Keeping Young People Connected
By Tim Muldoon, Ph. D.
Author, theologian, and professor Tim Muldoon
At a recent gathering hosted by Catholic Extension at the Boston College Club, Devon Kemp, a young woman studying at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, shared a photo that sticks with me. It was just a few weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing, and she was remarking how she and her friends were deeply shaken by the events, which had unfolded just down the road from our campus.
Devon is from the Diocese of Amarillo, and had come to Boston College under the auspices of Catholic Extension’s outreach to young adults preparing for ministry in their local dioceses. Her home is not too far from West, Texas, where a fertilizer plant explosion had killed many residents just two days after the marathon blast. She showed a photo of Theology and Ministry students gathered before the altar at St. Ignatius Church, holding a large sign expressing solidarity with the people of West. Holding back tears, she expressed how powerful this expression of love was, and commented on how it touched something deep in her that had led her into ministry in the first place.
I’ve spent much of my professional life in faith formation of young people, both at the parish and the university. It is clear to me that the Holy Spirit is alive among the young, touching their hearts and stretching them to service of others. Devon put her finger on something deep and true in our world today: the coexistence of fear and hope among the young, and the desire to bring forth love as the path toward a better world.
In recent decades, though, our Church has struggled to find ways to minister to young people. There are several new factors to consider. First, culture has changed. The demographic category “young adults” did not really exist as its own category a couple of generations ago; there were “young married” people, or “adolescents” still living at home, or “young professionals” living in a city other than where they grew up. But in the intervening years, several things have changed: a rise in the college population; mobility due to economic security; the rise in the age of first marriage; the divorce rate; and many others.
Following the Boston Marathon bombing, students from the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College sent prayers and love to the people of West, Texas, who suffered lost lives in a fertilizer plant explosion.
All these things have carved out a demographic group that traditional parish structures have a hard time reaching. So a second factor is that parishes are less and less the places where people between the ages of 18 and 35 grow in their faith. More often, campus ministries, virtual communities formed through social networks, and various friendship groups impact the ways young people practice — or stop practicing — their faith.
A third factor is the host of ways that attitudes toward religion have changed today. Pew Forum studies (www.pewforum.org) in recent years have shown a great deal of religious migration among young people, including significant drop-off in any religious practice. One sound bite that has received a good deal of attention is the fact that “former Catholics” would be the second largest religious group in the United States behind current Catholics, if they constituted a homogeneous group.
All these changes have unfolded in an era that has seen declining diocesan budgets and limited resources for those who minister to young people, so in many places there is no strategy to do it well.
Catholic Extension is, in my view, the single most hopeful resource for strategizing about ministry to young adults in the Church today. Efforts such as the Semester of Faith, support for seminarians and lay ministers like Devon, grants to support various campus ministries, and the social media efforts (see more about these efforts in the current magazine) are offering a real way forward for our Church. To use a metaphor, they are planting trees in an age that has seen much deforestation.
In the summer of 2013, I was part of a summit on vocations to the priesthood, sponsored by the U.S. Jesuit Conference and Boston College. At that summit, researchers from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate identified the factors that encourage vocations to the priesthood. Among them, they found that if three different people encourage a young man to think seriously about a vocation, he is much more likely to discern this call seriously. The study was one indication of the way that faith can be ignited by people who are ready to be mentors to the young, and one clue as to why Catholic Extension efforts are so welcome. Catholic Extension wants to help young people themselves to take on roles of “encouragers” — and it is clear to me, in seeing examples like the young woman from Texas — that their efforts are bearing great fruit.