“You’re dealing often with young people who are stupendously ignorant about religion.”
Such language is shocking; and the speaker may have meant it that way. But first we ought to ask if it’s true. Are the kids growing up with enough trust that religion deserves serious attention? That it carries any hope of satisfying their desires? Do they consider it worth their time?
Religious education and formation — they go together but are distinct needs — has been a long-term challenge among us Catholics ever since the collapse of an old reward and punishment regime in the mid-20th century. Fear of hell carried more power than we liked to admit two generations ago. We were vague about where we were going, but allowed the priests to lead us because the other alternative was clearly painful.
Then we began to shift focus: less negative fear of hell and more fear of God understood as fear of offending a creator/lover; more freedom along with more expected responsibility. As the winds of freedom blew through the Church, family behavior and habits became more important in forming religious people. The larger culture was moving in a similar way, making individual and family responsibility crucial.
The result of all this? Is it young people “stupendously ignorant about religion?” That might be a bit strong, but not by much.
The comment was made four years ago by Austen Ivereigh, an English Catholic journalist in an interview for the National Catholic Reporter of this country. Ivereigh added, “It’s possible to be ignorant about religion in Britain in a way that would not be excusable about sport or politics.” Can’t we say the same about the United States, and add a long list of topics like fashion, television, entertainment personalities? Can anything be done about it?
In a talk last month to the Italian-based Focolare movement, Pope Francis urged the members to think of their faith as something to carry out in life, and not to keep to themselves. “Go out” to everyone, he said, so everyone may experience “hope, brotherhood and joy in humanity’s journey toward unity.”
For that to happen, the pope noted the key role of formation, especially in the young, so they can be open to God, “fall in love with him” and follow the inspiration this brings.
Pope Francis himself is a gift of religious formation to this generation of young people. He embodies the attitude, the mood, the priorities, and the life-sense that appeals naturally. He and his fellow Jesuits refer to all of this as a way of proceeding after being inspired by the Gospel, by prayer and the following of Jesus. In other words, he is a model in the same way that the Yankees’ Derek Jeter was a model in baseball, Iowa’s Dan Gable a model in wrestling and perhaps Britain’s Duchess Kate a model of royal beauty and grace.
We need models to begin shaping ourselves in the fluid uncertainty of life: to shape ourselves for experiencing hope, human communion and joy, as Francis says. Every one of us as adults is that model for the young. We don’t necessarily “educate” them in the sense of giving information. But we do lead them by the way we proceed in life, by our priorities and our loves. In this way we help them acquire a shape which they can then carry on with, refine and build further in their own freedom.
The way out of ignorance and indifference about religion, stupendous or not, is more models of adults who act serious about their faith. Listen to Pope Francis for direction.