabling “second-half of life thinking” in young adults who are probably already there.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove founder of Rutba House

Hence, when they say to us “no B.S.”, after their attempted murder, this is their point – adults’ anemic little stories about life do not do justice to them or the mystery of God. Aquinas himself says that spiritual maturity is not a matter of age, but a matter of the Spirit. We must do better.

I am convinced that this “doing better” can be part of the new vocation of monasticism and religious orders – the founding of “schools for the Lord’s service”. Every religious order, every cathedral, every university should have a school of spirituality where the young are invited into a life of belonging and spiritual maturity. Parishes should establish scholarships, dioceses or districts should make this a budget priority, and religious orders should form programs, open their doors and seek out a group of young who for a single year live in dialogue, communion and prayer. The communities will be inter-denominational. Formal permissions will be given for Eucharistic sharing.

Tree of Life Community participant

At the end some might stay, some will go on to marry, and yes, many will co-habitate, and some will probably end up in life without faith. This is not the point. The point is beginning to take our young seriously and offer them the gift of our collective wisdom and a spiritual life in a more effective and intentional way.

Personally, I have seared in my memory many an unassuming but precise conversation with Trappists, Benedictines, Franciscans, Capuchins, Jesuits, Sulpicians, Ursulines, Dominicans, and Adorers of the Precious Blood, who never pretended to give answers, but set into my mind deep paradigms of Christian wisdom. These conversations with profoundly holy and intuitive women and men continue to shape me even today. What a gift this is. And I have been all the better for it.

The question is, can we draw upon these deep wells of spirituality in new ways that sustain faith for our young? In so many ways our youth our proving themselves worthy, even heroic. Let’s reciprocate with the best we can offer them.


  1. I am proud to say that my parish started and continues to sponsor one of the first intentional communities of youth in the ECUSA. It’s flourishing. And it’s wonderful. And it’s turning our solid, well-formed youth for service in the Church and the world. And while it’s not specifically geared to form them for ordination, more than several in the eight years of existence have gone on to be priests. The latest young lady who went to seminary after her year was ordained last week. Some have gone on to be lay workers in the Church and others moved on to more school or secular employment. They are true examples to us.

  2. Significant observations on youth. We have students walking out on schools to take a moment and challenge adult lawmakers on guns and a powerful self seeking lobby that controls guns and we have diocesan offices mandating that youth in high school Masses stop hugging so much at the sign of peace.

    Youth’s lives will continue without the Church, until there are communities that understand their lives and deep need for connection with others. The inability of our Church to place welcoming of all as the first and foremost job of the institution has ramifications that places of worship will only have 5 teenagers in a weekend show up.

  3. ” . . . they cannot be rule-giving,”


    Which is not quite Hannah Barr was saying, and also can subvert honesty itself (the passage from St Benedict clearly contemplates rule-giving) and if anything can come across as a form of avoidance to young people (cf., for example, “East of Eden”).

    Perhaps you meant “they cannot be just about rule-giving”?

    1. I think there is some difference here between the role of parents and the role of youth workers. More importantly, I think the point trying to be made is that the spiritual life is something more than rules. At the same time when working with the young today, rule-giving, tends to be a dead-end. I think what is trying to be valued are discussions and modeling of behaviours that elicit reflection, contemplation, and wisdom that can act as a larger grid for virtuous living. Not show-stopping, discussion-stopping laws. It seems to me that that is precisely the road we have traveled in many churches and all evidence says its not very fruitful.

      1. “More importantly, I think the point trying to be made is that the spiritual life is something more than rules.”

        Completely agree.

        “At the same time when working with the young today, rule-giving, tends to be a dead-end. I think what is trying to be valued are discussions and modeling of behaviours that elicit reflection, contemplation, and wisdom that can act as a larger grid for virtuous living. Not show-stopping, discussion-stopping laws.”

        There I think the picture is much more complicated. Plenty of young people today don’t lack a strong impulse for rule-giving and rule-enforcing, nor expectations that adults will adopt and enforce them; quite the contrary. Indeed, many complain about lack of consistent application of ethical norms. Even sexual ones.

