This article is adapted from a speech delivered last week to the national convention of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association in Clearwater, Florida.
The current White House, and many others in our nation’s leadership classes, have a very different understanding of religious liberty from what our country’s founders intended. As a result, I’ve thought a great deal about St. Thomas More.
We revere the witness of Thomas More because we know his story. But the reason we know his story is the courage of his daughter Meg. It was Meg who refused to be bullied by the men who judicially murdered her father. It was Meg who secretly collected his letters and other writings. And it was Meg who made sure that his materials were published and that her father’s story would not be forgotten—all this from a woman in her 20s when her father died.
Of course, that was five hundred years ago. Times are different now, though maybe not as different as we’d like to think. Nonetheless, the importance of forming intelligent, committed young adults, as Thomas More inspired and formed his daughter, is the same today as it was then. Because most of you here today work with young people at a decisive time in shaping the direction of their lives, you have one of the most vital missions in the Church.
Your situations as campus ministers are obviously very diverse. Each campus is unique: secular or Catholic, urban or rural, commuter or non-commuter. Some of you serve at huge state schools, others at small private colleges. But all of you share one common pastoral problem: popular culture. The shape of today’s mass culture is different from anything the Church has faced in past decades. And for better or worse, it influences all of our campus outreach.
You know today’s environment as well as I do. Sunday Mass attendance has declined along with other sacramental indicators. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life have dropped. Divorce rates are high, and fewer people are actually getting married. Even marriage itself is being redefined.
Over the past five decades, we’ve moved from a culture permeated by religious faith to a culture that seems increasingly indifferent or cynical toward religion in general and Christianity in particular. Many Americans no longer claim any religious affiliation. And as Notre Dame’s distinguished social research scholar Christian Smith has shown, vast numbers of American young adults are, in effect, morally illiterate. They’re not bad people—far from it. But they lack the moral vocabulary and roots of a living religious tradition that would enable them to reason independently through complex ethical problems. They believe in God, but only in a generic, feel-good sense: God’s main job is giving them what they want when they want it.
At a minimum, this implies a massive failure of catechesis and young adult ministry, not to mention personal witness, on the part of my own generation. And I don’t think many of the men and women my age in the Church are willing to admit that yet. But the results don’t lie, and now we need to deal with the consequences.
Christian Smith names six main factors that shape today’s landscape for emerging adults: a dramatic growth in higher education (meaning later entrance into the workforce), delayed marriage, economic shifts, extended support from parents, birth control, and the trickle-down effects of academic theories like postmodernism. I’d add a seventh factor: radical advances in communication technology that alter the way young people think, relax, and relate to one another.
All of these factors complicate our task of sharing the faith. Yet too often in the Church we’ve held on to the same institutional patterns of organization, the same methods of preaching and teaching that worked in a religion-friendly past, but can’t and don’t work in a post-Christian mission culture.
We’re left with a terrain dotted by weakened Catholic forms that not only fail in their mission but also stand—without intending it—as a counter-witness to the faith. Young people in search of meaning won’t choose Jesus Christ if they constantly encounter a faith life of worn-out structures in various stages of decline.
Renewing Catholic life is crucial to convincing young people to open their hearts to the Christian faith. Young adults themselves need to help carry out this renewal. The work of bringing new life to the Church and the work of reaching out to young adults can’t be understood separately. Emerging adults are not merely one constituency among many in the Church. They’re the future of Catholic life in flesh and blood, the key to triggering a chain reaction of conversion and new zeal.
Three examples from Scripture might help us better understand our current situation and the scope of our task in the years ahead: the daughter of Jairus, the Rich Young Man, and the boy in the Gospel of John’s account of the multiplication of loaves and fishes.
The first example, the story of Jairus’s daughter, is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The daughter was young; Luke places her age at around twelve. But in the culture of her time, she was already approaching womanhood. In the first century A.D., marriage was common for girls in their early teens, followed very quickly by child-bearing and the burdens of managing a household. So she wasn’t at all distant from the realities that begin to press in upon today’s young adults.
Jairus says, “my little daughter is at the point of death” (Mark 5:23), and he could be speaking to us today. Millions of Catholic parents whisper some version of that line in their hearts every Sunday as they watch their children drift away from the Church. So many of our young adults are absent from our parishes. Many may seem happy, and many enjoy great physical health—but they’re wasting away in their souls because they’re disconnected from the only community that guarantees life: community with Jesus Christ.
The words of Jairus are the same words we offer on behalf of our young people. To Jesus we say, “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” Come, Lord, and give that abundant life that reaches through the centuries in the concreteness of the Church. Come and awaken young people by your healing touch. This is the central challenge of our time: to give life to a new generation of young adults, to offer the Church to them with new and compelling passion, not merely as an institution or a collection of moral rules, but as the living presence of Jesus Christ—a source of joy and life.
A primary goal of the Second Vatican Council was to advance the Church as the sacrament of Christ in the world. A sacrament is, as we all remember, an outward sign, instituted by Jesus, to give grace. A vibrant Church, a vigorous and mission-oriented Church, radiates the presence of Jesus to others and gives us a share of Christ’s life and love.
Vatican II optimistically assumed that the visible Church would serve as a lamp, drawing the modern world out of darkness into God’s light. But the story of the Rich Young Man, my second example from Scripture, seems to refute that optimism. The Gospel’s Young Man is a person of good intentions. He encounters the Son of God not through signs or stories or hearsay, but in person, face to face—and yet he still chooses to walk away from the light. Why? How is that possible?
