The true pursuit of young Catholics

As a seminarian, one aspect of priestly ministry always terrified me: Anointing of the Sick. I just couldn’t wrap my head or heart around what some 28-year-old punk from Little Chute was going to tell somebody who was preparing for death.

Within a week of starting my parish assignment, I found myself in the living room of a dying man. He told me his only fear wasn’t death but that he might never see his wife again. She had preceded him in death and he considered her a living saint but himself far from it. All I wanted to tell this man was that he was going to heaven to be with his wife forever. But our faith doesn’t teach us to be so presumptuous.

God wasn’t asking me to assume this man’s salvation. Instead, he provided me with something better. The inspired line was this: “Think about how much you love your wife and keep in mind that God’s love for you and for her is infinitely greater. His desire for both of you to be with him forever is stronger than either of you could possibly imagine and he will do everything he can to make that a reality.”

The authentic teachings of our Catholic faith are far more beautiful and believable than any attempt to conform our faith to our desires. In other words, God knew what he was doing.

Contrary to popular belief, young Catholics are not waiting for the church to conform her teachings to their desires.

I’ve heard it said that young people in the church are hoping for changes in our understanding of hot button issues such as homosexual actions and transgender people. I’ve also heard it said that they want the church to reevaluate such things as married clergy and women priests. With all due respect to other people’s conversations with young Catholics, none of that has been my experience. It’s not the young Catholics who are looking for these teachings to be changed. In fact, most of the young, practicing Catholics that I know are far more willing to accept the church’s more challenging teachings than some of their older, wiser and more experienced counterparts. Our young Catholics are longing for the beauty and believability of authentic Catholic doctrine.

I believe the reason for this is simple. Many young people were raised on some fairly watered down theology that often lacked any real substance to grab hold of. We were told to be nice to people and encouraged with the “What Would Jesus Do” bracelets that became so popular in the late 90’s. Undoubtedly, this is a great motto for any Christian to live by and I have no intention of attacking the principle itself. The problem with the way the teaching was handed down to us was that it often focused only on Jesus’ acceptance of others. Another great principle, since we are all called to love others no matter who they are or what they’ve done. But, what did Jesus do? Jesus didn’t love and accept Mary Magdalene by encouraging her to continue in her former state of life. He embraced her despite her past and led her to the truth. This truth was objective and unwavering. It was challenging and life changing. It was beautiful and believable. Jesus didn’t adjust this truth when it became difficult for people to accept it (i.e. Jn 6: 65-66). Even though his earliest followers abandoned him over this particular truth of our faith, he didn’t change it based on their desires. The same holds true today and young people love it.

We were raised in an environment of constant change. Even the most stable portions of our home and family lives could change at a moment’s notice. We had nothing to confidently cling to and our catechesis was often lukewarm and noncommittal. When young people come face-to-face with the consistency and stability of the truths of our Catholic faith, they find that solid rock that they were deprived of in their formative years.

We talk a lot about how we can get more young people to be involved in our parishes or even just show up for weekly Mass. I would propose that the way to do this is to continue presenting the beautiful and believable truth that we have to offer. When Catholics speak against the sure and certain teachings of our faith in an effort to be more relevant and accepting to young people, we shoot ourselves in the foot. Young people aren’t looking for an inconsistent church that panders so as to be accepted. They are looking for something steadfast and can rise to the occasion in the face of challenging teachings. Getting young people back to church and keeping them there will not happen by continuing to offer the unstable, shaky faith that they have already abandoned. It’s not going to happen overnight, but if we double down on our authentic Catholic identity, we will inevitably see more young people in our pews.

Fr. Valentyn is parochial vicar at St. John the Baptist Parish, Howard, and priest celebrant at UWGB Catholic Campus Ministry. He was ordained in 2016.