Over the last six weeks we have been thinking through how to revitalize our parish. At the time of this writing I’m happy that we have reopened, albeit with some spacing and other considerable restrictions. It’s nice to have you all back - physically and virtually.
Who would ever have imagined how the world would change over the last four months? While there have been “predictions of pandemics” and perhaps even some scientific warnings over the years, I’m guessing that many of us could never have believed that the whole world would literally be put on hold - and we are not out of the woods yet!
These days have given us a chance to think and pray about what really matters in our lives. For me, for sure, being isolated from my elderly parents and worrying about their safety and wellbeing has made me much more attuned to checking in on them with more regularity. Others have shared similar stories with me about their families too.
And although I was able to celebrate Mass regularly, clearly without any of you present, it's just not the same. It's not what it's supposed to be either. Churches are about people. Parishes are about clusters of folks celebrating life together. St Teresa of Avila is a family of faith-seeking followers of Christ, all on the journey to get to know him better as we prepare one day to meet him face to face. And despite the spiritual work that we each have to do as individuals, worshipping together, in church, is incredibly important for our faith. The restrictions keeping us apart in these weeks have also made me keenly aware of how important we are to one another intergenerationally.
This brings us to the final segment of our series - Building a Mentoring Culture. In the general sense, a mentor is an experienced and trusted adviser. In the spiritual sense, all adults are called to be mentors, or spiritual guides to those who follow after us. In many generations this has been presumed ... grandparents raised parents, who in turn raised their children in the Catholic faith. But, that’s not the case today. More and more studies show that the younger generations are turning, and in some cases even running away from the regular practice of faith and from religion altogether. Believe it or not, this is not a new phenomenon.
The Bible’s Book of Judges, written about 550 BC, contains stories that follow a consistent pattern: the people are unfaithful to God, and he delivers them into the hands of his enemies; the people repent and ask for mercy and God sends them a leader to welcome them back. The following passage contains the sentiments clearly:
“After a while the people of Joshua’s generation died, and the next generation did not know the Lord or any of the things he had done for Israel. The Lord had brought their ancestors out of Egypt, and they had worshipped him. But now the Israelites stopped worshipping the Lord and worshipped the idols of Baal and Astarte, as well as the idols of other gods from nearby nations. The Lord was so angry.” Judges 2:10-13
Lee Kricher, in his book, For a New Generation: A Practical Guide for Revitalizing Your Church, writes, “We cannot control what will happen to the next generation when we are gone, but we can do everything possible to pave the way for them.” Kricher’s challenge begs two questions, “How do we model paving the way?” and “What does the next generation look like today?” Let's consider them in reverse order.
At the Pew Research Center, studies tracking America’s religious landscape found that although religious beliefs and practice have been declining at a rapid pace for people of all ages, the drop-off has been most pronounced among people ages 23 to 38. In 2019, roughly two-thirds attend worship services “a few times a year” or less, and 4 in 10 say they seldom or never go. A decade ago, it was more than half and only 3 in 10, respectively.
Washington Post columnist Christine Emba, in an article entitled Why millennials are skipping church and not going back, writes that religious and other civic organizations will atrophy — and not just from lack of funds. Faith and practice can’t persevere through our generation without attendance, and neither can the hope they tend to bring. And while that may not seem like a problem now, it will soon.
Many millennials have given in to convenient, low-commitment substitutes for faith and fellowship such as astrology, the easy “spiritualism” of yoga and self-care, posting away on Twitter and playing more games. [Yes, games!] She adds,
"Here’s what really worries me: Few of these activities are as geared toward building deep relationships and communal support as the religious traditions the millennials are leaving behind. Actively participating in a congregation means embedding oneself in a community. This involves you in the lives of others and the other way around — their joys and sadnesses, connections and expectations. By leaving religion, we’re shrugging off the ties that bind, not just loosening them temporarily."
As to the question, how do we model paving the way for the next generation, the answer seems to be simple in theory: in community and in family units. For faith to survive, it must be practiced together, in families. Our tradition calls this dynamic the domestic Church. On worship days, Sundays and sacramental days, the domestic Church joins with others to worship in their spiritual home, the parish Church, and in a mysterious way joins with the Church universal.
This may not really be that hard to imagine, because as we have been closed down for many weeks, so many gathered with their families, to pray, to read the Scriptures, to zoom in and participate in worship via livestream in the safety of their own homes. The practical challenge is getting people together who want to participate.
This phenomenon does beg the question then as to how do these domestic Churches support the parish Church - apostolically to minister to those in need?; educationally to grow in knowledge?; socially to celebrate life's accomplishments?; and even financially to pay the bills?
Only time will tell how it will all shake out and what St Teresa of Avila Parish and our Catholic Church will look like tomorrow. One thing is abundantly clear though - the time to plan is now - today.
Sadly, I have no doubt that going forward many parish Churches will close, for a whole host of reasons. Will ours? The answer depends on us!