5 things Catholic teens want to know...and aren't afraid to ask
Here's the good news from the land of Catholic teenagers: They want more. They want more religious knowledge, more connection with Jesus, and more direction and opportunity to live their faith in the parish and the world. And here's the bad news: They don't always get that.
Catholic teens say they not only want to know more about their faith, they also have a few questions about things they want from their church. While more involved than the average Catholic teen, the young people interviewed for this article provide pointers for the church on how to reach them and the larger pool of their less committed peers.
Teens today live in a world that is often hostile or, worse, indifferent to organized religion. They are offered many compelling alternatives to Catholicism as an explanation for life and a guide to living. Few Catholic youth turn to the church for answers, and few are there enough to hear the answers that may come. The first step toward evangelizing teenagers, then, is to listen to them.
Here's the best of the good news: Teenagers are full of questions and eager to talk about them. Sadly parents and other adults rarely start the conversation. Indeed, researchers for the National Study of Youth and Religion, who surveyed thousands and then interviewed 267 teens around the country, concluded that for many, "it was the first time that any adult had ever asked them what they believed and how it mattered in their life."
So why was Jesus killed after all?
Many teens, like most adults, don't know much about their religion. They have one advantage over their elders: curiosity. In their thirst to better know and understand Catholicism, teens are often frustrated or bewildered by church teachings. Their inquiries range from the procedural to the profound.
"I know a lot [about Catholicism], but I couldn't explain it to another person," says Colby Schrom, 13, of St. Teresa of Ávila Parish in Albany, New York.
In this, teens are much like the rest of us. A 2005 survey by sociologist James D. Davidson found that half of Catholics feel the same way, suggesting that all generations need a better religious education. Teens at least are willing to ask.
Many are struck by how little they know compared to friends of other faiths. "Protestants know much more about the basics of their religion, and Jewish people are taught from Day One and know everything, and I'm still making my way," says Jessica Schladebeck, 16, a student at Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. "Until recently I never learned how to interpret the Bible."
Teens commonly ask about mysteries such as the virgin birth, says Elaine Escobales, who runs a youth group for Hispanic teens at Holy Family Parish in Albany. "They ask, 'Why are we supposed to believe this if modern day science tells us you have to have sex to become pregnant?' Or they ask, 'If the Holy Spirit is someone, how do we find him?'"
In an interview with six students in a quiet library at Bishop Maginn High School in Albany, many questions are variations on a simple theme: Says who?
Crystal Cuevas, 16, wonders about belief without proof, an aspect to all religions: "Our religion is based on faith. What if you don't have faith? Then what is there?" Matthew Houle, the school chaplain, says he hears such questions every day: "How do we know that's really true?"
Teens puzzle over age-old faith questions: "Why is there suffering if God is looking out for everyone?" asks Schladebeck, who is also a host of Realfaith TV, a show produced by and for teens in the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.
Even when they know a teaching, teenagers often balk. "They just cannot believe why certain things are sinful and that they're going to go to hell over it," says Alex Gaitán, a Claretian seminarian who works with Hispanic youth at Holy Cross/Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Chicago. "Such as why having [premarital] sexual relations is sinful if you love the person, why it's wrong to covet your neighbor's wife."
Some adolescents are frustrated that church teachings "lag behind." "They want to follow society, and, as we know, society doesn't follow church teachings," says Anne Grahame, an eighth-grade teacher at St. Teresa.
At the same time they want the church to live up its own ideals. Cuevas, a junior at Maginn, cites the just war theory. "The commandment is 'Thou shalt not kill,' but then they justify it." Her classmate, Stephanie Herold, 17, adds, "It should be one or the other. You can't have this gray zone."
Is there room for me?
Youth want a place and role in their parish, that part of the church they know best. They want to be wanted. Encouragingly they also want to be needed. Yet many adolescents feel left out of liturgies or parish life.
"At times it's like church is just for parents and older people," says Cuevas. They wonder why people would judge them for their attire at Mass rather than the content of their character.