        The reason I bother with this is that I think adults can make a serious factual error when they accept at face value the idea that young people are generally averse to rules and therefore we should just avoid that. (I am not saying you’ve essentially said that, but the way you’ve phrased this is such that it’s not as far from them that more clearly take that route as it should be.) There are rule-resistant young people because there are rule-resistant people generally. Young people, as with any people, may well object to formulaic diktats, and the *triaging* and *consistent application* of rules in non-self-serving ways.

        That said, young people – as with all people – can benefit from learning how to evaluate rules, their formulation, triaging and consistent application in non-self-serving ways – precisely because human beings have cognitive/spiritual biases (and ego drama) to manipulate rules so that their enforcement bothers us least. Young people are not specially except from such biases and ego drama – but they may have the excuse of a shorter life for a shallow self-awareness about them.

        That’s rich fodder that, done well, can bear rich fruit for the rest of a person’s life. But it’s not available if its categorically sidelined as incidental or, worse, avoided. And I think many young people will smell avoidance more as a sign of weak leadership than companionship on the road.

        A great context in which to consider rules is to start with a question: what are the most common ways we human beings tend to rationalize less than virtuous behavior/decisions? How are we inclined to trick ourselves in self-serving ways? (This is an area that adults have more time to offer concrete examples, but also to which young people can bring their nose for fakers.)

        Young people especially crave an understanding of rules when they face decisions that involve no simple good vs bad choice but all-bad choices. (Which are what we can accumulate many of as we age.) But they may be too anxious to think hard about the eventual reality, if they’ve been blessed to avoid it thus far, or too fearful to engage in a discussion where their own character limitations may be displayed for others to see.

  4. Thank you so much for this wise reflection. I am so grateful for my opportunity to live in an intentional Catholic community after I graduated from college. Our house was connected with a group of Franciscan friars, with whom we celebrated holidays, secular and religious. Our household of lay Catholics had daily prayer, daily dinners together, prayer nights, house meetings, and retreats every few months. We lived simply and knew our neighbors. Our community life and spirituality were every bit as important as our job placements with Catholic Charities. Rather than feeling formulaic, we were able to struggle with challenging issues that came up in daily life. And we had the leadership of wise Franciscans to lead us when leadership was needed. Now that I’m in my 40’s, I realized this was a unique experience.

    During college, I was grateful for opportunities to visit Catholic Worker houses, and spend immersion trips with religious communities running programs in Appalachia, El Salvador, inner city Chicago, etc. I was able to see how prayer and community sustained people through their difficult work. I was also able to see the varied styles of community life and prayer practiced by Catholics.

  5. A view from the pews: I now work with youth as a pediatrician, which means I spend a lot of time listening and in dialogue with teens. It seems that parishes can envision what a good, Catholic teen looks like, and then end up inadvertently pushing away those who don’t fit the bill. In these parts, that means learning apologetics, praying to end abortion, living chaste lives, vowing not to cohabitate in the future, and being a bit of a culture warrior. There isn’t much focus on service or personal prayer. I think many teens who crave a different type of lived faith don’t feel comfortable being honest in their faith communities. For several months running, more than 50% our parish’s homilies mentioned cohabitation, contraception, and unchaste relationships. We were hearing about how men need to be the spiritual, financial and household leaders. We were told to vote for Trump and “ignore the personality issues perpetuated by the media.” Yet, we weren’t hearing about refugees, immigration, gun violence, poverty, etc. (I realize my experiences reflect my current parish, but they’re not an anomaly in American Catholicism.) Parents are encouraged to send their teens to youth group, but no one asks the teens why they’re not there.

  6. I understand completely. In my 42 years as a priest I have observed parents with young children at Sunday Mass. The majority seem to make no attempt to initiate children in participating. Young toddlers are given all sorts of non religious stuff to distract them, older children stand mute, and as they get older, unsurprisingly, look disengaged. I have asked parents about this from time to time, usually in the context of first HC preparation, and they don’t seem to understand what I am talking about.


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