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.
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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.