22 September 2007

Kids These Days: What they don't want from the Church

There’s a lot of hand-wringing over the sharp decline in youth participation in the Church in the last few decades. I won’t go into the stats b/c I have always believed that Math is of the Devil…

How do we in ecclesial leadership (lay and ordained) get young people into the pews these days?

I’m in a very unusual situation here at the University of Dallas. Our Catholic student population is (for the most part) a self-selected group of young people who yearn for a more traditional spirituality and liturgical life. Our job in campus ministry is less about “getting them to church” as it is about getting them to see the Church as truly catholic. Frankly, I’d rather find myself having to teach the fullness of the faith to more “conservative” Catholics than having to defend the faith against secularist/modernist doubts planted by the ever-elusive, always-changing “Spirit of Vatican Two.”

Here’s what works for us:

Teach the apostolic faith full on…no compromises on basic doctrine or dogma. This generation of college students can smell an intellectual/spiritual weasel a hundred miles away. They would rather hear the bald-faced Truth and struggle with it than listen to a priest/minister try to sugar-coat a difficult teaching in the vain search for popularity or “hipness.”

Preach the gospel full on…ditto. Tell it like it is and let the students grow in holiness. Yes, they will fail. Who doesn’t? But let them fail knowing what Christ and his Church expects of them. Lowering the moral bar comes across as expecting too little from them. What does that say about the Church’s view of our future ecclesial leaders? They can’t cut it, so we have to shorten the race.

Give them charitable work to do…present this work as a kind of “churchy social work” and they will not stay away in droves. I regularly cite Matthew 25 as my scriptural backing for asking them to do volunteer work in the community. Frankly, They have been beaten with the Social Justice-Work stick all their lives and most of what they hear sounds like the socio-economic engineering agenda of a modernist, socialist political party. This is attractive to some, but my experience is that students yearn for a chance to do something Truly Good for their community. If their leaders loudly and proudly attach volunteer work to the Gospels as a an exercise in charity rather than an experiment in social engineering, they will come.

Challenge them intellectually…these are smarts kids. They want to know what the Church teaches and why. They don’t always agree with the Church. Fine. Coming to holiness through obedience is a long, long road for some (..even for Dominican friars who try really hard!). They aren’t afraid of tough texts or difficult arguments. Just give them the documents, read along with them, answer questions honestly and clearly, and let them make the choices they will be responsible for. You have no control over what they will come to believe or practice. Fortunately, that’s not our task. Jesus said, “Preach and teach the gospel.” He said nothing about punishing those who will not hear or see.

Feed them…they’re poor and hungry. Yes, I mean feed them spiritually, but I also mean feed them literally—food, drink, and fellowship do amazing things for students on budgets and for students who have endured slap-dash catechesis and dumbed-down, irreverent liturgy.

For the ecclesial leaders over 45 y.o. (esp. campus ministers):

These students aren’t you at 18. Apply your own standards of liberality and let them explore the fullness of the Church’s ancient traditions. You had a crappy childhood at St. Sixtus of the Perpetual Frown under the bruising discipline of Sr. Mary of the Five Wounds of Christ, so religious habits, rosaries, crucifixes, devotional booklets, Latin, incense, sanctus bells, etc. all remind you of stifling dogmatic lectures, knuckle-rappings, silly moral imperatives, triumphal-martial Catholicism, etc. Guess what? They aren’t you! They didn’t have these experiences, so they don’t associate Eucharistic adoration and First Friday Masses with intellectual repression and physical pain. Let them transform these traditions and make them their own. This is what you did, right? Well then, be consistent and apply your own principles. If you don’t, they will simply ignore you as a dinosaur and look for unofficial leadership elsewhere…which is exactly what you did when your elders failed to allow you the room you needed to explore and grow!

You didn’t follow in the religious/spiritual footsteps of your parents, why would you expect them to follow in yours? More than anything these younger generations need our patience. Keep your contempt and snarky commentary to yourself. You only injure your already sketchy credibility.

You grew up (for the most part) in a sexually repressed culture crowded with rules and punishments. They didn’t. They grew up in the sexual chaos your revolution caused and still celebrates. If they want to figure out what virginity, chastity, and NFP is all about, let them. Again, your snarky predictions of their inevitable failure will only serve to further damage your credibility—it will not deter them. Also, ask yourself: why are you threatened by their desire to put their sexuality in the context of faithful marriage?

