I celebrated Mass in July with 49 Catholic teens, gathered with the staff of our diocesan Office of Lifelong Faith Formation for the second annual New Evangelization Week at Saint Joseph’s College. Also at the Mass were graduate students taking my summer course in Foundations of Youth and Young Adult Ministry.
It was an inspiring sight: enthusiastic teens giving a week of their summer to learn more about their faith as disciples of Jesus Christ, and discovering skills for sharing their faith as youthful evangelizers; dedicated diocesan staff; and grad students in pastoral ministry, passionate about walking the faith journey with teens in their home parishes.
In our course, we reviewed a massive amount of research data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, the most thorough study of the religious and spiritual lives of U.S. teens ever conducted. The research results are published in the stunning book “Soul Searching,” authored by Christian Smith, then a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Oxford University Press, 2005).
A few of the learnings may interest (and encourage and challenge) you:
- Religion is clearly an important part of the lives of many U.S. teens. Most have not abandoned the religious communities in which they were raised.
- Most U.S. teens are not areligious or irreligious, nor are they self defined as “spiritual but not religious.”
- Most teens cannot articulate what they believe about their faith.
- Religiously engaged teens tend to have healthier, more positive life outcomes than those who are less religious.
- Parish investment in teens invites teens to invest in their faith
- When comparing religious vitality and impact, Mormon teens came out best, followed by conservative Protestants and black Protestants. Mainline Protestants come next, with the runners up being (fasten your seatbelts) Catholic, Jewish, and non-religious teens.
Professor Smith was so curious about the religious laxity of so many Catholic teens that they are the sole religious group to which he devotes an entire chapter. “On most measures of religious faith, belief, experience and practice, Catholic teens as a whole show up as fairly weak” (p. 216). Causes include: upward mobility and mainstream acculturation; less effective religious socialization by Catholic schools and parish faith formation programs; and weak institutional priority by parishes and dioceses to youth evangelization and catechesis.
And, perhaps most significant, “it appears that the relative religious laxity of most U.S. Catholic teenagers significantly reflects the relative religious laxity of their parents” (pp. 216-217).
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in its 1997 statement “Renewing the Vision: A Framework for Catholic Youth Ministry,” emphasized the need for the “faith, gifts, energy, and fresh ideas of young people” (p. 50).
While noting there is not a single program for ministry to teens, the bishops said we must:
- Empower our young to live as disciples of Jesus
- Draw young people to responsible participation in the life, mission and work of the Church
- Foster the total personal and spiritual growth of each teen
In the Diocese of Portland, with a long and strong commitment to youth ministry, we have some wonderful success stories. The teens I meet in diocesan youth ministry and parish visits are alive with faith, proud to be Catholic, ready to reach out as disciples of the Good News of Jesus. But, we have a lot more to do. We must ensure that future generations are not lost but instead find their home and their life’s mission with Christ and His Church.
Most Rev. Richard J. Malone
11th Bishop of Portland