On August 4, Executive Director Kim Smolik addressed the 2012 Assembly of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, providing an in-depth comparison between the two generations known as “Generation X” and the “Millennials” toward a future in which young peoples’ faces and voices will be a part of the Church.
Daring to Dream Anew: Communion, Compassion, and Courage for the Church to Come
Today I was asked to share with you my perspective on young adults and the Church, and about how we can walk with faith and hope towards a future in which today’s young people will be faces and voices of the Church together with us. I look toward this future with excitement, not only because I am inspired by many of the things I see when I look at today’s young adults – and this includes committed Catholics, Catholics on the margins, former Catholics – but also because I’ve learned that much of what they are seeking, and in many cases deeply longing for, is exactly what you as religious are able to offer. I’m also convinced that today as much as ever, the dynamic of the Church’s life is a gaze towards the rising sun, Jesus Christ, who makes all things new.
It is always good to start with good news.
There is a lot of research being done, by organizations like the Pew Forum and the Public Religion Research Institute, on the behaviors, beliefs, and desires of today’s young adults – referred to as the Millennial generation. I’ve drawn on some of this research, and I also sent my own short survey out to young adult Catholics across the country, because I wanted to let them speak to you themselves. I reached people across the spectrum – from those who would be considered traditionalists, whose spiritual practices include saying the Rosary, attending mass regularly, and adoration prayer – to others who rarely, if ever, attend Mass and prefer social justice outreach and service activities. I asked them two questions. First: “What are your hopes for the Catholic Church in the next five years?” And second, “What keeps you in the Church? Or if you have left, why did you leave?”
I received some wonderful and thought-provoking responses, which I look forward to sharing with you today. What struck me the most – and I think this is often the case in research – was something I wasn’t looking for. More than half of the answers included personal notes people sent me, which said things like, “Thank you so much for asking for our input! Thank you for representing our voices at this conference among church leaders. It means so much that you care what young adults think about the Church. We are the Church, too.”
There is no question that many young adults want to be invited to the table. This is a generation that has been told from childhood that their voice matters, so to be asked their opinion and included is key to them feeling accepted. What deliberate spaces are we creating in order for this dialogue to happen? This is one of the main questions I want to explore with you.
Due to a complex interplay of social factors, the ways you are able to touch and involve young adults may not translate into the same abundance of religious vocations that the Church saw decades ago. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. However, with aspects of your charisms such as your life in community, your simplicity, your focus on prayer, your active care for the least among us, and your knowledge of spiritual direction or intentional “walking with 2 another” — and how it can help people grow to the full stature of Christ – you are well positioned to satisfy some of the deep longings young adults have. Your charisms may call their attention to aspects of the Christian life that they don’t find emphasized at other locations in the Church, in the news, or on social media sites, where they spend an incredible amount of time. Before I wrote this talk, I titled it Daring to Dream Anew: Communion, Compassion, and Courage for the Church to Come. And in this moment I believe the themes may be even more relevant than I expected then. However, if I had a chance to choose a new title, I would call this talk: “Be MORE of who you ARE.”
Just a few days ago, I had a phone conversation with Paul Jarzenbowski, executive director ofNational Catholic Young Adult Ministry Association. I asked him, “If you could say just one thing about young adults to the CMSM, what would it be?” He said, “I’d let them know that who they are is what young adults need.” I was gratified to hear that, because he echoed my own thoughts almost exactly.
Your charisms and your way of life emerged out a courageous response to the world. And over the years, you have adapted how you have lived out those charisms, with the call to “read the signs of the times” as your guidepost. Now is another moment to do that, both by listening to young adults and by being MORE of who you ARE, as you ask yourselves: Are we living our charism in the most relevant way possible?
I want to suggest ways we can approach these challenges as opportunities for the communion, compassion, and courage that we know our world needs.