These younger generations respect ecclesial authority most when those in authority show themselves to be people of integrity and strength. They do not expect moral perfection from you, only consistency and heroic effort. Failure is a demon they struggle with daily. Your efforts to weaken the moral ideals of the faith so that they might “succeed” are patronizing. We have to own up to the fact that recent attempts to undermine the moral teachings of the Church are really about the Baby-boomer generation’s obsession with sex and its very public need to have their sexual lives approved and celebrated, especially by those most likely to disapprove.

Also, please, please, please don’t assume that they want their Christian lives to mirror their secular culture. You wanted the Church to look more and more like your “times.” They don’t. They want their Christian lives to be counter-cultural, against the secular grain. Yes, they are extremely naïve sometimes about what this actually means but you will lose them instantly if you think an MTV Mass is the hip thing to do. Why would they come to a MTV Mass? They have MTV (and worse) 24/7 on their cell phones. They don’t need or want you for entertainment. Church is not a concert or an amusement park. What they don’t have on their cell phones is the Real Presence of Christ in his Eucharist.


  1. Anonymous8:30 AM

    Well i'm 45 now so where does that put me? Between the devil & the deep blue sea? lol.

    Humanae Vitae is the best starting, during & finishing point! IMHO.

  2. Anonymous8:49 AM

    Do I have your permission to send this post to the Spiritual Development Committee of my parish council?

  3. Thank you, Father Philip. This is great.

    I especially like: "They aren't you at 18."

  4. Anonymous9:35 AM

    ...for the win!!

    :) YES.


  5. Anonymous12:33 PM

    What a glorious post!!! thank you thankyou thankyou....

  6. Anonymous2:25 PM

    As one of the young people you seem to be describing, I can say that what you're suggesting is pretty dead on.

    I and others like me have become pretty fed up with the watered-down, fluffy version of Christianity that is presented by many youth groups and campus outreach programs. It's really only the "hard-core" teaching that is really appealing. Sometimes totally enraging someone (in a spirit of Christian charity and for the sake of gospel) can end up planting the seed of conversion.

    As far as things about the culture, you're right. I for one don't think that the Church should even bother competing in the realm of contemporary music and other such things. Not because those things are intrinsically bad (I love rock and roll) but because the Church is terrible at it(Christian Contempory Music can get pretty laughable). She has her own music (especially for the liturgy) which, if done well, does worlds for more for a young person than some horrendous version of a "relevant" song that the secular artists could blow out of the water.


    Father Powell,

    When you say that the young can often be naive about what it means to have their Christian faith be truly counter-cultural, what exactly do you mean? I think I have some idea, but I would like to hear more on this.

  7. Anonymous4:34 PM

    Amen -- preach it Friar!

  8. Anonymous5:21 PM

    I'm 18, and I agree wholeheartedly with what you wrote.

  9. Anon,

    Please, share away...with anyone you like!


    You asked: "When you say that the young can often be naive about what it means to have their Christian faith be truly counter-cultural, what exactly do you mean?" I meant by this two things, basically: 1). most young people aren't yet experienced enough in th world to be able to distant themselves from their culture so that they can critique it; and 2) I think most younger people aren't experienced enough in their faith to know how to use the faith as a counter to secular culture. Wise as serpents, gentle as doves...

    Fr. Philip, OP

  10. Anonymous6:41 PM

    I do think compelling explanations of the faith are important. I think a big key is to find the writings and video that young people will be energized by. Theology of the Body is great. GK Chesterton can work well. You don't need to know a ton. You just need to know an effective presentation of the faith when you see it.

  11. Anonymous10:56 PM

    Wow! You are describing my Catholic community in college from 10 years back (also led by the Dominican order). I'm glad to hear the ongoing good news from the latest young generation. Next week, God willing, I'll be attending my first Tridentine Mass. I studied Latin because of my interest in the Church's history/traditons, and am glad to be able to see some more of them in action. We'll see how it goes.
    Take care, Father!

  12. I'm so happy, I'm going to call you pippo buono! :) Thank you for this post, and pray for all of us discerning a vocation to the religious life!

    your daughter in Christ,
    Angela, 19

  13. Fr Philip
    I agree with 98% of what you said . The 2% was by way of perhaps your American culturally influenced ommission.
    The 'social justice' stuff is not JUST volunteer work but actual political involvement. In Australia from the 1930s through to the early 1970s traditonal Catholics who attended then one and only Mass at that time which we now call "extraordinary" were involved in labour unions improving wages and conditions for working families to enjoy more time with their wife and kids.
    Today not only do labour and democrat type parties ignore this but remember that republicans and Tory style parties NEVER beleived in improving wages, rosterded days off, 35 hr weeks etc etc for the working man.
    No Sir.

