Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
Although there are differences that divide one church from another in the United States, every church is facing the same diminishing number of young people in attendance. LifeWay Research reports that, among Protestants, about 70 percent of young adults who had attended church in high school no longer do so. More astonishing is the statistic that 80 percent of young people raised as Catholics stop attending church by the time they turn 23.
Not infrequently, once young people make their First Holy Communion, they do not return until Confirmation. And, after Confirmation, many disappear totally. Many with their parents’ blessing. In fact, only 30 percent of cradle Americans still practice the faith. Certainly, not one reason alone accounts for this loss of faith among our young people.
Having young people engage in sports is good. It trains them in discipline, strengthens their bodies and fosters a sense of camaraderie. However, an overemphasis on sports has a negative impact on young people’s attitudes towards religion. Some parents make their children’s participation in organized sports a priority, even at the expense of church attendance. Sadly, they drive their children to practice and to games in place of going to Sunday Mass with them. Inevitably, when sports and other secular activities, even family events, come first, our young people are taught that Christ is only secondary. If Sunday Eucharist becomes inconvenient because of a conflict in schedule, then any excuse absolves them from observing the Third Commandment “Remember keep holy the Sabbath.”
Happily, most parents want their children to receive the sacraments. They take pride in seeing them make their First Holy Communion and receive Confirmation. But, it should not end there. The reception of the sacraments is ordered to the Sunday Eucharist. Every sacrament is meant to deepen our relationship with Jesus who died and rose for us and who offers us a share in the entire mystery of salvation in the Eucharist.
Some parents bring their children for catechetical instruction and pick them up when it is over; but, neither they nor their children attend Sunday Mass. Those who do not attend Sunday Mass miss what is most important: actively participating in the Paschal Mystery by which we are saved. Knowledge of the faith does not save of itself. Living the faith does!
Another factor why our young people leave the faith is much deeper than simply not attending Sunday Mass on a regular basis. Faith is first learned in the family. For the first 16 centuries of the Church, the home was the school of faith. Mothers and fathers taught their children about God, instructed them in the ways of prayer and fostered in them the development of a virtuous life. Learning the faith within the family is primary and indispensable. It precedes, accompanies and complements all other forms of instruction in the faith (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2226).
“Faith is caught before it is taught.” In homes where parents speak to their children about God and pray with them, young people are formed as true disciples. Since we are body and soul, we need signs, visible signs that show us the importance of faith within our family. How many homes today keep in a prominent place a crucifix or sacred image of Jesus, the Blessed Mother or one of the saints? Young people often poster their walls with images of their heroes. It helps them widen their vision when they see that their parents and they themselves have role models to lead them to heaven.
Today’s loss of our young people to the practice of the faith cannot be divorced from the tragic loss of family life itself in the last three generations. Divorce, non-marital cohabitation and temporary “hookups” have become commonplace. As a result, we are witnessing the disappearance of the traditional family of a husband and wife in lifelong commitment with children. Certainly, there are many non-traditional families where single parents pass on the faith in an exemplary role and with success. But, overall, the breakdown of family as a model of communion, commitment and sacrifice undermines the pillars of faith.
Parents who generously cooperate with God in bringing children into this world have the responsibility of bringing them to share in God’s own life which he gives through the Church. Their own faith, their love for one another and for God and their hope provide the proper environment for the life of faith to grow. Thus, their role in forming their children is irreplaceable.
To a mother and a father, God gives the sacred trust to prepare their sons and daughters for life in this world and the next. What greater joy can a parent have than to know they have responded well to what God is asking them to do! What greater gift to give to a son or daughter than the knowledge of Jesus as not someone merely to learn about in catechetical instruction but as the Lord who lives and loves them intimately! Young people who encounter Christ in their own families and in their church, the family of God, do not leave the faith. Faith and family form an irreplaceable bond.