Whenever we hear reports from the Pew Research Center or other surveys about religious practice in America we get bad news. We’re frequently informed of the exodus of people from churches and synagogues around the country. Tons of ink will then be spilled over why people don’t come to church any more and what we need to do to bring them back. Well, I’m happy to give you some good news from St. Ann’s. We seem to be doing something right, especially for our young people. For example: we are a relatively small parish, only getting between 500 and 550 people on a weekend, yet our teen club has 20 high school students who attend meetings on a Wednesday night twice a month and are very into the faith and spiritual element of the meeting; they don’t just come to see their friends and get free pizza! Two young men who went through our teen club when they were in high school have now begun a young adult group for people in their 20s. They too are looking to create a group with a solid spirituality and Catholic identity and not merely a social club. They have had about a dozen young people showing up and have been attracting an ever-growing number. One of our men recently asked if he could begin a men’s holy hour during our monthly nocturnal adoration. He attracted 18 men for their first event and are hoping for 40 this weekend. We have 22 young people signed up for our Youth Pilgrimage to Rome this summer. I have clearly explained to them the difference between a pilgrimage and a vacation, that we will have daily Mass and prayer along with visits to the sites of Rome, and they are actually looking forward to that part of the journey and not just eating gelato! But probably the most amazing thing to note is the number of people coming to our ChristLife program. We usually try to limit the group to 70 participants because of the size of Fr. Anthony Hall, where the sessions take place. Last Thursday for their opening session, they had people lining up outside hoping to be allowed to join. The current count is 102! And of that number, the majority are younger people, many in their teens and 20s! While some are from other parishes or people with no religious affiliation looking to learn more about Jesus, the majority are our own parishioners. That means that nearly 20% of our regular Sunday parishioners are coming to ChristLife! That is truly amazing! The Spirit is on the move here in St. Ann’s, and I am very pleased to let you know that! Perhaps we can serve as a model for other parishes.
Of course, the big question to ask is, “what are we doing right?” Why are we succeeding in reaching young people? I think a big part of the answer is that we’re not dumbing down the message. If we were only offering sport programs, dances, and trips to Six Flags, we could end up saying we’re being popular and a source of entertainment for teens and young adults. But we do more than that. They come looking to be challenged by the Gospel. Jesus was not a wimp, and he never called people to follow him by giving them sweet-tasting bromides. He showed them a completely different way to view life and to value what many people reject. Naturally, to follow what Jesus says means we have to make a radical change in our outlook on life and live by a completely different set of standards. Many people are not willing to do that and leave the Church for that reason. The mistake I believe many parishes and churches have made is to avoid the challenging topics and give people soft talk, or “Catholic Lite” every Sunday. I have always used the term “marshmallow theology” to describe this approach, giving homilies that are sweet and tasty but have no nutritional value whatsoever. Everybody loves a marshmallow once in a while, but try to live on marshmallows and you soon get sick of them! So toning down the message and just doling out platitudes is not going to win many people over. Oh it will suit the people who don’t want to be challenged and want to be allowed to bask in their own delusions of how holy they are. But that will never produce disciples. Sure, I’ve had some people leave St. Ann’s and go where they get the sweet nothings they want to hear. I let them go. We need warriors for Christ, people on fire with the Holy Spirit who are willing to be bold and be Catholic and who are not afraid of the challenge of the Gospel, and there are many other people who have told me they come to St. Ann’s because they get an authentic experience of Christ. That’s what we try to do at St. Ann’s. I believe our success is faithful, prayerful worship that is worried about the quality of our prayer rather than how quickly we can get people out the door, and a weekly challenge to radical conversion in Christ, reminding people of Jesus’ tremendous love for us, that he loves us so much that he doesn’t want to leave us where we are but wants to challenge us to be the best version of ourselves that we can be. When we allow Christ to change us, we grow in character, in dignity, in peace, and in joy. Our lives find meaning, and we naturally see the meaning in the lives of others and desire to call them to share in the joy in Christ that we have found. I believe the young people who are active here at St. Ann’s see that. They get that in order to know Jesus they need to think and act differently. They see through the mistake of soft teachings and want to be challenged to be better people. Once they see the results that a life firmly lived following Christ makes they see how true it is. They hunger for more and want to share their faith with others so that they can share the joy they know. That’s why they’re here.
So if anyone complains to you about the lack of interest in the faith by young people, please tell them that it is not true of all young people, and that at St. Ann’s we have many young people willing to be disciples of Christ, and if they are the future of the Church, the Church is in good hands! Tell them to challenge our young people to think like Christ and don’t patronize them by feeding them platitudes. If people complain they get nothing out of Mass or that their parish has nothing to offer them, tell them to find a parish that provides authentic worship of Christ and where they are challenged to follow the truth of Christ and to make the radical changes necessary to be disciples of Jesus. If they do that, they will find, God, they will find meaning in their lives, and they will find peace.