"Clothes shouldn't matter because we're all there for the same reason," says Herold.
As with youth immemorial, they are alert to hypocrisy, to those elders whom they suspect may attend Mass simply to check off an obligation. "It's like you get washed in church and then on Monday you can go back to sinning," says Cuevas.
"That's why church should be more interactive," adds Cait Ward, 17.
Others, thankfully, find Sunday Mass warm and interesting. Crystal Navarro, 14, of Holy Cross/IHM in Chicago, describes her parish liturgy as "a meeting place where your friends go and afterwards you can talk about things."
Alert to inequality, teens ask about the rights of women or those they perceive as being discriminated against. "I'd want to know why gay people can't get married and why they're so isolated from the church," says Navarro.
Referring to the exclusion of remarried divorced Catholics from Communion, Schladebeck says, "It's a contradiction. We're supposed to welcome everyone."
Given a forum, teens are eager to participate. Escobales praises groups such as Centro Católico Carismático in the Bronx, which provides Hispanics with a rich and expressive experience of faith and has led events at Holy Family in Albany. "Youth attend because they want to feel connected to the Lord," she says.
Andrea Lloyd, 16, of St. Teresa in Albany, returned from the National Catholic Youth Conference in Columbus, Ohio last November full of ideas for teenage workshops, testimonials, and small groups taught by peers. "There should be a more fun way for teenagers to experience the Catholic Church," she says.
Her fellow parishioner, Erin McKeon, 17, asks for a greater emphasis on spirituality in religious education. "There is a lot on 'This is what the church teaches, and this is what you should do,' but not as much on trying to experience God through different ways to pray."
Many teens would like a designated person they can approach for answers. Of the 19,000 Catholic parishes in the country, fewer than half have a paid youth minister, according to the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry. "People have questions, and there's no one they can ask," says Schladebeck.
Why confess to a priest when God already knows everything?
Teens have many questions about rituals and sacraments: Why do priests wear robes? Why put the hosts in the tabernacle? Can we have Mass without the Eucharist? Why would we need to confess to a priest when God already knows everything about our lives?
Such questions can be answered easily. What's troubling is that many teens don't feel they can ask, nor do they know whom to ask. And if active Catholic youth lack a channel for their curiosity, the need must be even greater among their less involved peers. Still their interest suggests enormous untapped potential.
Most of the teens want to participate more, not less. Some have visited Baptist and evangelical congregations and enjoyed the lively music, emphatic prayer-and-response sessions, and the warmth they found there.
Catholic teenagers frequently wonder how and why Jesus, the pope, saints, or other figures followed their path toward God.
"There are so many stories in the Bible where people changed," says Ignacio Ruiz, 16, of Holy Cross/IHM. "Like that guy who was blind and Jesus made him see and people asked, 'How did that happen?'"
In most Catholic churches members rarely share their own stories of conversion, a standard feature in many Protestant congregations. But as anyone who attends a support group knows, most people have a dramatic tale of sin and redemption to tell.
"They should open it up so that people could talk about things," says James Holton, 17, a senior at Maginn.
It's no news that adolescents find Mass boring. "They need to spice up the Mass," says Mike Knight, 16, of Maginn. "It's stand-sit-kneel, sit-stand-sit, stand-sit-kneel, and kneel again."
But few ask for contemporary music or other touches that adults often think will help (no takers for the "guitar Mass" ŕ la 1972). Some teens poke fun at liturgical gimmicks such as the robed woman who danced up the aisle carrying a bowl of smoking incense at a youth conference Mass, a common feature at some Catholic events.
How do I act Catholic?
While teens feel unable to explain their religion to others, they are more certain they can act Catholic.
They relish opportunities to hear and tell stories of faith applied in the real world, and many ask for more such forums at Mass or in youth groups and religion classes.
Certainly Jesus knew that people prefer parables to pronouncements. He also knew that one path to faith is asking questions. He exhausted the disciples with that old favorite, "And who do you say that I am?"
