The Surest Way of Keeping Our Teens in the Church

When I give talks on evangelization, I can feel great energy in the room as we look at the Church’s documents on evangelization. Evangelii nuntiandi, Evangelii gaudium, and a host of quotes from popes, thinkers, saints, and atheists get people fired up and ready to go out into the streets to live and speak the gospel. While it is a great feeling to see Church leaders getting fired up, that enthusiasm can often fade when I begin to share current statistics. Real, cold-hard facts that give black and white numbers to peoples’ hunches and experiences about the dramatic loss of numbers experienced in our churches.

Among these statistics, there is one that breaks my heart more than any other. Among Christians, Catholic teens are the least likely to pray daily. It breaks my heart because of the richness of our Tradition in terms of personal prayer, contemplation, and mysticism. I know many evangelicals and when they begin to dive deeply into personal prayer, they begin to read Catholic writers and spiritual masters. Merton, Rohr, Theresa of Avila, and John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Thomas a Kempis, and Julian of Norwich: these are the great writers and mystics in our treasury that my evangelical friends discover with great delight and about whom many Catholics remain ignorant.

The second vexing statistic is that the Catholic Church has the greatest rate of attrition among Christian Churches. Even worse, among those who still identify as Catholic rather than ex-Catholic, only 16% are highly involved in their Churches. Only our Episcopalian friends have a lower rate of high involvement at 13%.

The third statistic, and it sounds like a contradiction, is that Mass attendance does not equal Mass attendance. By this we mean that taking your children to Church every Sunday is no guarantee at all that they will continue to go to Mass in college and in the later young adult years. Of all factors, the one factor rating as the highest guarantor of ongoing participation in the life of the Church is daily personal prayer.

It seems that the dots are quite clear to connect: 1) the greatest guarantor of ongoing religious affiliation is daily prayer 2) Catholic teens are the least likely to pray daily 3) the Catholic Church has the highest rate of attrition among Christian Churches and ecclesial communities. May I posit a “therefore”?

Therefore, the greatest thing we can do as youth ministers and as parents is to foster a daily prayer life among our teens. I don’t know why we haven’t done a better job at than we have. When I was in the parish, I lead awesome group prayer. Candles, incense, music, lighting, an authentic proclamation of the scriptures: the weekly prayer services at our youth nights were stunning. Yet, I don’t recall asking my teens about their personal prayer life. I wanted to give them experiences. I wanted to instruct them in the Church’s teaching, but did I give them what they needed to develop a daily personal prayer life?

Those of us who follow the lectionary have all of the tools to help our teens do so. We don’t just stick a bible into teens’ hands and say, “Here, start reading.” The Church gives us a rhythm of seasons and daily readings from Scripture. We have an inherent guide through the bible. Even more than that, the Church also gives us lectio divina, a four-step method for praying with Scripture:

  1. Use your body. Read the passage.
  2. Use your mind. Think back through your day at school and what happened with your friends and family today. What does the passage mean to you based on what you’re going through in life?
  3. Use your feelings. Now that you understand the meaning this passage has for your life, what does it make you want to pray for?
  4. Use your intuition. What does God say to you in return?

We have to remember that our faith is not an ideology. Our faith is in a person, Jesus the Christ. It is he whom we encounter, fall in love with, follow, and to whom we conform ourselves. I feel like those of us in youth ministry are pining for the one, single program, movement, or innovation that will stop the bleeding of our youth and young adults from our churches. Our mission trips, lock-ins, leadership training conferences, efforts at liturgical renewal will all only make sense if our teens are rooted in a person that they encounter on a daily basis. Back when I was a parish youth minister I discovered that good youth ministry is about asking the right questions. Perhaps the best question we can ask is, “How was your prayer time last night?”


Are Sundays in Lent Actually Part of Lent?

