Bishop Fulton Sheen, the earliest and perhaps best known Catholic televangelist, once famously said, “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.” In the public debates that now daily rile the American republic, this declaration rings true more and more often. But Bishop Sheen’s exhortation to teach the substance of the Catholic faith to a largely Protestant, and often hostile, public is outdated. Today, his observation stands at the center of the true issue in the church –the failure in Catechesis of an entire generation.
It is easy to see that the Millennial generation is religiously “uneducated.” To begin with, the number of students in Catholic schools has reportedly plummeted from a peak of 5.2 million students in the 1960s to roughly 2 million. The fall in vocations has left education outside of the Catholic school system in the hands of just a few active parents. Sunday school competes with weekend soccer or baseball tournaments. Even at Catholic universities, religious studies have become sidelined, with traditional Scripture classes now termed “Biblical Literature.”
I believe this mass failure in religious education has left young Catholics woefully unprepared for the spread of moral relativism and a “whatever makes me happy” attitude. Simultaneously, political and social issues have been allowed to take the place of the real substance of the Catholic faith found in the rich liturgy and the Sacraments. How can we expect a young Catholic to fully grasp Church teaching on contraception, abortion, and poverty if they do not understand basic beliefs like the Eucharist, the reception of the body and bloody of Christ; original sin, that mankind is inherently born with sin and will do wrong at times; or salvation, that we are perfected not in our life on earth but in heaven? How can we expect a young Catholic to find inspiration in their faith in a world of religious violence and suffering if they do not know the lives of the martyrs –who died not to spread dissent but were killed for bringing peace –and the role of the church in history?
Pope Francis and the organizers of World Youth Day recognized the dire need for catechesis, which is an education in the faith “with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life.” They made it a core component of the massive Catholic youth gathering, planning 273 separate sites in 20 different languages. Fr. Leandro Lenin, organizer of the catechesis events, said that they didnt want “only pilgrims that just go to the big venues, but we want pilgrims that are aware of their mission and responsibility after World Youth Day .they’ll be sent by Pope Francis back to their countries to make new disciples and catechesis is the secret.”
That catechesis is needed is no secret, but the new forms it is taking could be described as “underground.” This “underground Catechism” is spreading like wildfire for a reason. It connects to the Millennial generation in new and innovative ways, beyond the book-based Sunday School education that worked for our parents and grandparents but has failed to reach us. One popular example is “Theology on Tap,” events where clergy go out from their parishes and host conversations at local bars or restaurants to discuss church teaching. Another is the rise in reading groups, adopting the more informal Bible study group style. These reading groups would do well to turn to more contemporary works, such as G.K. Chesterton’s famous explorations of the Catholic faith. The Archdiocese of Washington had a “Rio in DC” World Youth Day watching event, allowing young Catholics to take part in the celebrations from afar.
Then, of course, there is the use of new media. While late to the scene, the @Pontifex Twitter account has been a simple but effective way for the pope to communicate with the faithful on a daily basis. Catholic blogging has brought thoughtful reflections from homilies often heard only weekly to the faithful in a daily, accessible manner. Some have taken a more light-hearted, humorous manner, like “St. Peter’s List,” which explores the Catholic faith in Buzzfeed-style lists. Fr. Robert Barron’s global media ministry “Word on Fire” has created a huge following by bringing a Catholic message to a wide range of news and media formats.
The key to improving catechesis will be continuing this innovation, finding new ways to reach a Millennial generation that is constantly plugged in and spending less time in their parishes. The old model of “Sunday School” and CCD, the parish Catechesis program for children, is fading, and regardless of who is at fault for the failure in catechesis of an entire generation, it is time to look ahead. The growing movement is “underground” because it is less formal, more driven by the youth themselves and often outside the framework of traditional forms of catechesis. Embracing and encouraging more of these gatherings, blogs and groups will go hand in hand with a church-wide focus on promoting understanding of what Catholics truly believe.
Millennials are not leaving because the teachings of the Church are not “progressive” enough, but because they themselves do not know the true substance of their faith. Bishop Sheen did not issue his famous statement to justify the complacence of those who truly believed and understood the teachings of their faith; he meant it as an exhortation. The answer to his call is the “underground catechesis” that is spreading today. It is an education in the Catholic faith that is personal, thoughtful and most importantly, about sharing the joy of our faith.
Kevin D. Sullivan is a student in Georgetown University’s class of ‘14.
Image via Chris Sloan.