The Yin and Yang of Catholic Young

It is fascinating to ponder the Taoist idea of Yin and Yang – the notion of an eternal cycle that grows to a fullness that must then transition to something else. I wrote about it once, in a manner of speaking, when thinking about the bliss of the Divine Office:

A beautiful depiction of the constant-renewal of the world and all Creation in it, including you and me. I prayed the psalms and considered the slow lifting of the darkness on this overcast autumn day, the first-turning leaves, from green-to-gold. Summertime had reached its absolute fullness, and–being wholly and fully summer, was incapable of being more of what it was–summer began to go . . .Of course, if we offer to be used, we had better mean it, because as we have seen time and again, when you make that offer, Christ will use you until you are completely and wholly used up, until you are nothing more than cinder. Until you can’t be summer anymore and must burst into splendid autumn.

An OSV piece by Mary DeTurris Poust put me in mind of that Yin and Yang — that eternal cycle of fullness and emptying, activity and quiessence — as regards our youth and our catechesis. Mary writes:

. . . it was with great interest that I read stories about a recent conference at Fordham University that was focusing on a “lost generation,” only the generation in question is the 20-something generation of today. The follow-up stories shared the good news that this generation isn’t really lost at all.

“Catholic young adults aren’t as attached to the church as their counterparts from the 1940s and 1950s, but they are hardly a lost generation and have not abandoned the faith, according to speakers at a two-day forum at Jesuit-run Fordham University.”

Notice who they’re looking at: Catholic young adults and their “counterparts” from the 1940s and 50s. What about their counterparts from the 1960s and 70s? Their parents? That is the original lost generation, my generation, the folks who were lost along the way as the Church changed the methods and content of catechesis.

Mary expounds on the need to reach out to that “lost” generation, and I’d certainly love to see a discussion among readers take root here in the comments section about what successes or failures some of your parish communities have seen.

But the issue strikes me, always, as being partly one of perspective, and of that Yin/Yang cycle.

I find that as a rule when comparisons are done — particularly as regards vocations, but also on participation — researchers love to start by citing figures from the Catholic “heydey” of the 50′s, when the church in just about all areas was at her Zenith; there were more priests and nuns, more flourishing communities and parishes, more schools in operation, more missions, more “everything” than at any time previous in the church’s history.

But those numbers are always an aberration, particularly as to vocations:

. . . and well up to the first World War, priests and nuns were distinct, small minorities. Convents, abbeys, friaries grew then scattered, and their growth was always greater where people were poorer, and thus less distracted by the lure of materialism – more open to the small, still voice calling their names.

And too, vocations used to bring with them a bit of social cache. If you were a priest or sister, you may never be a king or queen, but you were likely to get some education, a sense of community and your meals, however frugal. Many a sound and fervent vocation began with an empty belly and a thirst for learning, and there is nothing wrong with that. The Holy Spirit has ways of using everything to God’s own purpose.

Comparing vocations and participation within the modern church to those “heyday” numbers will always paint a dreary picture. If anyone would compare today’s numbers to oh, say, 1978-1989, I believe the picture would become much brighter.

A less-than-stellar understanding and implementation of the documents and reforms of the Second Vatican Council undoubtedly had much to do with the drop in vocations and the mushing up/dumbing down of our catechesis. Transitions always blur, for a while. But I doubt it’s any accident that the dramatic turnaround in the church’s material and spiritual fortunes coincided with the beginning of a great period of secular material prosperity. The expansion of the middle class, the wealth of man-made opportunity, the distraction and deification of the popular culture all contributed to to the emptying of our pews and our catechetical content.

One might say the 60′s through the 80′s were the first yangthrust of cultural relativism. The philosophy so succinctly expressed in the lyrics, “It’s you’re thing, do what you want to do/I can’t tell you who to sock it to,” had a profound influence on Catholic laity, just at the moment they were permitted to enter into liturgical and catechetical planning, and the age began to influence the church, rather than the church influencing the age.