There are 46 calendar days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Yet, we observe 40 days of Lent. Why the discrepancy? Very simple. Sundays don’t count! Each and every Sunday is a celebration of the Resurrection regardless of the season. Lent, Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time: all Sundays are a celebration of the Resurrection. The bridegroom is here and, as Jesus said, when the bridegroom is here there should be no fasting. Give a high five and eat some chocolate because even in the midst of our desert times Christ has defeated suffering, death, and the pain of waiting for redemption. He is here and he is risen. Because of that, your Lenten penance isn’t suspended on Sundays; you’re penance is being reminded that sin and affliction will bow before the central event in the history of the world: the Resurrection. The interruption in the fast is a reminder that you do not earn your salvation. Our salvation has been won by the obedience of Christ. If you resume your eating of chocolate, your use of social media, your consumption of alcohol, you’re acknowledging that you are not working your way to heaven; you’re uniting yourself to Christ Jesus who is heaven. You’re not a slacker. You’re not taking the easy way. And people who continue their fast are not anymore hardcore than those Christians who interrupt their fast. The interruption of the fast is acknowledging that Jesus has already overcome sin and death. Amen.

So why don’t I interrupt my fast?

Our bodies matter. We are not essentially spirit beings that are animating superfluous material. Yes, we are dust and to dust we will return; but “dust” we will not remain! Jesus experienced resurrection in his body because we are not body and soul. We are body-soul. If bodies don’t matter, then Jesus’s body didn’t need to resurrect. It could have remained lifeless and the resurrection could have been a spirit event that the disciples felt in their hearts. When all things are restored in Christ Jesus, your body, my body, will unite to Jesus’s resurrected body. We will experience resurrection in our bodies. These bodies. This very conglomeration of DNA and molecules that houses my memories and contains a record of my history, including my experiences of the Lord, will rise and be in communion with the glorified body of the Lord. This is the faith that is professed every time Christians proclaim the great Creed that was crafted in year 325 in the lakeside city of Nicea.

Our bodies matter.

I want to feel the resurrection in my body. Because of our spiritual atrophy and because we live in the most comfort that humans have ever known, we don’t always feel the true spiritual ache of the resurrection. Too cold? Turn on the heat. Too hot? Turn on the air conditioner. Feel like eating oranges even though they don’t grow in your area and are out of season? No worries. They have been conveniently imported from somewhere on the globe where they are in season and are available everywhere from grubby gas stations to gourmet grocery stores. Do we ever ache and pine anymore? I don’t. I need to feel a yearning for the resurrection and the release from a broken world and I need to feel it in my body.

I pretty much identify with hipster culture. Organic coffee, vinyl music, recycling conscientiousness, Converse, scarves, and local produce. I can’t help it. I am drawn to all of those clichés. But one part of the hipster culture that I can’t stand to be a part of is growing a beard. My beard is coarse and itchy and the follicles on my face get sore. Weird. When I describe this to others they look at me like I have an arm growing out of my chest. But soreness accompanies my beard. The worst is the beard dandruff. Don’t mean to gross you out. I’m just making the point. Tiny white flakes on the front of my shirt are embarrassing.

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I can’t wait to shave the blasted thing off when I get my pogonotrophy going on. This is exactly why I grow a beard during Lent. Through the 46 calendar days my face gets entombed only to be released at noon on Holy Saturday in anticipation of the Easter Vigil. My body aches and then it is free. It is small and it is a silly little thing, and I run the risk of taking myself too seriously with this. Still in all, the celebration of Easter means something very real to my body, just as the day my destiny as a Christian will be fulfilled and my body will be joined to the Risen Body of Jesus the Christ.


Ashes, 3rd World Farming, and Regrets

This past Ash Wednesday, I was thinking about how weird it is that we get our foreheads smeared with calcium carbonate to begin a season of repentance and to give us hope for Easter. I won’t quote which songs we sang at the liturgy, but they were categorically unhelpful for giving insight into why we do what we do. I admit that I started to glaze over during the homily and I started thinking about a big pile of ashes. I remembered a video I saw in a college human geography class when we were learning about the manner in which many developing or 3rd world residents cultivate crops. They use the “slash and burn” technique. They slash a few acres of jungle or vegetation and then they burn everything they cut. The nutrients that had been stored within the trees are now released through the chemical change from wood to ash and they enter into the soil. When seeds are planted in the ashes, they have access to the nutrients in the ash and they can grow thereby providing food to the village.

I have never identified with people who say, “I have no regrets.” That must feel great because I very often feel the heavy burden of deep regret. I have hurt people. I have made bad decisions. I have been selfish, shortsighted, arrogant, untrustworthy, lazy, and deceitful. I’m a sinner and I regret every single moment when I have sinned. But even when I have not sinned in the strictest sense of the word, I have much I regret due to being impulsive and blithely going about my own interest. I’d like to be released from all of these regrets and have the damage done be restored.

