Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Reaching Out to Today’s Young Catholics

by Ed Schmidt, SJ    

    In 2000, I had some work to do in northern Italy, and my best option was to fly to Milan and travel onward by train. I had never visited Milan, so before heading home I spent two nights with the Jesuits in the center of the city. Close by lies the Duomo, the venerable cathedral with its massive piazza in front. This is the heart of Milan.
    When I climbed up from the metro at the Duomo stop, I found the streets barricaded to accommodate a bicycle race. Later, a political rally filled the great space. I walked out after dinner, expecting to find the piazza back to normal. It was about 8:30 at night and it was dark.

    This time, the low barricades had been moved to isolate the piazza. Thousands of excited young people milled around beyond the barricades, laughing and talking. A few minutes later the huge bronze doors of the cathedral swung open and light flooded out into the piazza. The police opened the barricades and the crowd rushed through. Quickly 10, 12, perhaps 15,000 young people were running towards the open doors of the church. Quite a sight!

    The occasion was a special liturgy, the traditio symboli, handing over the Creed to the catechumens who would be baptized a week later at Easter Vigil. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, archbishop of Milan, had turned this liturgy into a faith testimonial for young people, for whom he had particular concern. Solemn and professorial, Martini had a draw on young adults of Milan, generating energy like a rock star. They listened to him. They cheered for him. They loved him. 

    Martini took young adults seriously. Early in his time as bishop, he sat on the steps of the cathedral to talk with them and learn their world. When some asked him how to pray with the bible, he scheduled sessions in the cathedral that grew quickly from 200 to 2,000 a month later and, in a couple of years, to 25 churches linked by radio.

    He appreciated their struggles. He told a Jesuit retreat group recently that as the archbishop he met a lot of young people during parish visitations. But there were many more he never met, those for whom Church is not a part of life. Martini said, “I wrote to them, and I asked for an answer. And I received thousands of answers of young people not going to church or having left the church, telling their reason. And what impressed me very much was that some said, ‘When I am in the company of my friends, I am joyful. I am the one who proposes things, initiatives, play and so on. But when I come to my room, I am profoundly alone and sorry for my life. I see no sense in my life.’” Church does not offer them the life that they find with their friends. It is more like being alone.

    I returned to Milan the following year, hoping to understand better where Martini’s appeal came from. After the liturgy, I approached a small group from a suburban parish and asked them what they found so attractive in him. They tossed the question around for a while in Italian and English until a young woman answered, “He’s authentic.” When Cardinal Martini spoke, they knew that he believed, and they believed with him.

    This year the traditio focused on St. Paul. A lector imagines Paul looking around in Corinth, a vibrant, noisy port. People from many lands pass through Corinth, mixing languages and religions, all pushing for a better life. Everyone is in a hurry. Paul wonders: “Every instant of this hurry can be a threat or an opportunity. How can I proclaim the Gospel here? Where do I start?”

    We have a lot in common with Paul’s Corinth, another commentator notes. Our cities grow larger, but we lack a sense of place. So many people meet but fail to communicate. “We need certainties,” he says, “but we don’t know where to look for them. How much searching and how much fear do we encounter in our streets?”

    Many of us might feel more at home in Corinth, a proto-postmodern metropolis abounding in diversity, than in the rational Athens, where Paul earlier tried to proclaim Christ. We live in Paul’s experience. Young adults today are very much citizens of Corinth.

    How do we minister to these young Catholics? We have resources. Even without Cardinal Martini’s scholarship and depth, we have Sacred Scripture as a powerful starting point. We have our own insights into its power. We have our own prayer.

    Cardinal Martini is also profoundly experienced in the Spiritual Exercises. He has led a great variety of retreats, always tailored to the group he was with. He never gave the same retreat twice! Each was unique. And each was rich and memorable. We, too, have the Exercises as a particular gift of St. Ignatius that speaks clearly to our world, which finds God in the world as it is and that challenges us to hear the voice that calls to our better selves.

    These two resources can have profound impact on young Catholics. They give us a lead into how to revivify young Catholic participation in Church life. Young Catholics tell us they long for spirituality. They long to connect. They want to know themselves, their tradition and the possibilities their tradition offers. All of our ministry, I believe, must work towards this connection. Other things matter a lot, excellent schools for example, but without this connection everything else is diminished.

    We also have our credibility. A vast network of graduates brags that they are “Jesuit educated.” They know our name and recognize our mission. And they have friends who are also seeking to be Catholics in modern life and asking how to make this happen.

    We also have our Jesuit vocations, our response to the God we meet in Scripture and in the Exercises, and we have our collective living of that vocation. Our first companions changed Catholic Europe with that vocation. We can reshape our world. Young Catholics want that and are ready for it. We need to accept their challenge. 
Ed Schmidt, SJ (CHG) is the former Provincial for the Chicago Province of the Society of Jesus.

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