  14. Anonymous5:45 PM

    Dear Fr. Philip, thank you so mch for this fine reflection. I'm waaaaayyy past "youth" at 60, but firmly believe that everything you have to say is spot-on. In our very liberal parish, the kids come to Sunday school, then after finishing, just leave. My own two grown sons are among those who don't attend Mass, simply because of the wishy-washy "entertainment" that is "church". I always say that we go to Mass, other denominations go to church -- which offends some people, sad to say. Also, Ed, I agree with you that Christian contemporary music, especially in the context of Mass, is really crummy. Our choir directors, though, seem enamoured of it, even though as organist I find it doesn't work AT ALL. I pray that at some future time God will rectify this situation somehow. I don't have His infinite knowledge/wisdom, so I have to leave the whole mess-- and it is a mess, trust me -- with Him. thanks again, Fr. Philip.

  15. I'm 26 now, and Father, may I say you have hit the nail on the head here! This is exactly what my generation and this current generation need - straight, unvarnished truth and a challenge to live it. Thank you.

  16. Anonymous9:59 PM

    What you preach, Father...is what some of us laity have been doing on our own, since it wasn't being done by our priests and religious. You could see the lights turn on in their eyes. They sit up and pay attention and they go back to college and preach it to their peers. I know this because they tell me so.

    They are always so relieved to know that their Catholic Church isn't some one-size-fits-all-make-it-up-as-you-go-along like nonCatholic groups. They are always so grateful to have something anchored in Truth that they can follow like a compass.

    Thank God for our priests who preach it in season...and out. We love you all and pray for you daily.

  17. Anonymous10:43 PM


  18. Excellent advice, esp. re: older catechists trying to shoehorn youth into their own cultural and theological categories. It just don't work; they end up answering questions that youth aren't asking (is it any wonder so many young Catholic aren't interested in the Church considering what the average youth program is like?).

  19. Outstanding, Father! Simply outstanding! I'm 41 and a Continuing Anglican. But if I saw a whole lot more of what you represent in this post, and a whole lot less of that "Spirit of Vatican II" (i.e. the demon more commonly known as the Zeitgest), I'd be crossing the Tiber tomorrow!

    Keep up the excellent work, Father. No compromise, no retreat, no surrender. Don't give an inch! God bless you, Father.

  20. Anonymous12:13 PM


    Thank you for the best piece I have seen in years. I pray that Bishops and priests read this and take it to Heart. The Holy Spirit is moving "full throttle" and this is just more evidence. Thank you for you cooperation with the Holy Spirit. Our Mother and St. Dominic must be smiling on you now!

  21. Anonymous4:45 PM

    Great thoughts! As a campus minister in the Deep South, I've found that you're right on target - kids these day yearn for one thing: authenticity. If they want rock music or hip hop, they download an MP3 onto their phone or ipod. If they want a concert, they up and go to one (this has to be the most mobile generation ever). But if they're coming to Mass, its because they're seeking something else. They're not seeking rock music or hip hop, or a concert; they're seeking something that will lift them out of the mundane and into the sacred. Only authenically Catholic worship and the Real Presence can do this. Kudos for a well-written piece!

    One thing I would add: students these days are also not looking for a "club." Providing authentic worship, hard-hitting catechesis, spiritual resources, service opportunities and (free!) food are all very important. But all of this can quickly be undone when your "Catholic Student Association" turns into a "club." When this happens (trust me - I haven't been out of college for long) and/or the campus ministry bldg. becomes a "hang out," it is a big turn-off for many, many students. At that point - whether you like it or not -, your campus ministry has turned into little more than another exclusive campus organization complete with cliques, inside jokes, etc. and in such a setting (however unintended), many students WILL stay away from everything other than Mass.

    For those of you in the midst of efforts at revitalizing your Catholic campus ministry, please(!!!) don't ignore this important point. Make your ministry a valuable spiritual resource for ALL students by not getting bogged down in the "club" and "hangout" mentality. This is often overlooked, even by those who get the rest of this stuff right!

  22. I love this, I hope that you don't mind me borrowing this for use to give to my Parish Liturgical Commitiee and the Youth Group at my Parish. This is right on. This is exactly How I teach my Catechesis classes. Only I was chastized at my Church for teaching this way!

  23. Anonymous10:02 AM

    You can sure tell when you hit a nerve by the number of comments that are made. And you didn't say anything more radical than "tell the truth." Just preach the gospel.

  24. Stolen and re-posted for the benefit of the Milwaukee Archdiocesan "strategy" team.

    Here's hoping someone from there actually reads it.