II. Who are the members of the Church to come?
Who are the members of the Church to come? They are part of two generations known as Generation X and the Millennials. I am a Gen Xer, from the group now leaving young adulthood, born between the years 1964 and 1980. Today, I want to offer you a road map for the Millennials of the U.S., born roughly between 1981 and 2000. If we want to reach young adults, if we want them to join our orders, our parishes, our faith life, our organizations, we need to understand the landscape of who they are, where they are, and what they care about.
Millennials: Information generation
One of the things we may notice first about them is that they are information savvy. They spend, on average, 4 ½ hours a day on the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and their cellphones – the same amount of time the previous generation spent watching TV. They have far more data at their fingertips, and how they process it, undergo a discernment process and make decisions looks different today.
Here’s an example from my experience at Franciscan Mission Service: In the 1990s, Catholics often heard about us when a returned missioner gave a mission appeal at their parish. After Mass, an interested person would go talk with the speaker, and then we would send them information in the mail. If they were interested in overseas mission, they would sign up with us. We were their one touchstone to lay mission.
Today, young adults who hear a mission appeal won’t necessarily go talk to the speaker in person, because they know they can always find the information online. When they do an online search, dozens of choices come up. They’ll look at FMS’ website and at 10 other websites of lay mission and service organizations. They have more choices, at least in concept, than any previous generation did. What does this mean for us? On the one hand, I think we need to be willing to meet young adults where they are, and that means meeting them online, at least initially, as an entry point. The first contact many young people will have with us will be through our website or blog.
Certainly you had a fine example of this kind of outreach in your keynote speaker yesterday, Fr. James Martin, SJ. Because of his commitment to communicating in the social media world, he is reaching thousands of young adults in a powerful way. Two days ago, when one of the volunteers at FMS learned that he was at this conference via his Twitter feed, she Googled the conference, looked at the brochure, and stared at me in amazement, and said: “YOUR photo and bio are on the same page as Fr. James Martin’s!” I think I finally earned her respect.
It’s worth asking: does your website convey your charism in a compelling and vital way to young adult eyes? Are you actively and in a personal and relevant way, on social media? Do you offer means of engagement online, suggestions for ways young adults can get involved that speak to them?
I have found that writing blog and Facebook posts for FMS can be a blessing, because I can offer reflections that are very of-the-moment and relevant. This gives young adults the message that we’re here to talk with them about what is happening in the Church and society right now.
On the other hand, there is a mountain of research being done on the “Facebook effect” – it includes a host of psychological problems, including depression and narcissism, which are linked to overuse of social media. A recent article by Richard Malloy in America Magazine, suggests that Millennials struggle deeply with worthiness. There may be some connection to the fact that on Facebook, they feel the need to create a ‘positive aura’, display their best selves only, and fit in. I read another article recently that some people are even hiring professional photographers to document their vacations so they can post pictures online that will impress their friends.
Believe me when I tell you, young adults walk around thinking about how to express who they are via Facebook posts, hoping to receive as many responses and engagement online as possible. A young woman I know said she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life, so she asked her friends on Facebook. She hoped for a genuine response, but all she got was comments like, “Well, you could work on a cruise ship and sail around the world.” This left her feeling even more alone in her search for direction.
What’s at the heart of it is that young people truly want to belong, but this only happens when we feel totally accepted as we are now. Let’s not underestimate the power of this kind of relatedness, which you in your communities have spent many years cultivating. Perhaps the most life-giving message we can convey to young adults is: “Come as you are.” This is what I have felt in my involvement with Franciscans and in my exploration of Ignatian spirituality, and with other religious men and women I have had the privilege to know.
Millennials are asking themselves what they should do with their lives, and their friends on Facebook are not necessarily helping them in that critical discernment. What opportunities are we creating for young adults to have these conversations with us?
Mike Hayes, the co- founder of the website BustedHalo.com, which is supported by the Paulists, and reaches out to mostly Catholic young adults, suggests that often we will need to take the initiative. He points out that today’s young people are used to having their daily lives scheduled for them by their parents. When he takes them on retreats, he finds that they are more comfortable with programmed activities than with free time. And I can attest to the same.