So when asked what they would ask Jesus, teens gush out ideas both profound and fresh, unburdened by adult suppositions.
"I'd ask why he is such a secret," says Lloyd of St. Teresa. "Why can we see him only when we die? Why not come down here?"
One of her counterparts in Chicago wonders, "What caused Jesus to think the way he did? Why didn't he give up and live a normal life?"
One of the most natural, yet unexpected, questions came from McKeon, who serves on her parish council in Albany. "I would ask him, while he was here, what did he think was the best part of being here with us? What made him the happiest?"
Teens sense intuitively that their Catholic vocation involves seeking a closer relationship with Jesus. They embody curiosity, another critical element in living the gospel that adults often neglect or even discourage.
Only seekers find, and God's truth can be elusive. In an anonymous survey, several of the teens from Holy Cross/IHM say they would ask Jesus, "What is the meaning of life?" One of them bundled his inquiries: "How is my life going to be later? Which day am I going to die? Am I going to suffer in the future? Am I going to be happy one day? Am I going to be something in life?"
They may yearn to know the specifics of their future, but they are confident about how to get there.
"You should just use good judgment, follow the Ten Commandments," says Herold. To the nods of her classmates at Maginn, she continues. "Living Catholicism is just part of me, it's just instinct. Being Catholic steers me in the right direction. It gives me a basic plan."
Yet they want to know more about this basic plan. When asked if the church teaches enough on living faith, the students at Bishop Maginn High School all say, "Noooooo" in a loud, unified voice.
How does the pope get elected?
Church traditions and authority questions fascinate younger teens. They enjoy making logical, if sometimes unusual, extensions of church teachings. And given their taste for structure and consistency, they like having a rulebook. So while young Catholics want to know more, they want the answers to make sense.
"If we believe in our Catholic religion, then does the church believe that those who practice other religions are wrong?" asks Lexi Zerrillo, 14, of St. Teresa.
Teens are curious about how the pope is elected ("I wonder if it's like a presidential election"), how a person becomes a bishop, or what the required minimum age for a nun is.
The sex-abuse scandal is on many teen minds. They ask if priests who were "let go" at one church could be hired elsewhere, or "would they stop being a priest?" Do noncelibate priests forfeit their position? And they want to know what the pope is going to do about the whole mess of "priests doing bad things," as Ward, a senior at Bishop Maginn, puts it.
Like many American parishes, St. Teresa's faces an uncertain future, given plans for another round of parish and school consolidations in the Albany diocese.
"They're asking, 'Does that mean we're closing? Does that mean we can't practice our religion?'?" says Grahame. And they wonder why the church doesn't use what to them seem obvious solutions for these problems. "Their attitude is, 'Let's fix it—let priests marry, let women be priests.'"
To their thinking, the priest shortage and gender inequality could be solved at once. "Many people are upset that only men can lead the Mass," says Lydia Cordero Campis, 16, a junior at Maginn. "A lot of people would join the church if it were more equal." She pauses and taps the library table. "Other churches are more equal."
And what's with all those collections? As do many other teens, Cuevas wonders why church is so much like a business. The Maginn students had recently discussed how the church should balance its mission with its finances. "As church it should mean coming together and worshiping and praying to God," says Herold. "It seems like now it's more about money."
But most are more than ready to chip in if it is for a good cause, "for helping people, like a family whose house burned down," says Holton.
Given Catholic teens' desire for answers, opportunities, and the real stuff of Catholicism, the question is whether adults can and will give it to them.
"Our youth are the most hopeful sign in the church today—their spirit, their enthusiasm," says Bob McCarty, executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry. "We have to figure out how to encourage that and not crush it."
Christopher D. Ringwald is a journalist and visiting scholar at the Sage Colleges in Albany, New York. He is the author of A Day Apart: How Jews, Christians, and Muslims Find Faith, Freedom, and Joy on the Sabbath (Oxford University Press, 2007).