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Can Catholicism seem cool to your kids?

When your teenage daughter tells you that the Dalai Lama has a lot more going for him than the pope, do you have an answer for her? Just what about Catholicism makes it attractive to the younger generation?

According to Robert Ludwig, director of university ministry and professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago, it's up to adults to "move people from a rote Catholicism to a real sense of ownership and community." If adult Catholics don't take this job on, "the new generations are not going to be a part of a church that doesn't really believe in and act on its teachings."

What do you think of the state of the Catholic Church?

Catholicism needs to be reconstructed in light of Vatican II. It is, in fact, already being reconstructed--from the bottom up.

Today, everything needs reconstructing because society is going through a dramatic, profound, cultural transition--a paradigm shift.

All this has to do with human beings believing they live on top of nature, when in fact we're embedded in nature. And that whole relationship is being re-understood.

There are lots of ways we can talk about this, but basically it has to do with the fact that the assumptions and hopes that emerged with the Enlightenment in the late 16th and early 17th centuries are being questioned in profound ways today. We're moving into what is called a postmodern period.

Everything is falling apart, from family, to government, to corporations, to individualism. As we move into a new millennium, people are beginning to see that we've got to try to retrieve what is good from the past and refashion it in a way that is useful today.

How is Catholicism part of that?

Catholicism intuited these changes in the middle of the century when Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council. Did we need Vatican II in 1962? No--seminaries and convents were full, our parochial school system was humming, the churches were full on Sunday morning, and Catholic publishing was doing great. Not just in this country, but around the world Catholicism was doing well.

But we need Vatican II as we move toward the year 2000, and all of the intuitive insights of the council--moving to a more ecumenical and interfaith agenda, focusing on conscience and individual choice, retrieving the origins of the tradition, and teaching people to take ownership--are very important now. The vision for reconstructing Catholicism is at least 30 years old.

Some would say that Vatican II's changes unleashed many of the problems we struggle with today.

The changes we're undergoing now are mainly cultural, and the church was responding to that cultural transformation. The Catholicism of the 1950s was ready for a profound cultural attack. As long as Catholicism was a subculture primarily made up of immigrants, the way the church was structured worked very well in America. But John F. Kennedy's election signaled a larger transformation of Catholicism into mainstream America. No longer could Catholics attend services in Latin, memorize the Baltimore Catechism, and do all of the things that were a part of the pre-Vatican II world.

In what ways has our culture been transformed?

Three key shifts have happened. First of all, we're moving from regional homogeneity to global diversity and pluralism.

Second, we've moved from a world of authoritarian institutions to a world of self-determination--which is a burden and a liberation. The easiest example I can give is of the telephone. When I was a senior in college, I moved off campus, and my roommate and I decided we needed to order our own telephone. So we called [he telephone company and got a black-dial telephone. That was in 1965. Today there are countless choices to make when buying a telephone. You have to figure out what kind, what color, what long distance company you're going to use. Today all of these choices have to be made not only about products but with regard to ideas, values, and meanings.

My parents lived in the same house in Des Moines, Iowa for 50 years--and the neighbors didn't change that much either. This isn't true today--the average mortgage is seven years. We live in a mobile culture. Kids today--because of divorce and extended families, for example--may have two or three nuclear family experiences.

We've moved from a time when we followed one set of rules to one in which we decide for ourselves what we want to do.

I have a friend who was contemplating moving in with his girlfriend. He went to his father who told him, "I think that you have to make your own decisions. I've tried to raise you the best I could and give you my values, but, you know, I feel sorry for you. You have to decide all of these things that I never had to think about. All I had to do was follow the rules."

The third key shift is that we've moved from a world of hierarchy to democracy, and I'm not just talking in terms of government. I'm talking about the democratization of the family, higher education, and publishing. For example, now the president of a university and the provost are just two voices among many. If they try to run a university the way their predecessors ran it 30 years ago, they're out of business. You have to build consensus, communicate, be persuasive, and move people toward goals that they understand, appreciate, and are choosing as well.

When you put democracy, diversity, and self-determination together, Catholicism now has a new and very different context. Catholicism's recent past was a juridical consciousness in which there was a focus on institution, doctrine, and canon law. Now we need to think about Catholicism as a spiritual path.

Do you think Catholics themselves have been transformed by the culture?

