A child of Vatican II calls on her peers to welcome the next generation of young adult Catholics—and embrace a new gospel
IF YOU TRAVEL INTERSTATE 90 BETWEEN ALBANY AND ROCHESTER, NEW YORK, on the north side of the highway you will discover a rusty, abandoned bridge standing starkly in the middle of the Mohawk River. The small dam at the base of the bridge, which once supplied power for the area mills, is no longer connected to any generators. The bridge itself no longer reaches either shore. It ends abruptly, about 20 feet from the riverbanks, a useless anomaly marring a peaceful landscape.
Religion, at its best, is a bridge designed to connect the ordinary with the sacred. Its rituals, its prayers, its ancient wisdom and faith stories are all meant to offer easier access to the holy. When we become too absorbed in the bridge—in designing, rebuilding, decorating, deciding the rules for who can use it—we have lost sight of its primary purpose. Too often in our history as a church we have become so focused on the bridge itself that we have lost sight of the riverbanks.
For many postadolescents, religion resembles the abandoned Mohawk River bridge along I-90. It does not touch either shore. It has little connection with their reality, and it fails to satisfy their longing for the sacred. Its "disconnection" prevents religion from being a source of energy in their lives. It is not much more than an interesting anomaly that might be worth exploring on a Sunday afternoon when there is little else to do.
Many parents who approach me as I travel want to talk about the reality that their children no longer go to church. The parents' difficulty is not that their young adults aren't attending, but with their own guilt over a reluctance to try to bring them back. We recognize in our almost-adult offspring much of what we once refused to acknowledge in ourselves. The questions are often the ones we had but never voiced; the challenges frequently reflect those that obedience kept at bay in our own lives. We relate to their struggle; at times we even envy their freedom. "Will our children have faith?" is no longer the question. Everything from national polls and surveys to intimate family conversations assures us that they are people of faith. They have not rejected God; they are rejecting church.
Those of us who are Catholic, and whose childhood and teen years were intercepted by the Second Vatican Council, grew up with a strongly ritualized, controlling religion. Conversations with God involved the use of church-approved formulas, the content of the conversation dictating the choice of formula. I have a vivid memory of myself at 8 suggesting to a Protestant friend that we should say a Hail Mary to Saint Anthony to help us find a library book she had lost. "Why," she asked incredulously, "would you say a Hail Mary to Saint Anthony?" It was a prayer, the only one I knew that I thought might work under the circumstances.
We raised our own children with the new fruits of spirituality and prayer that the Second Vatican Council had given us. We encouraged them to read scripture. We taught them that they could pray in their own words, that they did not need an intermediary or a formula to be able to approach God, and they believed us. We shared with them our new social consciousness.
Many of us were children of the '50s, before the civil rights movement, before justice became a moral issue in the church. It was not that we were particularly prejudiced; most of us were simply ignorant. I remember visiting Washington, D.C. as a child and asking what "black crow" motels were. When my mother explained that they were for the "Negroes," the acceptable term of the time, my naive response was, "Why don't they want to stay with us?"
Our children would never have made such a mistake. They were born post-Martin Luther King Jr. and the great civil rights movement. We taught them what Pope Paul VI taught us: faith that does justice. Many of them were not allowed to mow lawns at country clubs that discriminated against African Americans, Jews, or any other group of people because of their race or religion. They grew up to challenge the church in ways many of us would never have dreamed of. They did it partly because we had taught them to be just and partly because we had taught them they could reach out to God on their own. And when the church refused to listen, they simply jumped into the river and swam.
While many of our young adults have left our churches, they have not turned away from God. Their individualized spirituality challenges us in those spots where we have grown too comfortable. Their spiritual journey through postadolescence has led many of us parents to a more conscious examining and a more wholehearted reclaiming of our own faith, a reclaiming that often includes the very rituals and community they question.
We are the generation who fought for possession of the bridge, for changes in the way it was structured and administered, for a more open approach to all it represented. When I was in fifth grade, I challenged the sister who taught me that unbaptized babies went to limbo. I insisted that there could not be a place of perfect happiness without God and refused to back down from my position, even when it meant detention. If you were to discuss limbo with a young adult today, he or she would not challenge or argue but would simply dismiss the idea, saying casually, "I respect your right to believe that, but I certainly don't." For those of us who fought so hard for the bridge, this gentle disregard can be most painful.
Searching for the sacred
It is not that our young adults are not spiritual. Although some of their favorite television shows betray their obsession with the total absurdity of life (such as Ally McBeal), others, like The X-Files, reflect a search for the mystical if not the religious. Even Ally is not afraid to tackle the issues of mechanically prolonging life and of suicide by choice, while The X-Files delves not only into aliens but also stigmata and speaking in tongues. Ayn Rand's book The Fountainhead, with its exploration of total self-involvement and aggrandizement, shares young adults' bestseller lists with The Celestine Prophecy, a parable proclaiming a spiritual way of life.