Now the ashes begin to be hopeful.

I love the biblical image of the Holy Spirit as fire and the way that the Letter to the Hebrews describes God as an “all-consuming fire”. My beloved youth minister when I was a teenager, Mary Catherine George, used call Holy Week “the Week of Fire”. I think she has it right and I would extend it to all of Lent: 40 days of fire. As Christians, our hope is in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Love of God, to burn away everything that is not love within. For me, the regrets I have will not go away, but the Love of God, the fire of Love can transform them and they can become the fertile ground for holiness. Nutrients and richness are in the memories of the regrets. Maybe this is the rich soil that Jesus was talking about when the sower sows the Word of God. Maybe this is how someone goes from being rocky soil to fertile soil. Sin and regrets get burned by the love of God and we become receptive to God’s work in our lives. I’m thinking the ashes aren’t just going to be the way I begin Lent, but they are going to be the constant symbol this Lent and become my prayer. “God, by the fire of your love, burn away everything that is not love. And let those ashes become a place where holiness can grow.”

The smearing on my forehead symbolized the transformation of sin, regret, and mistakes. I wanted the person to smudge those ashes deep in my pores because Romans 8:28 says that all things will work for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose. If God can work the crucifixion into resurrection, he can take this dust and sow the seeds of temperance, chastity, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

Then, the very things that burdened me will become the soil for holiness.

In Dialogue with Atheists: Five Things to Consider, Part 5

This entry, “Religious Responses to Our Existence Is in Our DNA”, is the fifth in a five-part series stemming from a debate I did with former believer and youth group leader, Brian Govatos, who runs the website The Proud Atheist. As we debated, five observations occurred to me as useful launch points for a dialogue between the Catholic view of faith and the common atheistic views of faith. The fifth is that religious response seems to be part of our DNA.

5) Religious Responses to Our Existence Is in Our DNA – I have been greatly struck recently by a speech that famed atheist, Richard Dawkins, gave at an atheists’ convention in Melbourne, Australia. He invited his audience to consider two things: a) the likelihood of our species or a species like us due to evolution by natural selection b) the improbability of our individual existence. Regarding the likelihood of our species or one similar to humanity, he said that there is a force dragging the evolutionary process back on course. Because of this force, we emerged.

Yet, despite this high level of confidence that we or a species like us would emerge, there is a tremendous amount of luck that particular individuals are here. For example, if your parents would not have copulated on at the exact moment they did, you would not be here. The same goes for your grandparents, great-grandparents, and the line continues all the back to the origin of life. The variables are simply too high to number. Considering both of these realities, we should, according to Dr. Dawkins, give thanks for our existence.

Any time I listen to Dawkins, I would love to talk to him and pick his brain about biology instead, not atheism versus faith. But in his brief comments, I see three things that could launch our conversation about science and faith. Two are scientific. I want to know more about the “force” and the “course” that he describes. But I am most fascinated by Dr. Dawkins’ desire to give thanks for existence. From my perspective, that is a religious response. We look at the wonder of our being or the wonder of creation or the joy on our child’s face and our impulse is “thank you!” It seems this experience resonates with the famed line from Psalm 139:14 “I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works!” In conversations with atheists I am hesitant to quote scripture at all. But in our sacred text, we find language that corresponds to the experience of a scientist who has mediated on his being and is left with a single thought: “thank you.”

We highly evolved, big-brained African apes called Homo sapiens have something that rises up within us that causes us to give thanks and to be in relationship with something outside of ourselves. This aching desire has been articulated in many ways by the great spiritual masters of the centuries. From Buddha’s articulation of Dukkha to St. Augustine, there has been the spiritual insight that we yearn to be in relationship to something transcendent, something beyond us. I hope this common human experience can become a basis for dialogue.

In Dialogue with Atheists: Five Things to Consider, Part 4

This entry, “The Unity of the Human Family”, is the fourth in a five-part series stemming from a debate I did with atheist and self-professed disciple of the rule of love, Brian Govatos. As we debated, five observations occurred to me as useful launch points for a dialogue between the Catholic view of faith and the common atheistic views of faith: 1) There is evidence; 2) It is reasonable to believe; 3) Believing is compatible with science; 4) the desire for unity; 5) religious responses are part of our DNA.