Yes. We live in a highly secular culture that is very skeptical about religion of any kind, and that tends to trivialize religion. Being cynical about Catholicism is very popular, and it's tied to a lot of things. It was great for a week to have the life and witness of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in the media because people got a whole different sense of Catholicism. It was also helpful to have Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, (Random House, 1993), in print and portrayed on the silver screen because she is a compelling person.

But the popular image of Catholics is most often negative, and it's very common to beat up on priests or Catholics in general.

If we would begin to make a few changes, it would be so much easier to be publicly Catholic. It would be very different if the church would say that we're going to ordain women and married people, because it would provide so much more credibility, vitality, and hope for Catholics.

The present strong authoritarian papacy that goes after theologians like Hans Kung, Charles Curran, and Leonardo Boff, that reiterates the stand against birth control, and that takes a limited view on women's roles in the church makes things difficult for Catholics. If, as Catholics, we don't believe those things, we're a little bit ashamed that our church keeps promoting them. That's why claiming to be Catholic can be so hard--because it appears that we must support all these ideas.

I'm not talking about changing central tenets of our faith. As a matter of fact, I believe there has to be more emphasis there. Unfortunately our internal debate on matters of discipline and church structures is distracting us from what is at the core of Catholicism. And I think many people realize this. The hunger for God mediated in and through the person of Jesus is too often eclipsed by questions of which gender proclaims the gospel. Such debates seem to drive young people away.

What should parents do about adolescents who become resistant to Catholicism?

It's difficult, like everything else in parenting. You are trying, on the one hand, to respect your child's emerging autonomy and self-determination and, on the other hand, play a guiding role in your child's life. I have a 16-year-old, 19-year-old, and 20-year-old, and I can tell you, it's the most challenging thing I've ever done.

Consistency is important, but so is flexibility. The key is to form a relationship with your children so that they can see why Catholicism is important to you.

One of my students told me that she and her two sisters were raised by their divorced mother. Every Sunday her mother would tell them they had to go to church. The daughters complained bitterly and told her it was boring. However, in the car on the way home, at breakfast, and all through the next week, the mother would complain about the priest's homily, about the sexism, about the assumption that family always consists of a mother and a father.

Her mother never explained why going to church was still important despite these frustrations. She never told them how important the Eucharist, the word of God, or a community is.

Our kids need to know what motivates us to go to Mass and why we believe. A lot of kids perceive that their parents don't go to church freely. But if we're going freely--if we're drawn there--we need to share those meanings and values we get from our religion. We need to tell kids why we think Catholicism is important.

What are the elements you think are integral to being Catholic?

The experience of Jesus, the experience of grace, the experience of sacramental community, and the experience of liberation.

All of these experiences are about the mystery of God, and that is the context for everything in our own lives. Jesus can help us comprehend the deepest, most profound meanings of what it is to be human, and that is celebrated in the church and acted out in our liturgical year. We have access to who Jesus was and is in the readings and when we become Christ for one another.

This worldview liberates us from a world where there are so many "oughts" and "shoulds," where we are always being measured and judged. With Christ, we are loved for who we are, and the only thing he asks is that we become more fully human.

That's why I want to give Catholicism to my kids and pass it on to other kids. It's not about telling them that this ideology is right. It's about helping them to be drawn up into the same world of awareness and experience that I am because it's beautiful.

What about parents who don't know what to tell kids about religion to begin with?

Of course, more people should read U.S. CATHOLIC. Actually, reading is very important, but so is being able to talk about God in your house, even if your spouse is of a different faith.

Interfaith marriages don't have to be a problem. Sharing faith from different perspectives means not beating each other over the head with who's right and who's wrong. You have to be able to simply open up and appreciate each other's various spiritual experiences.

But isn't there some concern that we're telling our kids that it doesn't really matter what religion they choose? And is that helpful for, say, a 7-year-old?

I hear parents say, "Well, we're going to leave it up to Johnny to decide whether or not he wants to go to CCD." My question to them is, Are you going to leave it up to him if he wants to go to school, get inoculated, or get dressed today? Somehow this whole area of religion and spirituality has become an area of volunteerism very early.

There is this reluctance on the part of Baby Boomers to really be parents, to draw lines, to have boundaries. But psychologists tell us that young people need those boundaries. A lot of young people have had very fluid upbringings, so it's been difficult for them to figure out who they are because identity requires bumping up against boundaries.