Think again of the Yang that becomes so full of itself
that it can be no more and must revert to Yin – it’s the same sort of thing. The boisterous Church of the 50′s and late 40′s bore no relation to the previous 1900 years of the church as it built toward than end. The Church became so full of itself (in many ways – and perhaps that contributed to the terrible abuses of that era, for which we are paying, now) that it could be no more of what it was; the 60′s through ’80s were the beginning of the Yin – that transitional time that lies fallow a while and then grows in quiescence until it can be no more. No one pays attention to that first, transitional blip — that move from white to black or black to white — and many end up falling through the cracks, it’s sad but true; a truth that repeats in history.

There is always that “slipped” generation that gets missed and shortchanged when yang moves to yin and yin to yang. I figure God must have a particular abundance of mercy for those lost in the blur, because the transition leaves them so vulnerable and untethered. If that is true, then he will surely give us the means to reclaim his lost sheep. I believe, in fact, that in our two most recent popes — and even the advent of alternative media — he has done just that.

More on that Fordham Conference

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Rebecca Balmes

    I know this is true in our family. My husband and I are just starting our family (oldest child is 5), and our grandparents are much more an example for us in faith and good living than our parents or aunts/uncles. We pray, and I’m sure join our grandparents (on earth and in heaven) in prayer, for that lost generation. That they might find faith again, the Church again, God’s loving mercy again. They’re all hurting so badly, and missing so much, and it’s tragic that they didn’t experience the Church as a safe port in the cultural storm.

  • Guest

    I remember our pastor saying he read about a “satisfaction” survey that peaked in America in 1956 or 1957. I think this was just general satisfaction (however that was defined I do not know), and not anything to do with religion or church.

    Perhaps changes were already underway in the 1950s that lead to the prominent change that took place in the 1960s.

  • Kristen

    As a licensed acupuncturist and Catholic I have always been fascinated by the overlap between Chinese medicine concepts such as yin/yang (“yang” is properly pronounced to rhyme with “song”, not “sang”) and Catholic theology. Although many Westerners assume that yin/yang is a Eastern religious concept (and therefore not compatible with Christianity), it is nothing more than the common sense observation that the ancient Chinese people made that everything in nature exists somewhere on a spectrum between two opposite poles and any healthy system (ecosystem, community, family, or individual human body) is characterized by a dynamic balance between yin and yang.

    Thanks for posting this article!

  • Pingback: Catholic News Headlines February 4, 2011 « Catholic News

  • Victor

    I really don’t know anything about the yin and yang and how “IT” affects Catholic and/or any other gentle people sort of speak but I do know by “Experience in Faith” that “The Blessed Trinity” will eventually bring back all His Sheeps into His True Way of Thinking in God’s Own Time.

    The Way I see these few 6000 or so years of God’s Time is but a moment for The Blessed Trinity Family and since Jesus The Christ was born, all angels good and bad have only been playing a little game of life with U>S (usual sinners) and you might say that if we want to play for keeps, “IT” can be a crazy costly trip that humans will need to undergo once they grab on to that plow, sort of speak but we need not be afraid cause we’ve got an “Ace” in the hole and that is called “Serenity of God’s Peace of a sincere heart” which will allow U>S the ability in prayer to accept the things that we can not change and we can use “IT” as long and as often as we like cause “God” can’t lose and the so called evil trinity is also playing and there’s not one single human in the flesh or as some in the spiritual dimensions like to call U>S, hurtlings who they think can stands a chance against any one of them but as a team in prayer and with God and His Blessed United Army of Angels, “IT” is an Eternal Victory which has already been won by “Christ”. Go Figure!