4) The Desire for Unity– My dealings with atheists, especially Brian, have demonstrated that believers do not have and should not claim moral superiority. It is greatly offensive to atheists to accuse them of having no moral compass. Moreover, most are people with vision and hopes for the human family. Among these friends, I have found a common vision: the unity of all humanity. Despite this desire for unity, I do not discern among atheists a way, a plan, or a method for bringing about that unity or even a uniform symbol of that unity. I would argue that Catholics possess exactly that in the Eucharist. This point may be a challenge to many Catholics and non-believers alike, but I offer it as an invitation for both to think differently in hopes of advancing the unity of all.

My personal profession of faith centers around the Eucharist and I am drawn to the long line of Catholic spiritual writers who see the Eucharist as both a symbol of human unity, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender and as a means for bringing about that unity. Consider this prayer from the Didache, a 1st century, instructional Christian document. “Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth…” Scholars believe this prayer originates in an oral tradition from the 30s AD and represents the earliest recorded theology of the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is a symbol that God is unifying all things in his son Jesus. However, it more than a symbol. The Catholic faith believes that it has the power to bring about the very unity that it symbolizes. It affirms what St. Paul wrote in his letter to the residents of Ephesus when he said that God has a plan to sum all things up in Christ. “All things” is to be understood as all cultures, all nations, and all individuals. This is what Catholics believe the Eucharist does. It is a symbol. It is also a means. Even without a belief in the supernatural power of the Eucharist, which I certainly believe, there seems to be a sociological/anthropological acknowledgement that rituals hold a unique role unifying societies and cultures. By the very nature of atheism, there are no unifying rituals. In my conversations with atheists, this is something that many recognize and many lament this fact. In a dialogue with my non-believing friends, I ask for them to consider the possibility that belief and ritual could in fact bring about the unity they desire.

In Dialogue with Atheists: Five Things to Consider, Part 3

This entry, “Belief is Compatible with Science”, is the third in a five-part series stemming from a debate I did with atheist, brainiac, and übermensch, Brian Govatos, who runs the website The Proud Atheist. As we debated, five observations occurred to me as useful launch points for a dialogue between the Catholic view of faith and the common atheistic views of faith: 1) There is evidence; 2) It is reasonable to believe; 3) Believing is compatible with science; 4) the desire for unity; 5) religious responses are part of our DNA.

3) Belief is Compatible with Science – There is a commonly repeated belief among some in the atheistic community that religious belief and science are completely incompatible. Often this perceived incompatibility is rooted in a misreading of Scripture, almost treating the Bible as a science or a history book. For example, some people (both Christians and non-Christians) read the story about the seven days of creation as a scientific teaching. This does not bear true in the Catholic understanding of Scripture or in the Catholic approach to living in the Universe. Let’s be clear, the Catholic approach to interpreting Scripture is that we don’t make Scripture become something it is not. The Bible is truly a “bibliotheke” which is the Greek word for a collection of books, a library. Libraries are filled with book from many different genres. A cookbook is not a history book, a science book, or poetry. It is a cookbook. Similarly, the bible contains many different genres and should be read as such.

The Hebrew and Christian scriptures contain allegory, poetry, hero biographies, letters, and songs. All are different and all serve differing functions. The writings are sacred, not because they have recorded human history like a series of newspaper articles but because they reveal who God is and who we are. The stories work as a way to plumb the depths of our existence and offer an invitation to be in relationship with the creator.

With this as our approach to the sacred text, we are not afraid of what science discovers and where scientific discovery will lead us. Science is not a threat to our faith; instead it leads us deeper into the mystery of our faith. Scientific inquiry and discovery is a joyful pursuit and not something we engage in with suspicion. We see the world with clearer eyes and we see God more explicitly at work as we grow in our understanding of the universe and its marvels. This can only lead to joy for the believer. Fr. Paul Gabor, SJ an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory says, “Science allows us to enter into a dialogue with the creator that is inaccessible by any other means.” And as Br. Guy Consolmagna, SJ also of the Vatican Observatory says, science is an arm of the Church. Because of the way the Universe allows us to dialogue with God, we should all be well versed in the sciences, not protected from them.