What young people want to see today is that another generation really believes in something. The more Catholics are into their faith, the more the homilist really speaks from his or her gut, and the more people are really listening and responding, the more impact they will have on young people.

We need to demonstrate that we are not just a consumerist religion, that we really believe and are acting on these beliefs.

For example, there's one parish in Chicago that was built years ago, and people melted down their wedding rings to make the chalices. That's how deeply the immigrant church believed in what they were doing. They built these churches with their own hands.

Witness is the key, and that's why a lot of the changes that have happened since Vatican II are so important. The whole effort is to move people from a rote Catholicism to a real sense of ownership and community. This is critical to any kind of future church because the new generations are not going to be a part of a church that doesn't really believe in and act on its teachings.

How should Catholic parents respond when their children start going to other religious services?

It's a big mistake to bad-mouth other religions. Other faith communities may gather around the Bible and do more faith sharing and hand-holding, and that's very important for young people. We probably need to do more of it in our own communities. We all need a community that is inviting, attractive, welcoming, and meaningful. More and more people are shopping around for churches.

As parents, we must begin to help our children bridge whatever insights they're getting elsewhere with Catholicism, rather than see it as antagonistic. If we pit Catholicism against another religion our children may be interested in, they're probably going to dump the Catholic Church. We need to say, "Yes, that religion is great, and much of what is there is what I believe, too."

A lot of the time our young people talk about Jesus because they don't hear much talk of Jesus as our savior in Catholicism--it's possible to be a Catholic and never see Jesus there.

If I'm Catholic, is it right to automatically baptize my children Catholic and expect that they grow up Catholic?

Yes, you should try to pass on your values to your children. Participation in the church community is a part of that. And you should try to help your children understand why you participate in the church. It's not enough just to force your children to go to church. You have to help them understand and appreciate what it is all about. Education is a very important part of that.

The fact that religion has become so inculturated and conventional is a problem for a lot of young people. They don't see people as standing for anything.

The whole Catholic peace movement in the '60s was about standing for something, and now this is seen more and more in terms of community service and standing for justice.

Habitat for Humanity is the second largest home-builder in America today, and it is having a profound impact on the housing situation for poor people in this country. But it's having an even bigger impact on the volunteers who get involved, some of whom are whole congregations. If a parish here in Chicago did some Habitat work, that parish would become a very different place, because the people would be working together for something. That's what young people really admire and what draws them in.

We have this whole great tradition of people who have stood for something--the saints. Practically every one of them was countercultural in his or her own time. They were gutsy and bold. The most profound example we have, of course, is Jesus. Yet we don't very often communicate to people that Jesus wasn't going to give in, wasn't going to lose or abandon his dream of the reign of God, and was even willing to die for it. That's a whole different experiential understanding of who Jesus was.

Does religion make sense to young people?

When discussing the younger generation and religion in my book, I refer to Douglas Coupland's novel, Life after God (Pocket Books, 1994). There is the sense that this generation is a generation without religion--that it's been brought up after religion. But young people have a lot of spiritual hunger. The presence of the Spirit and our hunger for God is there already for all of us, even if we don't have the language to talk about it.

What contributes to that spiritual hunger in young people?

The media has been very destructive in terms of the perceptions it gives people, and the fact is that kids spend much more time in front of a television than they do anywhere else.

We get bombarded with media sensationalism of beautiful bodies and sex. Nobody really looks like that. And finding someone to love and bond with is not all about model looks and sex. If we're buying what the media is saying, we better get over it or we're going to be totally lost.

Television is a profound formative influence in young people's lives, and it distorts reality. Somehow you have to come to the point where you realize television is a liar, and it's not a reliable way of trying to understand yourself or the world. Then you're okay; then you can go back to watching television.

There is also a popular notion that people don't need any commitments, that they are just free and wealthy and young forever. In fact, we're all vulnerable and need a lot of reassurance, and we need to connect with others for something deep and profound to happen.

What can parishes offer young adults to strengthen their spirituality?

People's local experience of community and faith is most important. Anything in terms of the small faith community, gathering people together for faith sharing, prayer, and community is wonderful. And religious education is very important at every level. Small communities should read together and then discuss what they find.

Community service, and reflection about community service, is also very important. We ought to be doing community service in all of our churches--it's very big on college campuses. As young people leave these campuses, they are going to look for service in other places, and we should make sure that it exists. Community service can be very transformative, and it's a real community builder.

