When Young Faith is Tested

In his column today, Matt Emerson, who teaches at a Jesuit prep school, expresses concern over the effectiveness of our current religious education programs. Addressing the aftermath of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, he writes of working through Psalm 46:

Those classes, and that day, were sacred moments. There had been an uncovering. In the darkened room, in the mild glow of a projector screen bearing ancient words, I had been given an x-ray of my students’ spiritual life. The images were good and bad, mysterious and clear. Above all, they revealed that though only 15 and 16 years old, my students had a complex inner world with questions and anxieties that too often languish unaddressed.
But beneath those well-intentioned actions, those same students were (and are) frequently confused by, or in denial of, foundational truths—chief among them the existence of God. To be sure, their confusion or denial generally does not arise because students are stubborn or hard-hearted; rather, it arises because their schools, their families, or their faith communities simply haven’t devoted enough time to exploring the big questions.

For me, this poses questions: Does Catholic education spend enough time on those foundational matters, particularly in the junior high and high school years? Do curriculums at all levels, including in parish catechetical programs, need to be modified to better meet students where they are at, which is often at the first line of the Creed? Put more concretely, does it make sense to spend an entire year on scripture if that year could be better spent working through the main arguments for the existence of God and handling objections to the same?

He is asking good questions and I urge you to read the whole thing, particularly if you are involved in any way with CCD or RCIA programs.

And additionally — especially if you and your kids are involved with religious ed programs but even if they’re “past” them — I cannot too emphatically recommend that you pick up a copy of Youcat; the newly released Catechism written expressly for Catholic Youth.

This is a terrific resource; it is a brilliantly put-together and engaging collection of the foundational questions about our faith, and those issues about faith, love, marriage, sexuality, freedom, sin, life and death that are relevant to our young, who seek clarity without condescension.

And the questions are surrounded in the margins by a treasury of instructive, enlightening, inspiring quotes — from scripture, saints, popes and even Protestants like Bonhoeffer and Lewis — that are themselves invitations to ponder, to discuss with others and from which to grow in wisdom, maturity and understanding. I got my copy two days ago, and have been reading it every free minute, because it is just that engaging.

Where there is more to discuss, the book gives appropriate cross-references to the full Catechism, but really, if you are involved with CCD, or RCIA, if your kids or nieces are involved, get this book.

And seriously, if you have kids who will be entering high school and are “done with religious ed” or even if they’re getting ready to go away to college — perhaps especially for these groups, who will be facing so many new challenges and pressures — make a gift of this book, to them. Give it to them now, and look at it with them over the rest of the summer, so they’ll be familiar with it when all of that “newness” begins and will know where they can turn within it.

I was particularly struck by the passion of Pope Benedict XVI’s introduction and invitation, in which he meets the youth where they are and, interestingly, acknowledges that previous generations have dropped the catechetical ball:

“So I invite you: study this catechism! That is my heartfelt desire. This catechism was not written to please you. It will not make life easy for you, because it demands of you a new life. It places before you the Gospel messages as the “pearl of great value” (Mt. 1346) for which you must give everything. So I beg you: study this catechism with passion and perseverance. Make a sacrifice of your time for it! Study in the quiet of your room; read it with a friend; form study groups and networks; share with each other on the internet. By all means, continue to talk with each other about your faith.

You need to know what you believe. You need to know your faith with that same precision with which an IT specialist knows the inner workings of a computer. You need to understand it like a good musician knows the piece he is playing. Yes, you need to be more deeply rooted in the faith than the generation of your parents so that you can engage the challenges and temptations of this time with strength and determination. You need God’s help if your faith is not going to dry up like a dewdrop in the sun, if you want to resist the blandishments of consumerism, if your love is not to drown in pornography, if you are not going to betray the weak and leave the vulnerable helpless.

If you are now going to apply yourselves zealously to the study of the catechism, I want to give you one last thing to accompany you; you all know how deeply the community of faith has been wounded recently through the attacks of the evil one, through the penetration of sin itself into the interior, yes, into the heart of the church. Do not make that an excuse to flee from the face of God! You, yourselves are the Body of Christ, the Church! Bring the undiminished fire of your love into this Church, whose countenance has so often been disfigured by man. “Never flag in zeal: be aglow with the Spirit: serve the Lord!” (Rom. 12:11) When Israel was at the lowest point in their history, God called for help, not from the great and honored ones of Israel, but from a young man by the name of Jeremiah. Jeremiah felt overwhelmed: “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth!” (Jer. 1:6). But God was not to be deterred: “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak.” (Jer. 1:7) I bless and pray each day for all of you.

Italics mine. The whole book is great, and very pastoral. I really, really wish I’d had this invaluable tool when my kids were coming up!

Another great book idea
to give to young people heading off to college: Disorientation; How to Go to College Without Losing Your Mind

Related: The Yin and Yang of Catholic Young

About Elizabeth Scalia