    I better quit now cause they say that I am cheating cause I’m playing with dead cells and between you and me, I’m just teasing them by quietly thinking to myself that God could take but “ONE” of my dead cells, if He so wanted to, and place in “IT” the entire universe and believe “IT” or not, there’s times when I almost think that I can make myself believe “IT” if I tried hard enough. Go Figure! :)

    I’ll start closing by saying that the evil trinity’s best weapon is jealousy and spiritually thinking if we dare listen closely, they can make U>S think that “IT” is a race to the finish and there can only be one “winner” and spiritually thinking, they are right when “IT” comes to them but when “IT” comes to “Jesus The Christ” “IT” is all for “ONE” and “ONE” for all. In other words, in reality and with a good heart, you simply need to imagine that your old man is rich and Loves you very much and you love Him also but don’t forget that the evil trinity can also play the same game with lust and between you and me, he is filthy rich and the best they can achieve is bragging rights cause he won’t share his winnings with every “ONE” in other words he likes to keep the “Good Stuff” for himself and like Jesus said in so many words, people who keep fighting with each other will eventually be taken in, if you know what I mean?

    P.S. And don’t forget that if you believe any of this, “IT” didn’t come from me cause crazy people don’t know what they talk about! Right? :)

    God Bless Peace

  • Spqr

    It is easy to compare the outward appearance of practice of the Faith to the 50′s.. when I was schooled 12 by nothing but
    wonderful, wonderful religious, full habit nuns. And yet
    I fell away for 22 years.. just went into neutral. I blame the aggressive hostility and disdain for God that was even then just starting to become virulent in 1968. I knew my catechism and my prayers. I knew but apparently they did not sink in. I bypassed the
    anti authoritarianism of the 60′s and the hippie thing..driven to get an education and become self supporting and independent.
    What happened? I know for one thing I had no prayer life.
    I realize now that without prayer nothing sticks/matters. I was adrift hanging on simply by the fumes of good conscience and good deeds.. but for my own vanity not for the sake of God. I was a stranger to Him in every respect. so.. I often ponder, as I teacher catechism to youngsters whose parents are the CHILDREN of my generation, just how they will manage if I and my contemporaries were so easily able to fall away despite the
    fact that the Catholic faith with all its beautiful devotions and
    parish life imbued every aspect of our neighborhood and family life. I just don’t understand this.

  • Max Lindenman

    A lost generation, huh? Seems like just yeterday, critics were knocking the millennials as young fogeys, naively attracted to tradition and blindly obedient to the hierarchy. The sense I’ve gotten, based on some extensive opinion research published last year, is that they aren’t one or the other. Trying to reimagine them as the sum ofall yuor worst nightmares, or all your wildest hopes, looks like a foolproof recipe for misunderstanding them.

    I blame nostalgia. As Elizabeth hinted, Catholics have an infuriating habit of inventing golden ages against which they judge their own. (Their own always loses, badly.) She mentioned the forties and fifties; indeed, for many, the Pius XII-Bing Crosby era represents the time when Heaven and earth went together like peas and carrots. Others would cite the few years between the last session of Vatican II and the publication of Humanae Vitae. A few might plug the 13th century, or the days when the Chesterbelloc roamed the land.

    I really wish everyone would just knock it the hell off. As Elizabeth points out, sometimes the good old days owed their goodness to conditions that can’t be replicated. Imagining otherwise represents a criminal waste of creative energy; we end up sitting around, wondering why square pegs can’t be squeezed into round holes. A church that addresses the unique challenges of its own era does not necessarily risk its integrity, but one that insists on finding all its answers in the past absolutely risks its relevance.

  • Wilsonia

    Maybe this should be called the lost generations. I’m in my 40s and out of my high school class only a few of us are still Catholic.

  • Marcia

    Elizabeth, this was very good. I was lucky to have gone to a wonderful Catholic scool- I grew up in the 60′s and 70′s, but my faith is pretty strong, and I try to grow all the time. I know many who came just before me, and during my time that fell through the cracks. I pray for them all the time- I agree that God will show much mercy to those who weren’t taught well about their faith.