  25. Anonymous6:09 AM

    I'd just like to add a huge AMEN. I am 35 years old now and wish youth ministers realized this 20 years ago. I found my way back to the truth of the Church on my own, but it would've been nice to have some leadership like this!

  26. Anonymous1:14 PM

    Well, Father I agree with you a little on some parts but not completely on others. I mean yes we need to be straight to the point on our religion and challenge them to live it but first we must grab them. And I believe it's ok to make religion fun but to also teach them when to be serious. Just because they are having fun does not mean that they aren't learning and growing in their Faith. I help with a youth group that have been confirmed and they volenteer to come back and serve others about to make their confirmation by putting on a spiritual and fun retreat for them. It has been a success for many years. Yes times are changing and we put that into consideration every year. People may think that you are very right about being harsh and straight to the point but they may be because they were born to parents that shoved a bible in their hands at a young age or others that probably went to a private catholic school. But these teens that are just now getting interested in finding their faith need more. And if that means making religion fun and exciting than I will continue to do just that. Like I said you have to draw them in first then hit them hard once they start understanding what it is to be a true christian catholic.

  27. Anonymous8:25 PM

    Great, Fr. Phillip. I'm 25 and agree. By the way I love what you said about NFP and virginity. Several people, older Catholics, seemed to think we were hopelessly idealistic to want to get married so young, save ourselves for marriage, and use NFP within marriage. Four years later, we're still happily married and excited about the children God has blessed us with.

  28. Anonymous12:42 PM

    "Frankly, I’d rather find myself having to teach the fullness of the faith to more “conservative” Catholics than having to defend the faith against secularist/modernist doubts planted by the ever-elusive, always-changing “Spirit of Vatican Two.”

    Father, I am 28 years old with an Orthodox position in the Church. I may fall within the confines of the individuals you speak of in your blog, but I certainly do not fit your presumptions. The quote above is a sad commentary on your Dominican vocation. Did not Dominic spend time with a heretic in the pub? Did he not preach to those who were on the outskirts of theological orthodoxy? If you would rather find yourself teaching individuals who already possess an orthodox understanding of the Church, then you have simply lost your charism...what a sad life that would be as a Dominican.

  29. Anon,

    Blogging is easier when commenters actually read what I write. You pulled a bait and switch. You accurately quote me as saying I would rather teach the fullness of the faith to conservative Catholics than secular "doubters." Then you tell me that this is a sad commentary on my Dominican vocation? Why is it sad? You say it is said b/c I would rather teach those who already possess an orthodox Catholic faith. I never said any such thing. I said I would rather teach conservative Catholics the fullness of the faith. In no way can we understand "conservative" to mean "orthodox" in the RCC. So, thank goodness my OP vocation is intact. Perhaps you need some reading glasses...?

  30. Wow! Father, this post was great! Although I am 34 year old, that expresses most of what I was thinking throughout my teenage and young adult years.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you for expressing those thoughts with such precision!


  31. Anonymous11:45 AM

    WOO HOO! Preach it, Fah-thuh!

    I was born in 1967, and grew up in an abusive home and a Vatican-II-confused parish. It seemed as if one day, the nuns looked like "The Flying Nun" and we had to wear veils (or beanies) with our school uniforms to our very reverent Friday Mass; the next day, the nuns were dressed like lay people, our beanies were gone, and the Mass resembled a Shirley Mclaine inspired New Age convention.

    By God's grace, I ended up discovering our Lord and Savior through a series of miracles (!) after a Protestant "Evangelical" fellow shared the Gospel with me (see my website, under "About Me")... but you almost tempt me to come back, Father. No kidding.

  32. Thank you Father for your post. You were very clear and helpful because I, a 24 year old, seek what you say, but I don't know if I could apply it to high school (hs) teenagers. I'm not the official youth minister for hs teens at my parish, but I sometimes feel like it, since the director of YM/confirmation relies heavily on my help.

    I am in a predicament where half the h.s. teens that are involved at church are there to be a part of a "fun club," (a place where they can play games, eat, and hang out without really praying or talking abou the faith), while the other half yearn for a intellectual challenge, involvement with social work, AND all that fun club stuff as well.

    I honestly believe that any gathering whether its for teens, little kids, adults, or senior citizens should ALWAYS be centered around our faith, gospel, and the eucharist. Having it that way doesn't mean it can't be a fun gathering as well.

    However, there is just so much verbal resistance from the "fun club" h.s. kids that the other half feels inferior to them.

    Can you offer me any advice?

  33. Anonymous1:28 AM


    You are right on the money! I'm 20 and this describes my position perfectly. Too bad the crowd at my uni doesn't quite get it.