I HAVE been asked to write a column about being a “young person of faith”.
I have found it an odd request.
Not least because we never seem hear the corresponding alternative – “old person of faith”, or even “middle-aged person of faith”.
Perhaps they sound less flattering.
I suspect people enjoy adding the age-specific adjective to highlight what they see as the scarcity of numbers among those of us who fit within that fledgling generational bracket.
In the same way that bird-watchers go to tremendous effort and spend many painstaking hours waiting for a glimpse of Stuhlmann’s Starling, there seem to be a great many people within the Church who enjoy training their binoculars – exclusively – on the rara avis that is a “young person of faith”.
I have seen pamphlets, read books, and heard many a talk on how we must “attract the young people” to the Church.
While I understand the fundamentally good intentions of those who are behind these efforts, such a narrow-focus can sometimes blind us to the reality of a particular set of circumstances.
Sometimes having the binoculars focused to their fullest possible extent actually makes the image less clear.
A young person of faith – and apparently I am one – is not so very different from any other person of faith.
In a shameless act of self-promotion, I refer you to my column of a few months ago (CL 23/7/17) as an aid to understanding what I mean.
I suspect that there is actually a more pertinent question hiding behind the original request for a column on being a “young person of faith”.
I believe that question to be this: “How do we get more (young) people to embrace the faith and the Church?” And that, my brothers and sisters, is a good query.
I think that there are a number of ways in which we might be looking at this issue in the wrong way.
This is where the binoculars might be over-focused.
We cannot see Stuhlmann’s Starling because there is a big flock of birds in the way.
It seems to me that we – the Church – study young people the way an ornithologist would a prize catch – we scrutinise their likes and dislikes, we analyse their favourite leisure activities, we evaluate their encounters with different social groups and – having collated this information – we think we have hit upon a winning formula for enticing them into the pews.
We imagine that if we give them what they seem to like – all that those surveys and data tell us they enjoy – we will have given them what they need to embrace the faith.
There is just one flaw in this otherwise brilliant plan. They can get all that – all those things they apparently like so much – somewhere else.
Not only that, the somewhere else will have more of it, and it will be better than anything we could possibly organise.
We must remember that we are not trying to increase membership of the local country club.
Our faith is not a leisure activity.
Lest I be misunderstood I should explicitly point out that I have no problem with youth-focused events in the Church that feature contemporary music and live bands.
Nor have I any issue with a vibrant and active presence of the Church on the Internet; on any and every form of media.
We must do those things.
Any gathering of people in which communion is broadened and the faith shared is something to be encouraged, whatever the specific form it takes.
My point is that there needs to be more than that – much more.
We cannot think that we have achieved our aim of having “the youth” embrace the Church simply because we have set up a few events along those lines or have set up a website.
Because there are many other places where very similar musical and culinary offerings are made; similar gatherings of equally enthusiastic and engaging people found elsewhere on the digital continent.
The things that those other groups cannot offer are also, fortunately, the very things that the Church can – the faith, communion, the sacraments – the bread of angels.
We can offer the meaning, purpose and peace that come with an understanding of the indescribable presence of God in our lives.
We can offer the joy of living in communion with God. We can offer membership in the Mystical Body of Christ.
I recently had a conversation with a member of my family during which the topic of my life within the Dominican order came up – as it tends to when I am wearing a 13th-century habit.
The person was shocked at the number of years that pass before a man within the order is solemnly professed, let alone ordained.
That person’s response was hilariously typical of our age: “Would it not make more sense to shorten the time that it takes? So that you can entice more people to join?”
As though we should simply pitch ourselves more favourably: “Enter now and we’ll throw in a set of stainless-steel steak knives and a movie voucher.” But wait, there’s more.
If people want steak knives and free trips to the movies, they can get them elsewhere and with much less hassle.
Within the order, within the Church, our focus with regard to evangelisation should not be so much to compete with the world as to offer an alternative.
Some words of St Paul beautifully illustrate the point I am trying to make: “Be not conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” (Romans 12:2)
Our aim should be to understand ourselves – and make clear to others – that it is not competition and conformity with this passing world that we offer, but transformation.
We offer the transformation and renewal that can only be brought about by sanctifying grace.
That is not an offer people generally receive; nor one they are likely to refuse.
The particular Stuhlmann’s Starling that “young people” represent is not to be enticed by offering them the same comfort food that they can find in abundance elsewhere and contained in more glamorous packaging.
Our ultimate emphasis in “attracting the young people” should not be on the shiny, cling-film wrapping but on the gift that it contains – the faith.
While it is true that it might at times be difficult, taxing or uncomfortable to fully and properly transmit our faith that is not a reason to baulk at the challenge.
At no point in the Gospel does Christ say: “Henceforth all that I ask of you will be a piece of cake”. Actually He says the opposite.
But that should not disconcert us because this is the challenge – the mission – for which we were created and redeemed.
In the memorable words of Pope Benedict XVI: “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”
The young people are not birds to be enticed into an aviary with a few shiny seeds.
They – we – are children of God and we long to go home: “to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of our lives”. (Psalm 26:4)
The young people might be interested in a superficial way in a particular presentation of the faith, but it is the substance behind that presentation that should be our ultimate focus, because it is theirs.
It’s the faith that tells us that we are reborn in baptism – the faith that tells us that we are transformed and renewed by grace – the faith that tells us that this is not our true home.
It is a fact seldom mentioned that the word “parish” – an ecclesial structure to which we all belong – actually comes from a Greek word that means “sojourning”.
We live in communities of faith sojourning in this world; passing through as it were.
When preaching the Gospel and attempting to draw others to the love of Christ, we ought never to lose sight of the fact that although we are in the world, we are not of it.
Thus the way we go about preaching our faith should reflect this fact.
It would not go unnoticed – in a positive way – by those “young people” we are trying to reach.
A significant element of the forceful witness that a life of professed religion provides is derived from the fact that it is so very different from anything that the world has to offer.
Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard once wrote that being a “witness” to the faith does not consist so much in propaganda as it does in being a “living mystery”.
It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.
I can guarantee that most people who have seen me walk down the street in my habit, black cappa billowing in the wind, think that I am doing something nonsensical.
Nothing about religious life makes sense if God does not exist – we are the ultimate living mystery.
Yet that form of witness applies to all the baptised, not just professed religious.
And it applies particularly to our explicit attempts at evangelisation.
In striving to attract “the young people” we might be slightly better off if we focused less on offering them what we think they like, and more on the sort of life our faith calls us to live.
If we dropped the binoculars for a moment and view the vast horizon unimpeded, we might finally gasp in wonder at the ornithological firework before our eyes – at the brilliant sight of the starlings’ effortless flight as they bunch together in their thousands to form a dark sun and then explode in all directions into chrysanthemums of the sky.
We might finally see that “the young people” are engaged by intelligent discussion of the faith and the lived witness of those who profess it.
If we began to emphasise the beauty of the sacraments, the splendour of the truth, the elation that comes from a life lived with God and in His Church, we might be pleasantly surprised at how many starlings flock to our shared faith.
Perhaps if we worked with that understanding and took that approach those young people would no longer wish to conform their lives to this present age.
Perhaps they too would want to be transformed and have their minds renewed by grace.
Perhaps they too would want to join the rest of us in being a living mystery.
By Sebastian Condon