As part of their quest for the sacred in life, young adults are seeking spiritual directors in greater numbers than any group in history. The increase in their volun-teerism, in services ranging from soup kitchens to literacy campaigns, is yet another aspect of their attempt at lived faith. But although their faith prays and "does justice," it fails to seek a community to celebrate ritual. They have imbibed the actions of faith but rejected the religion that was meant to support and nourish those actions.
Today's young adults have lost the sense of need for a communal set of beliefs, a communal celebration of faith, a communal sign and symbol. Although it is certainly possible for them to jump into the river and swim, or even to build simple rafts on a cultic type of spirituality, it limits the numbers they can bring with them. This individualized faith journey reflects the individualized culture of the '80s and '90s that gave it birth. It leaves nothing behind, no stable bridge, no opportunity for others to connect the spiritual with their ordinary existence.
When Mother Teresa and Princess Diana died in the same week, the outpouring of love for Diana disturbed many of our generation, puzzled by the precedence given her death. Diana's goodness had been completely individual, a kind of "personal sacred." As such, it died with her. Part of the commemoration, the adulation, that followed her death was the need to acknowledge her goodness and to commemorate all that we had lost through her death. On the other hand, Mother Teresa's goodness belonged to all, a communal sacred that survives in the body of the church, in all who emulate her lifestyle, support her efforts, and remain attentive to her admonitions.
The communal sacred is in danger in this generation, and part of the blame rests with our generation. We have at times been guilty of hiding behind the "communal good," allowing someone else to live the "holy life" for us while we financially supported their endeavors, claiming for ourselves the sacrifices of the "Body of Christ" without ever surrendering any of our own comfort. The great prophetic voice of this generation challenges us to count not only on our saints, but to live out the holiness ourselves.
Revelation has a tendency to challenge us where we are most comfortable. When the canon of sacred scripture was first defined, it was not the texts the church omitted as apocryphal that was most surprising. What was truly amazing was the texts the church kept and declared as authentic revelation. We kept two totally different creation stories, two different accounts of the conquest of Canaan, four different gospels with opposing accounts of many things from the Nativity to the Last Supper, the Resurrection, and the gifts of the Spirit. We not only kept these accounts, we also said they were all true. We not only said they were true, we also said they were inspired. Our sacred scriptures make it abundantly clear that as a church we believe it is possible for differing communities to perceive the same truth differently, and yet both are still true. Both can be inspired revelation.
Perhaps that belief has something to say to us about this generation. Perhaps theirs is a different gospel, another perception of truth, and our own sacred canon will not be complete without theirs.
Most of us who grew up overshadowed by the activity of Vatican II tend to identify with the Gospel of Luke. We like the Emmaus story and plan countless classes and education conferences around it.
But if truth be told, I suspect that, as Capuchin priest and author Michael Crosby suggests, our generation is more the Gospel of Matthew. Most of us would have real difficulty with many of the people in Luke. An easy example is the widow who gives her last cent to the Temple (Luke 21:14). Our common sense says she should have used it to feed her family. We struggle with Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). We would probably not give Lazarus the scraps from our table either; we would clean him up and help him find a job. The prodigal son (Luke 15:11-31) raises all kinds of questions in our minds: What did he do after he was home for a couple of weeks and had grown accustomed to hot meals and clean sheets? What about the older brother who had been doing his younger brother's share of the work and bearing the brunt of his parents' grief?
We are more comfortable with Matthew's story of the unforgiving debtor whose master forgave him his debt, but when the servant refused to forgive another servant, rose up in rage and exacted punishment (Matt. 18:23-35).
Matthew wrote for a community emerging into middle class, a community in the process of developing a hierarchical church—our community. The one scripture quote most Catholics of my generation can finish is, "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18).
Just jump in and swim!
But this new generation's spirituality is far removed from Matthew. They have no need for the genealogies of Matthew and Luke, no need for carefully grounding Jesus in his family and in his historical and geographic setting. They begin by jumping off into the mystical. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God" (John 1:1). Theirs is the Gospel of John. Like John, they jump into the water and swim.
A careful reading of the Gospel of John suggests an image of Jesus different from the synoptics, an image often more in keeping with the struggles of today's postadolescent. We know them as an uprooted generation longing for a sense of place and searching for home. They are not likely to leave everything behind to follow the Lord, as the disciples do in all three synoptic gospels. A Messiah who says that "foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Matt. 8:20) is not issuing a call that will resonate in their hearts.
Discipleship in John holds out a different promise. It is the disciples who approach Jesus, and it is Jesus who asks, "What do you want?" They respond with the question that is at the core of so much of the searching of today's young adults, "Master, where do you live?" He says, "Come and see," and they go to his home and spend the day.
Discipleship is not the only thing that begins "at home" in John. In the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the first miracle happens in the synagogue. For Mark and Luke it is the curing of the man with the unclean spirit. Matthew does not actually tell us about the first miracle; he simply says that Jesus was teaching in the synagogues and curing the sick, implying the synagogue setting. Only in John does the first miracle happen at a home. And Jesus is not curing the sick, forgiving sin, or raising the dead in John's advent of the public ministry. He is turning water into wine for a family party. Not only that, he is doing it for his mother! (John 2:1-11)
The hunger for justice so characteristic of today's young adult also finds a particular place in John. Although the cleansing of the Temple happens in all four gospels, in the synoptics it happens at the end of the public ministry of Jesus. He teaches first and then calls to justice and holiness. Only in John does it happen at the beginning (John 2:13-25).