In this context, Hayes says, “Are we assuming that young adults will come and ask us for what they need? For instance, if they have a desire for spiritual direction, they will ask for it?” What I’ve found is that many young people don’t know what spiritual direction is, let alone where to find it. Yet young people who approach the religious life often do so through a relationship of spiritual direction or companionship. I can tell you personally, that the most powerful relationship in my spiritual life is the one with my spiritual director.
Hayes also asks, “Do we assume that when young people want to pray, they will just go into the chapel by themselves?” They may not. People who already have a deep spiritual life know that an essential component of it is being, not doing. But this is no longer a natural state for most young adults in the United States – they are multi-taskers like we have never known. However, they intrinsically know that they need true quiet, and many are receptive to group prayer practices that have a schedule, such as Eucharistic adoration. So I ask, what else are we offering that is like it. Hayes concludes, “Doing things a bit more formally helps remind young people of the need to set some time aside for God.”
III. The Church’s changing demographics
Demographic reality #1: Racial/ethnic diversity
As I think about communion for the Church to come, and how we can reach out with compassion and courage to Millennials, another issue on my mind is the Church’s changing demographics. Let’s look first at increasing racial and ethnic diversity in our Church. Just two statistics: One of two Catholics in the U.S. under the age of 25 is Latino. And Hispanics/Latinos(as) comprise more than 35 percent of all Catholics in the United States. And this does not even account for the other races and ethnicities that are part of the U.S. Church.
It is rather in vogue to value diversity in our institutions. My graduate research was on how Catholic organizations could more effectively implement inclusivity and racial justice initiatives, so I could talk about this all day (but I promise I won’t!), but I know it is essential to at least raise some questions. I think the first step in looking at inclusion and racial justice is to understand our motivations for doing so. They often, at least initially, derive from external pressures: for example, “We need to reflect the community around us.” Or, “It’s the ‘right’ thing to do” (even if we don’t understand why). Or, we may simply recognize that changing demographics are the reality we have to face.
When these sorts of external motivations are the impetus for change, we sometimes don’t really expect (or want) any aspect of the institutional culture to change. There is an unwritten assumption that “people of different backgrounds and cultures can come here – they are welcome –, but they must adapt to fit in with us.” Some of the consequences of this approach are high attrition rates among people of color; unhappy and possibly less productive employees or community members or parishioners; resentment, and above all, a loss of opportunity to learn, grow, and strengthen who we are through this increased diversity.
I can promise you this: The work of inclusiveness and racial justice in communities and institutions does not “just happen” or happen because we are in proximity to each other – I have a visual image of my chemistry teacher teaching us about osmosis by telling us that we will not learn chemistry by sleeping with our book under our pillow.
A question worth asking: Are we as Catholics able to articulate on a theological level, the value of diversity in our communities? How about on a heart level? What does this new reality mean for your orders as you seek vocations, and encounter young people originally from Latin America, Africa and Asia? What inclusiveness practices are we actively developing? Have we asked people of color in our communities to enter into this dialogue with us? And if we have a success story that has to do with integration or racial justice, have we taken the time to share it with one another?
Arturo Chavez, the president of the Mexican-American Catholic College, gave an address at theCatholic Social Ministries Gathering in Washington, D.C., last March, which I attended. I was moved by what he had to say regarding the need for a changing role of Latinos in the Church. In his talk he noted that, “So many diocesan offices for Hispanic ministry are being closed, merged with other ministries, or asked to do more with less,” yet this is the area of the church that is growing and the part we may understand the least.
He also said, that “The future of the Catholic Church in the United States is directly related to how effectively it responds to the spiritual, educational, and social justice issues of Hispanics today. We must therefore be more astute and creative.” He urges us to look at these changes with hope and enthusiasm, and to let this hope spur us forward to a future that “enlists the help of the whole Church and of new protagonistas –Hispanic professionals, intellectuals, politicians, business owners, active voters, artists, philanthropists, and especially our youth.” They are mostly Catholic but have not been part of our journey to date. Often, they are neglected by or estranged from the Church. Even so, they are seeking spiritual meaning in their lives. They have a passion for social justice, and want to invest in a better future for Hispanics and for the whole country.