In Dialogue with Atheists: Five Things to Consider, Part 2

This entry, “It Is Reasonable to Believe,” is the second in a five-part series stemming from a debate I had with atheist and all-around good dude, Brian Govatos, who runs the website The Proud Atheist. As we debated, five observations occurred to me as useful launch points for a dialogue between the Catholic perspective of faith and the common atheistic views of faith: 1) There is evidence; 2) It is reasonable to believe; 3) Believing is compatible with science; 4) the desire for unity; 5) religious responses are part of our DNA.

When considering the improbability of humanity’s existence, it is reasonable to believe that there was a creator. This most basic of all arguments for the existence of God can seem cliché. But if it does seem cliché to us, we’ve failed to understand the magnitude of that improbability. During the first second after the Big Bang, everything was set in motion for the next 13.8 billion years. In that first second, a speck of energy no larger than an atom appeared out of nowhere. There was no time, no energy, no space. There was actually no “nothing,” because even “nothing” would have been “something.” There was nothing-nothing.

This atom-sized energy exploded and if it had been a slightly stronger explosion, this universe would have been only radiation. Instead, matter and antimatter emerged. Just enough matter was released to cancel out antimatter, its mortal enemy. Then the Higgs boson particle brought mass to the matter. Beyond the strength of the explosion, if one thing would have played out differently in any of the units of “Planck time” (the smallest measurement of time, or 10-43 of a second), then the stars and galaxies that we see, observe, and measure would not be here.

If that wasn’t enough, 9 billion years later planet Earth formed in a way that could sustain life. If that wasn’t enough, life actually emerged. If that wasn’t enough, the life that did emerge was able to replicate. If that wasn’t enough, the life that did emerge and replicate was able to change and adapt by natural selection. If that wasn’t enough, the life that emerged, replicated, changed, and adapted developed consciousness and the ability to ponder the universe and beings’ relationship to the universe.

The margin for error in all of this is so great that at any point along this beautiful and elegant evolutionary journey things could have derailed. Is the improbability of our existence proof? No. But such considerations make it reasonable to believe that there is a first cause that exists outside of time and space.

In dialogue with Atheists: Part 1

I had the great honor of writing the white paper that was part of Proclaiming the Good News: Resources for Evangelizing the Young Church. It’s the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry’s document on evangelization. In the process of writing that document I learned of the high rate at which young people who grew up in the Catholic faith are leaving the Church. I also discovered the role that “the new atheists” have played in the decision to leave the Church.

I’m beginning this first in a five-part series fresh off a debate I did with an atheist. It’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for years, and I was very thankful for the opportunity to talk with Brian Govatos, who runs the website and blog The Proud Atheist, and to record a debate with him on video. During that debate, I found that there were five points that can act as launch points for a dialogue between the Catholic perspective of faith and the common atheistic views of faith: 1) There is evidence; 2) It is reasonable to believe; 3) Believing is compatible with science; 4) the desire for unity; 5) religious responses are part of our DNA.

In this and future posts, I’ll look at each of these.

1) There Is Evidence – There is an often-repeated phrase that I hear in atheistic circles: “Show me the evidence.” This phrase holds the assumption that they would believe in God if evidence is provided. It is also assumed that there is no such evidence. Yet, to put it bluntly, there is ample evidence for the existence of God. There is, on the other hand, no proof. I believe this is what atheists actually desire. They want proof. However, proof is a very high threshold, both in science and theology, and this threshold is only met in rare cases.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing two members of the Jesuit community who are scientists and are also members of the Vatican observatory. During my interview with Br. Guy Consulmagno, SJ, he provided the example of the Allen Hills 84001 Asteroid. This asteroid has peculiar markings on it that some credible and rigorous scientists believe are indicators of organic life. This group looks at evidence and concludes that the markings are fossils. On the other side, there is a group of similarly credible and rigorous scientists who believe that these markings could not possibly be fossils. Both are looking at evidence, and that evidence doesn’t provide proof for either side. The available data is inconclusive and can be used to support two logical conclusions that are directly opposed to one another.

This case serves as an example of the norm regarding factual evidence. It’s not reasonable to assume that evidence always leads to an irrefutable conclusion. In the words of Br. Guy, science disagrees with science more often than faith disagrees with science. Applying this to the existence of a Creator, we can say that the data provides reasonable evidence for a Creator. Even though this data does not provide irrefutable proof, it is not intellectually inconsistent or delusional to believe. In fact, it is reasonable to believe.