We also need to enhance our liturgies with good music, a plurality of preaching, and reflection on scripture--all of which fulfill the Second Vatican Council's goal of full, active, and conscious participation of the laity in the liturgy.

Also, parents need support groups. If parents could network more, share the struggle of parenting, and be resources for one another, that would be a terrific aid. Many parents feel very isolated, alone, and frustrated--particularly single parents.

Let's say my daughter is going to a Catholic university. What is the school going to do for her faith?

One of the best things we're doing at DePaul University is our new Catholic Studies program. These courses give young people some real insight into Catholicism. For example, the students study contemporary Catholicism, Catholicism in Chicago, or the Second Vatican Council.

We offer an academic understanding of Catholicism, but we're also getting them involved in community service activities. We have over 1,000 students involved in a soup kitchen, tutoring programs, Habitat for Humanity, day care, shelters, or working with the elderly.

We also have ten alternative spring break trips in which students rebuild Southern churches, work with people with AIDS in New Orleans, or build homes in Appalachia. There's a real opportunity to get involved--and experiential learning is a very effective way of helping people mature.

Right now at DePaul, I'm pushing for a new chapel and spirituality center that will be very visible and accessible. The presence of the spirituality center would make spirituality a real priority.

The goals of the center are threefold. First of all, we want to provide a place where students can pursue spiritual practice. Second, the center will build bridges between the academic and the practical aspects of religion. For instance, we would have workshops on spiritual journaling, meditation, centering prayer, or yoga. A course in religion might also include a workshop on meditation--practice and study would go hand in hand. Third, the center's goal would be to connect the university with other faith communities: the churches, synagogues, and mosques of Chicago. It's one thing to study Buddhism but it's another thing to meet Buddhists who go to work, eat, take the train, and raise kids. We want people to recognize that religion is not just some kind of theoretical abstraction. People's lives are anchored in their faith, and they find community and struggles there, also.

What are Catholic universities in general doing to reconstruct Catholicism?

It's very hard work to get Catholic institutions to realize that our decades-old commitment to spiritual values has to be just as present and vital today as it ever was. We want people to experience faith, but Catholic higher education has gotten away from that at times. After Vatican II, most Catholic higher-education institutions decided that they'd better get out of this religion business, and they sort of passed it off to campus ministry. Now there is a real emphasis on recognizing that this is our identity as an institution, and we all need to do this together.

The faculty has to take ownership--Catholicism has to show up in the curriculum and the way we run our residence halls. We have to do more than just prepare young people for their careers.

In the Catholicism that I grew up in, the important thing was to be in church when the words of Consecration were being said. Now we're saying that we need to be connected to the Consecration in our everyday lives.

Before, as long as the wine was poured and the words were said, everything was cool. But now we're asking, "Where's your faith? What do you believe? Why are you here?" Catholicism as a spiritual path is looking for the development of this relationship with God--not apart from everyone else, but within and throughout everything else in our lives. It's about prayer and translating meaning into life patterns. It's not just about keeping the rules, memorizing the doctrine, and going through the rituals--it's about understanding our relationships and how we're living our lives.

What are the most important things about Catholicism that you want your own children to know?

My kids know that Catholicism is not something that Dad and Mom are just going through rotely--they know that we are into this.

My wife and I belong to a small prayer community that may be even more important to us than our parish community. Interestingly enough, for Christmas our daughter--who is 20, and not so sure where she stands on all of this religion stuff--bought us one of those nice oil lamp candles with stained glass around it. She told us that it's for when we host our prayer group. So if nothing else, my kids know we find meaning in our faith.

What's Catholicism all about in your opinion?

To me, it's all about the fact that life is very short and that we all belong to something much bigger than is immediately obvious. We are part of a 15 billion-year-old universe, and we come and go like shooting stars. But the deeper, more profound reality is that at the heart of this universe is a source that is trustworthy, loving, and generous beyond comprehension. This is our source and our destiny, and it's revealed to us through Jesus Christ in the way he lived his life.

Ludwig is the author of Jesus and Faith: A Conversation on the Work of John Dominic Crossan (Orbis, 1994) and his most recent, Reconstructing Catholicism for a New Generation (Crossroads, 1996).
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Title Annotation:author and DePaul University professor Robert Ludwig
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jul 1, 1997
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