There is such an opportunity in our Church to engage the Hispanic young adults – and to do it now, before they become at best disillusioned and at worst disenfranchised. As I have been saying to you, young adults want to be invited in, they want to participate and be useful. I believe all young adults in the Church, if given the chance to be mentored, can rise to the occasion to be leaders among us and for themselves. What are we doing to make this possible?
Demographic reality #2: The emergence of the ‘spirituals’
Another major demographic development in the U.S. religious landscape is the steady growth of a segment of the population whom the pollsters call “the spirituals.” According to the Pew Forum, 26 percent of Millennials currently say that they are unaffiliated with a religion, compared with 21 percent of people in Generation X at a comparable point in their life cycle. On Facebook and on dating websites, many young people today report themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” This phrase is actually an available option that can be checked when selecting one’s religious identity on these sites.
Despite the subjective character of these spirituals’ choices, many carry out disciplined spiritual practices, such as meditating daily or serving the hungry in soup kitchens. What they reject is conformity in a rules-bound institution, and rigid orthodoxies. They want to learn from men and women of a variety of faiths, like Muslims and Buddhists.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2006 book Without Roots, showed appreciation for spiritual kinships beyond formal church structures. And last year, he offered this paraphrase of the parable of the two sons: “Agnostics who are constantly exercised by the question of God, those who long for a pure heart but suffer on account of our sin…are closer to the Kingdom of God than believers whose life of faith is ‘routine’ and who regard the Church merely as an institution, without letting their hearts be touched by faith.”
One young adult who is a “spiritual, not religious” wrote to me and said, “I’d like to see the Catholic Church return to a focus on personal (vs. political) faith and care for the least among us. I’d like it to embrace Catholic Social Teaching more widely, truly honoring the inherent human value of every person, wherever they’re at in their journey. I’d like the doors of the Church to open wider, rather than shut on those who aren’t deemed worthy or righteous enough.”
Some people who come to volunteer in our office at FMS definitely fit into the category of spiritual but not religious, even disenfranchised. They come to us because they want to serve – that’s their entry point. Social ministry is the part of the faith life that makes sense to them. And we work hard to reflect back to them what their gifts are, to make them feel important and valued. We also pray with them, explore tough questions, and expose them to the Franciscan charism through our community life. I wonder if you have reflected on other ways that we, as U.S. Catholics called to a “New Evangelization,” can befriend these spirituals.
Demographic reality #3: The more conservative Catholics
Contrasting the “Spirituals” is a smaller, though often more vocal group of young Catholics who want structure and want to be told more precisely how to be holy. They prefer a life and belief system that leans toward “black and white” versus the grey. “Many of them can tell you what the Church teaches but not always why the Church teaches it.” In my work, I have journeyed closely with these young Catholics as much as with the spiritual but not religious ones. I’ve seen that the more conservative young adults do not always have the tools to dialogue with Catholics who think differently from them: often, they just get frustrated or fall silent. But on the positive side, they bring structure and a strong desire for a community prayer life.
Can we create spaces where young Catholics at various places along this spectrum can be in deep communion with one another? How can our compassionate hearts allow them to truly “come as they are,” whether they consider themselves conservative Catholics, the “spiritual but not religious” type, or somewhere in between? And how can we create spaces where they can befriend each other? Again, service seems to be a meeting point.
One of our own volunteers, who I would describe as coming from an observant Catholic background, said in an interview this week: “I feel called to serve because I grew up in a family that taught me there is no greater way to show God how much you love Him.” While another young adult, more of a “Spiritualist” type said, “I remain in this Church because of her Social Gospel and my desire to serve those in need in the context of our rich tradition”.