When I read this passage today, I tend to think of the Temple as the body, both my own and the Body of Christ. I suspect this reflects childhood learning on the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, but it also colors the way I understand this passage. If the temple is the body, then who are the money changers who are violating the Body of Christ? What are the sins committed by the church and in the church against the Body of Christ, sins that awake in Jesus such rage?
I suspect this generation, with its highly developed sense of justice, will begin rather than end its religious journey by driving out anyone or anything that would violate the temple. Their first communal religious act may well be to challenge any injustice committed against the Body of Christ, injustice based on the body, on gender, on disability, on sexual orientation, on sex itself. If we invite them in, we must be ready for them to overturn the tables before they even get through the door. If they frustrate us with their inability to wait for justice, when their impatience borders on intolerance, refusing to accept how long it takes for a massive, hierarchical church to change, then we must remember who taught them this profound sense of justice. We did, the community of Matthew.
Those of us raised on the Baltimore Catechism question-and-answer rote approach to a carefully memorized "deposit of faith" are troubled by the spirituality of a generation that lacks solid grounding and appears to exhibit little desire to learn. Our attempts to involve them in classes and in young adult ministry limp badly, and that only happens in those communities that are still trying. It is not their desire that is lacking, but rather our models for tapping that desire.
Two of my three children went to the same college in Connecticut. On the campus there is a long hill overlooking the Connecticut River. Any warm morning between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m. you will find the hill peopled with young adults on blankets, with cheap wine and cheese. Many are simply enjoying one another as young people have for centuries.
The window pane is old, and the glass, blurred with age;
But far more than I would have ever expected are engrossed in profoundly spiritual discussions, sharing thoughts we never considered until long after college. These same students welcomed us parents to cozy wine and cheese gatherings in rundown rented quarters on the back streets surrounding the campus. And when the late-night conversations inevitably turned to faith, to cosmology, to belief in the future, it was the parents who lapsed into uncomfortable silence.
In John's gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night (John 3:1-21). They sit and talk all night, no doubt with a bottle of cheap wine and a loaf of bread between them. I see my own young adults in the searching Nicodemus, and John offers us hope that if we provide the welcoming atmosphere, they will come with their late-night questions. Not in classes, not even in small groups, but in quiet intimacy with a respected mentor, evangelization of our young adults can and does happen.
The particular genius of John's brand of storytelling seems designed for this group of young adults. This is the information generation. Throughout their lives they have been bombarded with facts and statistics. The multiple stories of the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, with parable after parable, miracle after miracle, are similar to the culture that has overwhelmed them. They hunger for one story, told in depth, that contains the whole message. They hunger for one miracle that embodies the whole of healing, an individualized tale for an individualized generation. This principle lies at the heart of the structure of the fourth gospel.
Just as Nicodemus models their intellectual seeking, the woman at the well embodies their struggle with relationships (John 4:1-42). They are the children of divorce, the ones afraid to make a permanent commitment because the permanent commitments that shaped their own lives did not last. Jesus invites them to find life in him.
The young boy who appears only in John's description of the feeding of the multitude cries out to their need to believe that the little they have to offer can make a difference in the face of so much hunger. John, more than any of the synoptic gospels, gives us the friends of Jesus, the relationships to which this generation has assigned the importance that ours once gave to marriage. From the beloved disciple himself, to his last miracle performed for his friend Lazarus, John stresses relationships of equality and friendship.
For John, the Last Supper has no rite of breaking the bread and sharing the cup; the Eucharist in John is a rite of service. "If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet" (John 13:14). These are profoundly important words for a generation short on symbol and ritual and long on service.
Jesus' dying words in John are not about redemption and forgiveness; he is busy taking care of his mother. Just as his public life began with concern for his mother, it ends in concern for his mother. Even the Resurrection narratives in John take on the quality of personal commitment: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" (John 21:15) is the question Jesus asks at a quiet breakfast by the shore, in contrast to the commission in the synoptics to "go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19).
If we could begin to understand this generation as a different gospel, perhaps we would be willing to accept that their differing perception of the truth may still be true. Perhaps accepting this truth would free us to listen to the Word of God as it is proclaimed in their lives, not to bring them "back," but to help us move forward together. When we are able to listen more openly and honestly to this generation, I suspect they will be ready to share rituals with us.
In John's gospel, Jesus promises Peter that if he loves, he will eventually be led where he does not choose to go. Are we willing to take that risk?
Kathleen Chesto is a consultant on family spirituality and religious education. This article is excerpted from her latest book, Exploring the New Family: Parents and Their Young Adults in Transition, to be published September 2001. (Used with copyright permission from St. Mary's Press, Winona, Minnesota.) This article appeared in the July 2002 (Volume 66, Number 7) issue of U.S. Catholic.All active news articles