The answer to that question, then and now, is exactly the same. Each of us has free will. We all have different opportunities and carry different burdens, but in the end, we freely choose the kind of person we become. Selfishness is powerful. Darkness has its own strong appeal. And the world is filled with distractions and addictions. The Rich Young Man is not evil. On the contrary, he wants the good; he yearns for perfection. That’s what makes his story so moving. But he lacks the courage to give up those final comforts that tie him to the world and keep him from real holiness—and if the Rich Young Man rejects Jesus Christ face to face, how can we flawed disciples ever hope to do better with young people submerged in a modern culture of noise and addiction?
Young adulthood is a pivotal time in every human life. Young people are idealistic. Young people want to make a difference. And therein lies our reason to hope. Regardless of distractions and obstacles, detours and traps, young people in every age do resonate with a longing for greatness, which means they can be reached.
The idealism in the hearts of so many young adults instinctively orders them toward God. No matter how black the darkness is, no matter how deep the cultural confusion, no matter how ignorant persons are of the Creator who made them, young adults at their core long to give themselves to Someone higher than themselves. Augustine was right 1,600 years ago, and he’s still right today: Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.
Campus ministers, then, have plenty of reasons to re-examine and critique their methods, but they have no reason at all to lose hope. The work you do matters eternally because each human soul you touch is immortal. For every Rich Young Man who turns away from Christ, there’s another young woman or man who longs for something more than this world can offer—something deeper, richer, and lasting. A single fruitful encounter with Jesus Christ can engage the deepest aspirations and change the entire course of a young adult’s life. And a single, transformed life can set dozens of others on fire with the same love of God.
Campus ministry needs to lead young adults not just to good religious activities that keep them busy, but also to the beautiful interior silence that enables a person to hear the will of God and entrust his or her life to Jesus Christ. That’s the great power of reflective prayer, and especially Eucharistic Adoration. When it’s done well, as a central pillar in the life of a campus ministry, Eucharistic Adoration leads people into the living presence of God’s love. One of our Newman Center chaplains in Philadelphia told me of a student who had just finished her time before the Blessed Sacrament. She said to him, “Father, I don’t know if I’m guilty of some sort of heresy, but when I’m before the Blessed Sacrament, I really imagine Jesus loving me more than me loving him.” That young woman wasn’t wrong. She was given a gift. She felt the tangible power of God’s love and was moved by it.
Of course, where the grace of God abounds, the devil is usually active as well. Christian ministries and communities that become tepid or routine can be breeding grounds for immaturity. People in general and young adults in particular can easily begin to use their faith as a comfortable clubhouse or shelter from the world.
We fool ourselves if we think that a mere gathering of young people is a sign of good ministry. Religious groups, like any other group, can be cliquish, self-indulgent, lazy, fruitless, heavy on talk, and light on real conversion. Healthy Catholic life demands excellence, self-denial, love for the Church and her teachings, a disciplined focus on the needs of others, and an ongoing hunger for knowing and doing God’s will. Our Newman Centers and campus ministries need to be, in effect, boot camps for this kind of vigorous Christianity.
One final problem has its roots not in the young adults who participate in our campus ministries but in those of us who are leaders in Church life. In the Gospel of John, Jesus wants to feed an enormous crowd that’s followed him. Philip is skeptical. He answers, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little bit” (6:7). Andrew adds, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” But as soon as he says this, he dismisses it: “What good are these for so many?” Philip and Andrew sound sensible. They probably spoke for most of the Apostles. But Jesus accepts the boy’s small offering and immediately transforms it to meet the need at hand.
Of course, Jesus had the power to work miracles. We need to rely on our wits and practical resources. But God can use us exactly as he used those loaves and fish, the same way he used Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius Loyola, and Edith Stein in unimaginable and abundant ways. God will multiply every gift we bring unselfishly to his service, no matter how meager our abilities. But we need to let God do his miracle by letting go of ourselves, our vanities, our plans, and our assumptions.
Too often in the Church we expect young adults to simply fill the empty slots of existing structures and ministries, even when some of the programs are obviously dead shells. Old methods of pastoral outreach predetermine the ways in which we employ new disciples. Then we’re surprised that nothing seems to change.
We’re frequently quick to dismiss new initiatives and ideas because “It’s not the way we do things here.” It’s “too liberal” or it’s “too conservative.” In my own experience as a bishop, I’ve been astonished at the number of campus ministers over the years who have rejected the obviously fruitful and very effective work of FOCUS—the Fellowship of Catholic University Students—for ideological reasons.
I cannot offer a magic blueprint to revivify campus ministry across the country and turn around our Church and culture in the next five years. But I know that we can’t afford to merely maintain the status quo. I know that we need visionaries, missionaries, leaders who will burn up every atom of themselves in the furnace of God’s service, so that nothing remains but the light and warmth of Jesus Christ blazing out to touch the lives of others. We Catholics—you, me, all of us—need to be and to make a fire on the earth that consumes human hearts with God’s love. We can’t teach that. It doesn’t come from books or programs. We need to embody it, witness it, live it.
Our job is to live what we preach, and to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to the young adults we serve. God loves us with the tenderness and zeal of a father. We need to reflect that same love to others. No one is immune to the power of being loved, least of all the young—and young adults deserve nothing less.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the Archbishop of Philadelphia.
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