IV. Why are young adults struggling with the Church
Young adults who leave the Church; young women opting out
Another thing to know about millennial Catholics is that they really care about roles of women in the Church. When I sent out my informal survey, roughly 60 percent of respondents discussed this issue, including the men.
One person wrote, “Although I am realistic enough to know that women will not be ordained to the priesthood any time soon, I would love to see more opportunities for women to serve in positions of leadership in their Church communities, and for their thoughts, experiences and reflections to be given weight.”
Today, you have done exactly this by inviting me to speak at this conference. And this is why I am confident and excited about what lies ahead. Last October, the Franciscans in Washington D.C. invited me to deliver the reflection at the Transitus service at the Franciscan Monastery. I think I was the first woman to do this. Every door you open is a sign of hope and a reason to go forward.
Doors need to be opened because research has shown that young women today tend to be more disaffected with the Church than men are, even though historically, they were more engaged by 30 percent. In the mid-1990s, surveys began to indicate that, while older Catholic women in the United States were indeed more religious than Catholic men their age, the Catholic women of Generation X barely equaled their male counterparts in regular Mass attendance. And the number of women leaving the church among the Millenials is only picking up pace. Today, it’s between the ages of 13 and 24 that both women and men are most likely to leave the Church, according to the Pew Forum. But sometimes, discovering a religious congregation can be a crucial step in a young person’s return to the Church, even if he or she does not enter the congregation.
I know this from my own experience – and that’s why I have approached this talk saying – keep doing what you are doing, and do it with ever renewing passion and belief.
My early years as a Catholic, until I was 18, were happy and life-giving. I was involved in many aspects of church life, youth group, volunteerism, and spent summers working at Catholic Youth Camp in northern Minnesota. But I ended up at a Baptist college, and while there, I started attending a Methodist church, where I remained until I was 29 years old. Chalk it up to peer pressure and a required course on the Reformation that defeated the 19-year-old version of my Catholic self.
My story is a very common one. According to the Pew Forum once again, of those young adults who leave the Catholic Church, 50 percent become unaffiliated, and 50 percent join Protestant churches as I did. I stayed with the Methodists for ten years because of the community, the emphasis on social justice, and the balance of male and female leadership at the altar and throughout. Over time, though, I came to miss the Catholic tradition in which I grew up.
The things I missed are essentially the same things today’s millennial Catholics are saying they appreciate about the Church, according to my survey. So I’ll let them speak to you. When I asked, “What keeps you in the Catholic Church?”, one person answered, “I stay because I believe in the God who has moved this church through two millennia of celebration and controversy, joy and fear. I stay because of our rich tradition, the communion of saints who have walked this journey with us, and the gifts of the sacraments.” Another young adult, paraphrasing Richard Rohr, said, “What keeps me in the Church is its intellectual rigor (not fundamentalism), its social conscience, and its mystical vision. Finally, the sense that it is rightfully ours… the Church belongs to its people.”
Knowing how much young Catholics care about these things provides us with a list of ready topics and activities in which we can engage them, making it clear that our gifts are available to them. As religious, you have the theological training and the tools to satisfy their desire to know more about the Church’s rich tradition, its contemplative and sacramental life, and involvement in its social justice ministries. You also have the lived experience they seek: living in community, serving people on the margins of the society, and wrestling with church teachings and theological issues.
But, if I may return to my story, I’d like to share how I found my way back to the Catholic Church. I started by looking for a place of prayer and a community where I felt safe to come as I was and explore my doubts and questions. A friend told me about the St. Joseph Sisters of Carondolet in St. Paul, MN. They had a spirituality center with an outdoor labyrinth. I would go and walk it barefoot, soaking up the history of those who had been walking this Chartres style labyrinth for centuries. Here, with the sisters, I dug into the mystics. I joined a women’s spirituality group. And through this journey, I learned new ways to pray and be quiet before God. Centering prayer, walking prayer, silent retreats – these things, together with the sisters’ emphasis on building up young adult women as leaders of faith for our world, were doorways for me back into the Church.
