How My Parish Youth Group Helped Me Leave the Catholic Faith

How My Parish Youth Group Helped Me Leave the Catholic Faith January 8, 2015

Every week at Mass, I see this really nice couple.  I think we first met in about 1990 or so, because their daughter was part of the crowd I ran with in high school.  She and I were in our Catholic parish’s youth group together, and we had mutual friends at school.  I went to their house once for a post-dance party.  I met the parents again a few years ago — we’d both long since moved from our old town, and now happened to run into each other at our current parish.  And the news was this: Their daughter was no longer a practicing Catholic.

It’s not just her.  At my 20-year high school reunion, I ran into a handful of my former youth group friends.  None of them are practicing Catholics today.

My reversion is an aberration. We console ourselves when our children leave the Church by pointing to people like me, who came back.  But we’re lying to ourselves.  Most of the kids don’t come back.

The other evening I told my teenage son, when the subject of lock-ins came up, “Listen. All these high school youth events. They’re just parents deluding themselves into thinking their kids are on the right track, when really it’s that the kids don’t have anything else to do, so they show up at this stuff. And then, shock shock! The kids grow up and move out, do their own thing, and we find out who they really are.”

I think maybe he wasn’t expecting so much candor from his church-lady mother.


With those opening thoughts, here’s my youth group post-mortem analysis, first published as part of’s Forming Intentional Disciples  book club.  You will note that I am not very gentle about this topic.  This is because I have seen the destruction.


It’s that time.  Week 2 of the Forming Intentional Disciples discussion at  And I’m answering these two:

  • Have you always been Catholic?
  • How did the instruction and mentoring you received help you – or prevent you – from having a personal relationship with God?

I have not always been Catholic.  I was baptized Catholic as a baby, and made my first communion in 2nd grade, then dropped into annual church attendance.  The summer before 10th grade, we moved to SC, and my mom got us all going to Mass every Sunday.  I spent 11th grade as an exchange student in France, went to Mass a couple times there, but I wasn’t staying with practicing-Catholic families, and it wasn’t in me to show up every Sunday on my own.  (I certainly could have — I had the run of the city.)

My senior year of high school, back home again, I got on the Catholic bandwagon with enthusiasm.  I made my first confession (Yes! 10 years after 1st communion!), and after a crash course in the basics of the faith, was confirmed in the spring of my senior year.  I was one of those shiny high school students youth group directors love to show off.  I was always there, always volunteering, a real Faithful Catholic in the making!  I won the parish Knights of Columbus “Catholic Student of the Year” award.

Also, and I’m going to be real candid here, but also respect the privacy of the guilty: Our Youth Group program was straight from the pit of hell.

If you haven’t got much imagination, when I say that, you are maybe picturing snarling chaperones, or vicious cliques, or one of those lewd characters committing unspeakable atrocities.   Nah.  That’s not much of an enemy of the faith, because anyone can see that those things are wrong, that the kids are being led astray.  How do you really get kids to leave the faith and commit mortal sins?  Our parish used the “everything’s fine” method:

  • Run an active youth group with lots of activities and good attendance.
  • Make sure your leaders are real friendly and well-meaning.
  • Teach enough of the faith that everyone is sure the kids are getting good Christian formation.

Then you have to do a few things:

1. Slip in a few zingers, in the name of compassion: Maybe there are certain cases where sex outside of marriage is not a problem.  Maybe insist that all faiths are just as good, ours is just our personal “Catholic faith tradition”.  Perhaps, in this day, do what a friend’s DRE told her son — gay marriage is AOK, because it’s about two people loving each other.

We didn’t have many of those zingers, but we had enough to make sure that somewhere in our college years, we’d find ourselves happily dissenting from the faith, and not even realize we were slowly walking away from the Church.

2. Convince everyone that teens can’t handle the Catholic faith.  Better not be too firm about modesty, the girls will run away pouting.  Better not tell parents to insist on chastity — soft pedal it with, “I’d rather you didn’t, but if you must, at least use protection.”  When you do teach the firm truths of the faith, make sure the instructor is really just reading from the text, and is unable to answer any hard questions, and unwilling to look up the answers and follow-up later.

3. Quietly fail to teach the kids how to explain and defend the faith.  Just happen to leave it out of the curriculum. This is pretty easy to do if you’ve already established that there’s no real right or wrong — the faith is really just a collection of good ideas we mostly like, right?

Now I was that award-winning Catholic.  So when I went up to college for freshman orientation, I hunted down the local Catholic student group to find out all about it, ready to be involved come the fall.  Met some friendly grad students still in town through the summer, had a nice weekend.  And that was it.  I turned out for Mass once or twice after I got to school, but there really wasn’t any Catholic presence on campus.  My new Baptist friends were all gung ho to recruit me, but it didn’t take.  I couldn’t defend the Catholic faith, but I was still a patriot, and knew I didn’t like all this Jesus talk.  We never used all this Jesus talk back home at the parish, so surely it wasn’t Catholic, right?

Instead I slipped into Intelligent University Thinker mode.  You know — too smart for all this organized-religion business, too hip for those simplistic moral codes written for dumb people in centuries past who needed to be told what to do, and plus, I had other things to do.  My weekends were busy, you know?  Oh, I was still Catholic, for a long time.  It took me four years to fully shake off my Catholic identity, and I never did quit receiving communion if I happened to be at Mass for some social reason.  (Yes.  I know.  I know.)

And that’s how I left the faith.

If you wonder why I’m crazy-obsessive about good catechesis, this is why.  I know where pathetic milquetoast  Church of the Good Intentions teaching leads.

I have every patience for the ordinary guy in the pew who just doesn’t know his faith.  I was that person.  I know how easy it is to be that person through no fault of your own.  You show up every week at Mass, and no one ever bothers to explain the faith to you, beyond a few general exhortations to love God and neighbor.  You attend Bible study, or the men’s or women’s group, or religious ed, and still learn nothing. So where are you going to learn the faith?  On Fox News?  From the New York Times?  Well, when your parish refuses you to teach you, that is where you learn it.  That is all you’ve got left.  It’s no surprise you’re barely Catholic — it’s a wonder you turn out at all.

But if you’re a priest or a DRE or a youth minister, and you’re refusing to teach the Catholic faith to your flock?  If you haven’t bothered to teach to your audience how to explain and defend the Catholic position on life issues, or chastity, or _insert hard teaching here__?  Can’t seem to get around to making sure your lay leaders know and understand and practice the faith? I’m mad at you.  Table-turning, kick-you-out-of-the-temple-courtyard mad.

Because you are ruining people’s lives in your dereliction of duty.

I pray God will have mercy on those souls you’ve failed to teach.  I pray He will have mercy on your soul — for I suspect that we spend some portion of our purgatory enduring the suffering earned by those in our care whom we lead astray.

Hard words.  I know.  Catholic leadership is a sobering and serious responsibility.  We kid ourselves if we think we can hide behind our little excuses.

But there is mercy.  Even for the pathetic puny soul of the lukewarm Catholic leader who helps walk hundreds upon hundreds of parishioners into a life of mortal sin, one gentle “pastoral” lie at a time . . . there is mercy.  Redemption is for all men, not only for the humble guy in the pew.

To whom much is given, much is expected.  But he who is forgiven much loves his Lord all the more.


Artwork: Heinrich Hofmann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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