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Go for the burn.

Who will pass the torch of faith to the next generation? Could it be ... you?

IF SPACE ALIENS LANDED IN YOUR BACKYARD OR LOCAL cornfield and asked you to explain Catholicism, what would you tell them? I'd be hard-pressed to know how to begin. Oh sure, I could recite creeds and the outlines of the gospel story. I could explain about the pope, the bishops, and the seven sacraments. But to really get at the essence of the faith, I would have to borrow Jesus' line and tell them, "Come and see."

Now, forget about the space aliens and think about Catholic youth. I recently heard a youth minister say that the church is always just one generation away from extinction. Catholicism may rank as one of the world's largest religions, but if one generation fails to pass the faith on to the next, that will quickly change. And where else will those young people go to find the words of eternal life?

How do we best pass on a living faith in the 21st century? Old methods aren't working anymore. That's why the U.S. bishops in their recent pastoral letter Were Not Our Hearts Burning Within Us? suggest a radically new approach. The title comes from the words of the disciples on the way to Emmaus, who moved from knowledge of the events of Jesus' life to a true encounter with and transformation by Jesus (Luke 24:13-35). Once enlightenment hit them, their spirits caught fire. That is the goal of all religious formation and education.

To achieve this, the bishops propose focusing our main religious formation efforts on adults rather than kids. During an earlier heyday of Catholic schools, concentrating primarily on kids may have provided the best bang for our religious ed buck. But life and times change, and the effectiveness of institutions passing on the faith has dropped precipitously. Some statistics show that Seven out of 10 young people confirmed in the Catholic Church fail to continue official connection with the church in subsequent years.

This has led church leaders to rediscover an approach that harkens back to the early church: that religious education is best provided by adults who have a mature, vibrant faith. The church should focus on preparing and equipping adult believers to be the bearers of faith to new generations.

Not that religious education for youth would be eliminated, but the hope is that it will be fed by and flow from the interaction between adults and their children and grandchildren, their young neighbors and fellow parishioners.

I agree that the church should put more emphasis on nurturing adult faith. Results of the 20-year-old RCIA program show that adult faith formation is both possible and popular when done well. But let's be aware that what we're asking is countercultural. Merton Strommen and Richard Hardel, in Passing on the Faith (St. Mary's Press), report studies that show only 10 percent of Protestant and Catholic families discuss their faith with any regularity; in 43 percent of families, faith is never discussed.

Statistics like these cause many religious education directors to shudder and continue pouring their attention into programs for youth, because "at least they'll be getting exposure someplace." But I urge the bishops to remain undaunted. It's about time we started giving attention to nurturing adult faith.

So let's get busy and introduce faith sharing as a standing program. Let's find ways to invite more nonprofessional church people to express their faith at parish gatherings such as back-to-school nights and school board or parish council meetings. And in addition to the laudable move of involving more laypeople in religious ed programs, let's find ways to invite continuing conversation about the faith at work and at home.

The real challenge will be for the church to trust people more than programs. I recently got a glimpse of how this new approach might work. A 15-year-old young man I know and admire asked me to sponsor him for Confirmation. We spent an afternoon at his parish in a session designed to help him and his friends prepare for the sacrament. Our task during the session was to talk--sponsor and candidate--about our faith. All around the church, people were huddled in twos, older with younger, talking earnestly in hushed tones. Hope and energy were palpable throughout the church. The youth minister trusted the people and the people responded.

I was reminded of author John Shea's insight that "effective communication within any tradition is always a matter of one generation holding the next to its heart."

By TOM MCGRATH, executive editor of U.S. CATHOLIC magazine.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:attracting youth to the Catholic Church
Author:McGrath, Tom
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Previous Article:I could've prayed all night.
Next Article:Human failure.

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