And if the sisters were a doorway, then the Franciscans are the big, rough-hewn dining table where I have felt welcome to contribute to the communion and feast of our faith.
This is true even though I myself am not a religious. The Franciscan table is laden with many offerings, many ways to become involved. When you as religious offer multiple entry points for young people, ways for them to come sit at your table even for a short time, you plant the seeds of your charism in this new generation. And night or day, whether you wake or sleep, the seed will sprout and grow in ways you may not imagine.
V. What Religious are doing that is exactly what young adults need.
I’ve talked so far about who Millennials are and what matters to them. I’m going to do just a little more of that, but I’m going to shift to an emphasis of what some religious are doing now that is exactly what young adults need.
The Paulists and Jesuits come to mind. The Paulists’ charism has a strong media component. This positions them well to reach the Millennials, and, as those young adults would say, “to get real” with them.
Jesuits, in their young adult ministry known as Charis, have built upon the Ignatian practice of seeing God in everything. The “spiritual, not religious” young adults can really relate to this concept – and as a result, the Jesuits have a natural entry point to reach this generation.
I encourage you to share your successes with one another!
Story #1: Religious can help young adults feel connected to Church leadership
There is a Franciscan who has helped me with another issue a lot of young adults face: they struggle to feel in communion with the Church because the Vatican seems very far away to them. Even the American bishops and their sphere of activity can seem foreign and inaccessible.
Over the past few years, I’ve gotten to know Fr. John O’Connor, OFM, Provincial of Holy Name Province. Every six months or so, we share a meal together. Because of his position, he travels to Rome and meets with bishops and a variety of people in Church leadership. When I talk with him, he has a way of making all of those things seem real, accessible, and human.
His schedule as a Provincial is booked months out, but he still makes time to meet with me, as a lay woman working at a Franciscan organization. In the course of one meal, I feel included, invigorated and somehow more connected with the hierarchy of the Church.
So I wonder, how can those who have an insider’s perspective on the Church hierarchy help demystify those authority structures and give them a more human face for young adults? I find myself thinking, “If only more young Catholics had the chances I’ve had to talk with members of religious orders, it would be easier for them to see Church leaders as people who struggle with some of the same issues they do. It would be easier for them to want to be in communion with all of the bishops and clergy around the world, as we are called to pray for in the Eucharistic liturgy.”
Story #2: Courageous, prophetic spirit of American sisters touches young adults – and others
I’ve watched the controversy unfold over the Leadership Conference for Women Religious. I keep asking myself, “Why has there been such an outcry of public support on behalf of the sisters? Why is everyone talking about this issue?”
It amazes me that what began as a seemingly negative story — one where the Church was perceived as publicly criticizing its own — has in its own ways become an overwhelmingly positive story and opportunity. It’s clear that many Americans, including young adults, are deeply appreciative of the work religious men and women do when they care for the most vulnerable in society.
I also think the way the sisters have responded to the censure – with prayer, discernment and grace — has something to do with the support they are receiving. In the case of the now well-known “Nuns on the Bus” tour, the sisters used their time in the spotlight not to talk about or criticize the Vatican, but to continue to command change on behalf of the least among us. It reminds of something I heard during a study pilgrimage I made to Assisi last year. The pilgrimage was led by two great Franciscan scholars. One of them, Jean-François Godet, said to us, “Francis doesn’t criticize or call things bad – instead, he gives examples of good.”
I have listened intently to the public discourse around the Vatican’s review of the sisters. It is leading members of our U.S. church to discuss what is most important to them, and it’s getting people to pay attention and engage – including many people who may not have thought for a long time about the religious life, or the role of religious congregations in society. But now, they are coming out and sharing stories of how sisters have changed their lives.
So I wonder, who do you want to be during this pivotal time? How can you harness this public energy and attention to the religious life and what it means?
The truth is that even when young Catholics aren’t thinking about religious life as a possibility for them, they are often drawn to many of its classic features. They want to know Jesus, and they want to be radical about living out the Gospel. They want to know more about the Bible and the Church’s prayer traditions. And they are often very attracted to the idea of living in community.
When FMS prospective lay missioners meet Franciscans during their formation, their reaction is: “This is what I’ve been looking for. This is the place I want to be”. This is the kind of spirituality and engagement, the compassion and courage they haven’t necessarily found elsewhere. And other young adults have told me the same thing about getting to know the Jesuits, the Glenmarys, the Vincentians, the Pallatines, the Combonis, and the Columbans, among others. These are houses of refuge where they have had the chance to ask hard questions, to pray, and serve.
And I have seen religious touch young adults even more when they communicate the message: “I have learned from you.” One of the friars who says Mass at FMS during our formation program has shared with me that our missioners’ commitment to living in radical solidarity with the poor and caring for the environment keeps challenging and inspiring him. He is asking himself questions he has not considered for a long time, and in some cases, ever. What I appreciate is his honesty and humility in admitting that he has something more to learn about the Franciscan life from lay missioners who are just getting started. That is very relatable.
One young adult said in response to my survey: “My hope for the Church in the next five years is increased communion between the lay and religious.” And I agree. As a lay woman, I stand with you in wanting to see your charisms flourish. When I came to FMS nearly four years ago, I had had very little exposure to Franciscan tradition. But now, having gotten to know so many Franciscans, spreading the charism widely among the laity has come to the top of the list of things I am passionate about. At FMS are all committed to showing lay Catholics that Franciscan ministry is relevant to what they are seeking, and relevant to the society at large.
Who are your lay partners seen and unseen? Let me encourage you by saying that you do not have to go at this alone.
Story #3: Fr. Joe, a compassionate wisdom figure
Let me offer one last story about why you as religious should be more of who you are. It gives young adults great hope to see people in the Church who show compassion to those whom we may see as our enemies, those who threaten us, disagree with us and contradict us.
As one person said in response to my survey, “My hope would be for greater understanding, openness, humility, and willingness to give each other the benefit of the doubt as we engage topics that are difficult or painful.” Another person said, “I hope for a church that is articulate about what it stands for rather than what it stands against. Our church these days is very open about what it opposes. We need to say what we are for, what we are about, what we love and cherish. We are called to serve God together in liturgy, to lift up this wounded world in prayer, and to stand with people.” Isn’t that heartening? Young adults really care about the Church.
This last story is about a Franciscan who took very seriously this call to stand with people, even those who threaten us. Last summer, I went to Kenya to establish a new mission site, and I met a friar by the name of Fr. Joe Erhrardt, OFM. He’s from the U.S., but he’s been a missioner for most of his life. We traveled together to a very rural area called Subukia, where he had served for 27 years.
Fr. Joe shared a story with me about an evening in Subukia when he was in the living room of the friary reading, when three armed men broke in with guns. They charged in, pointed their guns in his face, and demanded money.
Now Joe is one of the most humble, unassuming people I have ever met. However, he is over 6 feet tall so his presence can be intimidating. He calmly rose to his feet and said to the intruders, “Welcome, peace be with you.”
As you can imagine, the three men were taken aback. They said, “What? Why are you saying this to us?”
Joe responded, “We are brothers, are we not? We are from the same community. You are welcome here.”
In the end, the men took only the equivalent of $8 though Fr. Joe offered them more. They did not hurt anyone, and they never returned again.
We need religious to model for the younger generation what it means to show compassion to our enemies, those who threaten us, those who disagree with us and contradict us. These people, Fr. Joe would say, are our brothers and sisters. If we have the courage to love them, isn’t that the ultimate flourishing of our charism, the gift the Holy Spirit has given us?
So I’ve shared some stories with you. Now, I encourage you: share your stories with each other and with young adults! They are longing for wisdom figures who are present, transparent and human with them. They want to walk with you, learn to b compassionate through your example and leadership, and courageously live out their faith in communion with the Church.
And it is good to end with good news, too.